CRUCIBLE: Rohingyan and ASEAN’s Contradiction

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 4 June) – Today, the condition of the ummah (Muslim community) has become even more dismal. Despite opportunity, for instance, to perform acts not only reflective of International Law but sheer expression of humanism more importantly, yet, she sheepishly refuses to take the cudgel – even more so that those acts are in accord with basic and universal values like extending mercy (rahman) and compassion (raheem) to fellow human beings in distress. Refusal to do such honorable act shows how serious the crisis that plagued the Muslim world.

This is the frame I’d like to highlight regarding Buddhist nationalists’ “ethnocide” against Rohingyan Muslims in Arakan, Myanmar. I’d like to surface, too, the equivocation of Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) and its member states and why they refused to step in and engage proactively the Myanmar government. It is also worthwhile to reveal why there is no urgency to stop the violence in the Arakan region and allow the Rohingyan to land in some Asian shores.

We’d talked initially the plight of the Rohingyan two years ago. We thought then their plight would be alleviated and that they would surpass the ajal or fate they faced. Instead, there has been no let up of violence inflicted against them. Many Rohingyan have been forced to leave and sail away from their home place to unknown destination hoping that other communities and Asian countries would receive them. But they were refused entry particularly by governments in ASEAN.

What is comforting though it is ordinary people like those in Aceh who reached out to high sea and rescued the Rohingyan and extended them humanitarian assistance.

Withering Asian values?

We are aghast with the attitude of Asian governments on the distressed Rohingyan. As we noted in our previous khutbah (discourse), Asian values is very much pontificated by Asian leaders as unique trait of Southeast Asia. Accordingly, such tradition is honed with essentially communal and neighborly conduct toward other people even as it is viewed as distinct relative to generally individualistic and interest-oriented tradition in the West. Yet, given ASEAN’s lukewarm action on the Rohingyan, we question whether such values resonate these days.

Surprisingly, it is quite different from the way some European countries like Italy received illegal immigrants from Libya, Africa and Syria. Despite strict immigration policy, European Union is generally accommodating especially to immigrants displaced by war and terrorism, while some EU governments are pro-active in taking steps even combing the Mediterranean Sea in search of distressed peoples on overloaded boats.

What happened to Asian values among ASEAN countries? What happened to supposed rich cultural tradition of extending help and assistance to neighbors and distressed peoples? What if we reverse the situation, say, it is Thai, Filipinos, Malaysians and Indonesians who are maltreated in their respective countries while neighboring countries refuse them sanctuary?

We say rescuing Rohingyan is supposedly an opportunity where ASEAN leaders would be able to make themselves consistent with what they’d long pontificated. This is not to mention that the Rohingyan are Muslims. Hence, we expect that Muslim countries would be in the forefront to extend humanitarian assistance.

If ASEAN cannot restraint Myanmar to stop the killing and violence against the Rohingyan, at the very least, they have to open their arms to allow Rohingyan to find temporary shelter so that if things normalize in Rakhine, then, they could be made to return.

Islam’s tradition in helping others

When we zero in on the subject in extending assistance especially those seeking asylum or as refugees, we have to note that the advent of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) or the beginning of Muslim community in Arabia was made possible because of openness of other people towards early Muslims. As oppressed and distressed people, early Muslims were given sanctuary by no less than Christians in Abyssinia.

Moreover, the hijrah or migration of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his sahabah (companions) was made possible when the people of Madinah accepted them with their new faith. As a result, there was unique and unparalleled brotherhood forged – the brotherhood of Ansar (people of Madinah) and Muhajirun (migrants from Makkah).

From there, a new relationship, a new power emerged in Madinah especially when the Prophet formulated the so-called Shahifatu l-madinah or the Charter of Madinah where various faiths (Jews, Christian and Muslims) were considered to be ummah with their own rights and responsibilities respectively. They helped each other in building the nascent Muslim community in Madinah that eventually triggered Islam to burst forth to the rest of the world in the 6th century.

We say that there had been many instances in varying phases of Islamic history where people opened their homes, their communities and received other peoples in distress.

What we could not understand is that, in the 21st century when every country is pontificating human rights, development for all, love thy neighbor policy, yet, they could not even lift a finger or, at least, be consistent with what they say. This is the fate of the ummah in our time: big words, but small and trifling steps.

