THE Philippines came under intense scrutiny at the United Nations last week after it voted “no” to a resolution increasing pressure on Myanmar over the crisis involving its minority Muslim Rohingya population.
Stripped of the emotionalism fanned by international lobby groups, Manila’s vote, as explained by Malacañang and Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, was the reasonable position, for a number of reasons.
This was a European Union-drafted, Organization of Islamic States-sponsored draft, naturally supported by Muslim-majority Asean countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
The Philippines, however, is in a different position, being the Asean chairman this year and charged with keeping the balance in the 10-nation regional bloc. It cannot simply turn its back on Myanmar and its state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, whom it graciously hosted and welcomed to the 31st Asean Summit early this month.
The UN General Assembly’s stance is not the Asean way. Asean should know, having interacted with the junta and playing a key role in encouraging Myanmar’s democratic reforms that began in 2011.
Asean’s experience shows that gradualism works best in dealing with Myanmar, not threats of wholesale sanctions and ostracism.
The Philippines, for instance, received a bevy of international criticism when it sponsored Myanmar’s entry to the Asean in 1997. On hindsight, that strategic move could have been the beginning of Myanmar’s road to democracy a little over a decade later.
Palace spokesman Harry Roque summed up the Philippine position clearly last Saturday when he said: “The issue in the Rakhine State is a complex one; and we believe that isolation and censure would only add to the difficulty the people there are now facing. This explains the vote of the Philippines (on) the UN resolution.”
Cayetano pointed out on Monday that making huge demands on Myanmar, such as full citizenship to all Rohingya without a reasonable vetting process, could harden Myanmar’s military faction.
Myanmar considers the call for full citizenship rights an insult to its sovereignty (it calls the Rohingyas Bengalis, or immigrants from Bangladesh); forcing the issue could hinder the entry of humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas in the northern Rakhine state.
This is not to say that the Philippines condones the horrific human rights violations committed by military forces on the Muslim minority. Engaging Myanmar more productively and standing up for human rights are not mutually exclusive. Those who killed, raped, abused and dispossessed the Rohingyas should be held to account for their crimes against humanity.
The problem is that the UN and the West have been smug about the issue when, as reported by Foreign Policy last month, the UN was warned of the threat to the Rohingya in Myanmar for years but did nothing.
There was “fierce resistance from some of the most senior UN officials, who feared that publicly shaming Myanmar’s rulers would complicate efforts to steer the country through a delicate political transition from military rule to democracy and jeopardize the UN’s development and humanitarian relief efforts in the country.”
China has presented a three-phase plan to resolve the Rohingya crisis, involving a ceasefire declaration, talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and poverty alleviation.
The plan, which reportedly has the backing of Myanmar and Bangladesh, is a constructive one, unlike Myanmar’s noisy Western critics who have none, and should be given a chance to succeed.