It may be an irony that some of the world’s worst discrimination against an ethnic Muslim minority has been occurring in Southeast Asia, home to the world’s biggest Muslim population.
While much of the blame for the discrimination against Burma’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya has been put on the government, questions are being asked as to why Muslim leaders in other countries in the region didn’t exert their influence on Burma's previous ruling military junta, under whose watch much of the abuse against the group allegedly occurred.
After all, Indonesia, the biggest state in Southeast Asia and the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has been a key player in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is a member.
ASEAN also includes two other predominantly Muslim countries—Malaysia and oil-rich Brunei, both of which have close ties with Burma—as well as Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, where there are sizable Muslim populations.
"It is some sort of an ambiguity that Southeast Asia has the biggest number of Muslims, and yet governments and particularly Muslims in the region have been living with this decades-old Rohingya problem in their own backyard," Haris Azhar, coordinator for Indonesia's human rights advocacy group KontraS, told RFA.
He said that Southeast Asian governments were hesitant to push the Rohingya issue with the Burmese authorities, fearing they themselves might come under scrutiny for alleged human rights abuses in their countries.
"Both the governments and Muslim groups have to bear responsibility for this—most governments, until only recently, have viewed human rights as taboo and [thought that] questioning Rohingya abuses would point to rights abuses occurring in their own countries," Haris said.
Indonesia, for decades under the late President Suharto's military dictatorship, had been under fire for blatant rights abuses, and multiracial Malaysia has its own history of ethnic problems, while Brunei is led by a sultan who rules by decree without elections.
Member states of ASEAN also have a long tradition of not questioning each other on rights issues, as doing so may be construed as interference in domestic affairs. Even blatant rights abuses by Burma's generals during the decades of harsh rule under the military junta were hardly raised at the ASEAN meetings.
But with the discrimination against Rohingyas flaring into a major international issue following the deadly June violence in Burma’s Buddhist majority Rakhine state, Muslims in the region are beginning to grill their governments over the perceived couldn't-care-less approach toward protection of the rights of their brethren.
Both the Rakhines and the Rohingyas have been blamed for sparking the violence, but human rights groups say Rohingyas have borne the brunt of action by the Burmese security forces.
The debate in Indonesia particularly has been intense as Muslims mobbed the Burmese embassy in Jakarta, protesting against the Burmese government's harsh treatment of the 800,000 Rohingyas, considered outsiders by many Burmese even though they have lived in the country for generations.
The U.N. has called them a stateless people and one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
Burmese President Thein Sein may have been pushing ahead with democratic and economic reforms, but when it comes to the future of the Rohingya, he takes a hard line approach—he wants them herded into U.N. refugee camps or just deported from the country.
The hardline position has sparked anger among many Muslims in neighboring nations who are pressing governments to uphold the human rights of the Rohingya.
Indonesian House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Pramono Anung criticized his government's “late” response to the Rohingya crisis as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's administration scrambled to contain any damage from its diplomatic inaction following the June violence.
“Our international diplomacy is often late and shows indecisiveness, even though we are one of the largest democratic countries as well as being the largest Muslim country,” Pramono told the Jakarta Globe newspaper.
Indonesia should “immediately announce our support for the Rohingya to assure the public, and global community, that we care about what has been going on in Myanmar [Burma],” he said, according to the Jakarta Post.
As pressure mounted from Muslim groups for swift action, Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa broke his silence this week, saying Jakarta would raise the Rohingya problem at an extraordinary summit of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on August 14-15.
"The Myanmar government's treatment of Rohingya Muslims is not in line with its recent efforts to move towards democracy," Natalegawa was quoted by Indonesia's Antara news agency as saying. "Any act of discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity is unacceptable."
The Rohingya crisis and the current civil war in Syria both demand the "urgent intervention" of the OIC to "protect civilian lives," a daily in Brunei said.
"[T]he Rohingyas are facing a catalog of discrimination in their homeland while thousands are languishing as refugees in Thailand and Bangladesh," the Brunei Times said in a recent editorial.
Clamor for action
The ASEAN grouping, whose population of 240 million Muslims is greater than that in the Middle East, has also become vocal amid the clamor for action.
Its secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, has asked Burma for a "full explanation" of the June violence in which rights groups said the Rohingyas were deliberately targeted by government forces.
"There will be a full explanation from Myanmar [Burma] because this is an important and critical issue for ASEAN as a community," Surin was reported saying. The explanation, he said, would be given at the United Nations in New York in September on the sidelines of its General Assembly.
ASEAN had discussed with Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, but he said, “We haven’t heard anything specific or concrete on the matter,” Surin said.
The Burmese government said in a statement this week published on the ASEAN website that the government had "exercised maximum restraint in order to restore law and order" amid the violence in Rakhine state.
"As such, Myanmar [Burma] strongly rejects the accusations made by some quarters that abuses and excessive use of force were made by the authorities in dealing with the situation," the statement said.
Official figures showed more than 70,000 people were displaced in the violence and that at least 78 died, but unofficial estimates have been higher. The United Nations has called for a "prompt, independent investigation."
Mohamed Azmi Abdul Hamid, the Secretary-General of Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Non-Governmental Organizations, called on the ASEAN grouping to "facilitate a solution" in a bid to end the Rohingya crisis.
The Malaysian government should "raise the problem of the Rohingyas in ASEAN meetings and find a solution to their statelessness and violation of human rights," said S.M. Mohamed Idris, chairman of the Malaysian-based Citizens International group.
Three years ago, ASEAN leaders agreed to use a regional mechanism known as the "Bali process" to stem an exodus of Rohingyas fleeing Burma to neighboring nations.
The Bali process was established in 2002 and involves more than 50 countries committed to taking steps to help combat human-smuggling and trafficking, and related transnational crimes in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
But the region's leaders have not moved to help bring about a political solution to the problem.
"Despite the noninterference principle which must be respected by the ASEAN member states, the ASEAN Charter also urges the member states to adhere to the principles of protecting of human rights," said Mochammad Faisal Karim, an international relations expert at Indonesia's Binus University.
"Yet, each time the two principles collide, it is more likely that ASEAN will follow the noninterference principle rather than the human rights principle," he said, suggesting that Indonesia show leadership and "voice the responsibility of the protection [of human rights] principle within ASEAN."