We’d forgotten the hadith or saying of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that we are supposedly familiar with. It is universal and humanitarian and is thus applicable in our time. It says:

“One cannot be considered a believer until he loves his brother like himself.”

Since the start of violence against Rohingyan, who generally sympathized with them are people active in social media and human right organizations that are mostly based in Europe and America. We cannot understand why Muslim countries are petrified when they should, in fact, be in the forefront in taking the cudgel to give solace to the Rohingyan. The same inutility is shown with many civil society groups in Southeast Asia where they fear intimidating their own governments; they are possibly afraid their payroll would be cut-off if they become very humanitarian towards this distressed people.

We say there has to be limit to pragmatism and utilitarianism more so when it gets far off from fundamental values like helping people in distress. Moreover, the Qur’an recognizes the need to extend assistance to those who need them despite mutual alliance with some communities or countries. The Qur’an says:

“Those who believed, and adopted exile, and fought for the Faith, with their property and their persons, in the cause of God as well as those who gave (them) asylum and aid, – these are (all) friends and protectors, one of another. As to those who believed but came not into exile, ye owe no duty of protection to them until they come into exile; but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom ye have a treaty of mutual alliance. And (remember) God seeth all that ye do (Anfal: 72).”

The basis of many ASEAN countries in not extending assistance to the Rohingyan is that Myanmar is a member of ASEAN and that said regional organization respects national sovereignty and non-interference. But, we say, extending assistance to the Rohingyan does not necessarily diminish the vision of ASEAN. In fact, it enriches what it purports to be. It would be meaningless to speak of, say, ASEAN integration if there is a vivid case like distressed people that could not even be allowed to land in ASEAN soil. This is the reason why we say that ASEAN particularly Muslim countries lost the golden opportunity to make themselves true with what they espoused.

It is noteworthy to remember that the plight of Rohingyan is product of colonial maneuver since the retreat of Great Britain from India and Burma in the early 20th century. Like many minorities, their fate was left hanging in the balance ever since. Rohingyan did not create the problem they are in now. It’s part of historical circumstances beyond their control.

This is not to mention that the Rohingyan, the Bengali, the Punjabi, the Gujarati and so on were historical people who, in one way or another, were Indo-Aryan purveyors of Asian trade. They were also responsible as facilitators in the spread of Islam from India Subcontinent to China then to Southeast Asia. They facilitated travel along the Silk Road as they expanded trade and navigation to and fro the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

The Rohingyan were therefore active players in the formation of Islamic Emporium in the Nusantara or the Malay world. Their contribution forms part of Islamic heritage that Malays, for instance, are proud of. By refusing to provide sanctuary to Rohingyan, the Bengalis and so on, it is as if Muslim countries in ASEAN desecrate their own heritage and their own tradition of Asian values like neighborliness and helping people in distress.


We are quite consistent with our view the reason behind the crisis in the Muslim world as essentially due to dislocation of the ummah in the world of nation-states. She does not know where to position herself given that nation-state has been an imposition from outside, although it was expediently accepted and legitimized; yet, it is something partly dislocated since the principles of the ummah like brotherhood and unity are increasingly becoming divergent with nation-state system.

What is enraging is that Muslim countries hardly realize this. They are, like others, too jealous of their national sovereignty. They are oblivious with the fact that one-third of the ummah are stateless and minorities whose condition, as we said, is not their own making; it is a product of colonial and post-colonial history.

In this regard, the ASEAN and, if we may, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should be pro-active to fill in the limits of nation-state arrangement so that the notion of Asian values and Islamic solidarity (tadamun al-Islami) will not smack in their faces and would not make them even more contradictory and hypocritical.

We thought we could only see State’s violence in Israel, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) barbarity in Syria and Iraq or some tribal clashes in Africa and elsewhere. But we are talking here of Southeast Asia, home of supposed rich and diverse cultural traditions and civilizations which are strategic elements with what the Qur’an refers to as lita’arafuu (“for you to understand each other”); yet, said ideal hardly reflects reality.

We thought it is only the so-called Islamic fundamentalists honed with the Kharijite-Salafi tradition of extremism that could engage such horrible acts of violence like we witnessed in the Middle East today. But, here, we are seeing traditional community particularly the Buddhists in Myanmar supposedly honed with universal philosophy, spirituality and non-violence as perpetrators of ethnocide and violence. Our assumption is proven wrong.

Indeed, Islamic fundamentalists or extremists do not have the monopoly of violence and terrorism. Fundamentalism cuts across traditional religions and so on. As shown in Arakan, Buddhist nationalists could be as fanatical, violent and terroristic.

We thus say that rule of civility must reign. International Humanitarian Law should be made to operate fairly and proactively by major institutions like the United Nations and many regional organizations like ASEAN and OIC and others.

As countries in Southeast Asia are turning Rohingyans away, we could only commend individuals, families and community leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in receiving this distressed people.

Perhaps, the Philippines was exceptional in extending humanitarian assistance to so-called boat people some years ago. When boat people from Vietnam sought asylum or as refugees who were displaced in the ’80s, the Philippines opened her door and allowed them to settle in Bataan. They were given humanitarian support as they were allowed to form small community in the area until they emigrated and worked in other countries.

Whereas Asian values not to mention the Islamic tradition are so strong on mercy and compassion, yet we don’t see the same expression particularly among Muslim leaders in the region. We commend the government of Gambia for expressing support on the Rohingyan and its willingness to receive them.

It is unfortunate that Aung San Suu Kyi, the popular opposition leader of Myanmar, suffers with deafening silence since the violence erupted in the Arakan region few years ago. Many people hoped that she would get out of her shell and embrace the true meaning of Asian values by standing on the side of justice for distressed people. With election fast approaching in Myanmar, the grip of politics limits even more Aung San Suu Kyi’s engagement. No strong and respectable words of restraints or sympathy have come from her ever since.

In this regard, we have to re-examine what today is pontificated as Asian values. We have to question the pride of Malay people with their Islamic heritage: why they could not translate it to real expression of sympathy, of mercy and compassion especially to people who were previously responsible in chiseling that heritage at certain point in history.

Self help, selfless giving

The problem with the Rohingyan is that, they have not taken a step to organize themselves politically. Unlike other minorities, they failed to form liberation movements. Hence, they could easily be despised and denigrated. If they had taken a posture of resistance, the Burmese government would have easily restraint fanatical Buddhist nationalists. They could have been engaged in peace process, although it does not guarantee that they would be accorded peace arrangement. We have to note that there is another minority – the Karen – in southern Burma that had been waging a struggle for self-determination for decades; but the government has been unyielding.

Indeed, every community, every part of the ummah has its own circumstances. As we say, it has its own ajal, its own fate and term.

At the very least, we say, we could not be complacent as minorities to rely on others; we could only rely on ourselves. Even extending assistance from others could not also be relied upon.

There are only a few quarters with knowledge of what selfless giving is all about. What we are quite familiar with is assistance that is usually done through humanitarian intervention and so on. The problem with this is that, it comes with string attached. Some entities would usually give us one but they take two from us – at times, ending in the control of our land, our history, and so on.

There is unique type of giving assistance that the Qur’an promotes. It is the extension of assistance done in the name of Allah (SWT); it is not done in the name of particular interest or entity; it is giving to others fii sabilillah (in the path of Allah (SWT)).

There is a verse in Suratu l-insan that says:

“And they fed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan and the captive – Saying, “We feed you for the sake of God alone: No reward do we desire from you, nor thanks. We only fear a Day of distressful Wrath from the side of our Lord (8-10).”

This is the highest form of extending assistance. It is an assistance done without any string attached – not in the name of particular person, of particular country, of particular organization, and so on.

This is a form of assistance, which is one of the acts or qualities of believers. If you read Suratu l-insan, you will find more such qualities. One such quality is, when people extend assistance, yet, they do it selflessly. It is done “for the love of God” (alaa hubbihi). It’s the only form of giving that is authentic, albeit becoming very rare these days.

Nonetheless it is probably the expression why some Acehnese, some Malaysians, some Thais, some Indonesians, and probably some Filipinos could not resist the temptation to help distressed people even if they do not know them.

Finally, the lessons we’d like to emphasize is that, the contradiction that ASEAN suffers from has to be glaringly surfaced even further; that every community should become self-sufficient as they could only rely on themselves – not on others; and that we have to realize that there are problems that we faced which in fact are opportunities into which we make ourselves consistent like making true our notion of Asian values, of Islamic solidarity, and so on.

Yet, as many Muslim countries are increasingly hostaged with constriction of nation-state system, they could not see the problem they faced as opportunity. They, like others, are hard pressed to extend humanitarian assistance much less show mercy and compassion to other people.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A Friday khutbah (with revision) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 29 May 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]