The Silence of Friends

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“We fishermen have a code”, an Indonesian fisherman by the name of Ridwan told Al Jazeera. “At sea you are all brothers and sisters. So if someone is asking for help, we have an obligation to help without looking at race, religion or anything.”

The illiterate, impoverished Indonesian fishermen who rushed to rescue more than 400 Rohingya refugees floating in the Straits of Malacca clearly have more humanity and generosity of spirit than the powerful governments of the region and the international community with all the resources and powers at their disposal.

The fishermen have a code. That at sea you are all brothers and sisters and have an obligation to help each other. How simple and profound – as all truth is. What about the international community though? Doesn’t it have any code or law committing it to save those in distress? Does it have no moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable in its midst?

What is the difference between Myanmar, which has made life worse than hell for its long suffering and persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, and the countries that are turning away the desperate Rohingya refugees washing up on their shores?

The predominantly Christian nation, the Philippines, has demonstrated greater sense of responsibility and compassion than its Muslim neighbours in responding to the humanitarian crisis.

The Philippines government says it is willing to open the country’s doors to Rohingya migrants who have fled Myanmar and Bangladesh, saying it is committed to the United Nations pledge to protect asylum seekers and refugees.

“Let us not fall short of providing humanitarian relief and assistance that is asked of us, as we pride ourselves to be a compassionate and hospitable people,” Senator Paolo Aquino, speaking for President Benigno Aquino said. “We call on the international agencies to process the legal issues immediately for the welfare of the boat people.”

Lately though the generous Philippine response seems to have awakened Malaysia and Indonesia to their own responsibility towards the ‘boat people’. A day after the Rohingya migrants recounted being repeatedly turned away by Malaysian and Thai authorities at gunpoint, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak tweeted saying he had ordered the country’s Navy to conduct search and rescue operations in the Straits of Malacca to save Rohingya migrants: ‘We have to prevent loss of life.’ Better late than never.

On Wednesday, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to “continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those 7,000 irregular migrants still at sea”, and offer them temporary shelter. That offer, however, came with a rider. The Southeast Asian nations have sought financial assistance from the international community to take care of the refugees and an assurance that the migrants would be resettled and repatriated elsewhere within a year.

The Southeast Asian nations of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have been engaged in high-level talks to try to resolve the refugee crisis after boats with hundreds of Rohingya refugees are turning up on their shores.

Right now, thousands of Rohingya refugees are said to be stranded at sea with no food and water. Many of them are said to be sick and desperately need medical help. All they have is hope – of being eventually rescued from imminent death at sea by what they see as fellow believers.

Every minute that goes by and every wave that rocks those rickety, dangerously crowded boats draws them closer to death. These helpless men, women and children have come a long way, escaping the reign of terror in Myanmar and braving a dangerous, treacherous sea. The least they deserve is being thrown a lifeline by governments in the region and the international community.

Maybe the Southeast Asian nations are justified in viewing these refugees as an unwelcome burden and a source of tension and ‘social, and security problems’ as Malaysia’s Foreign Minister put it. No one wants unwanted, uninvited guests. Especially when Malaysia and its other neighbours have already been hosting thousands of them.

So even as the ruthless regime in Myanmar, in cahoots with the increasingly bloodthirsty Buddhist extremists, cracks down on the Rohingya Muslims forcing them to flee the land of their ancestors in droves, the neighbours are reluctant to take them in, worried about the long-term economic and political consequences.

The unfolding humanitarian disaster therefore calls for urgent international response and intervention. The Southeast Asian nations can respond to the crisis by joining hands and cooperating and coordinating with each other, just as European nations have been doing to deal with their own ‘boat people’ dilemma. However, they would need the global community’s support in these efforts.

Indeed, the issue needs a two-pronged approach by the international community. First and foremost, throw an economic lifeline to the nations taking on the burden of Rohingya refugees. Secondly, and more critically, rein in Myanmar’s merciless and lawless regime before it totally wipes out an entire community.

It is truly shameful that the United States, European Union and emerging Asian giants like China and India are falling over themselves to court Myanmar’s generals, ignoring their repression and persecution of the Rohingya and Karen minorities. The US has promised economic assistance to the Southeast Asian nations to help deal with the Rohingya refugee crisis. However, the US and other world powers need to offer more than a fistful of dollars. They have to tell the Burmese junta that ‘enough is enough’.

Also, it is time for the Arab and Muslim nations to use some of their economic and political clout to stop the continuing carnage and persecution of Muslims in Myanmar even though they have enough of their own problems. This is not a call for Muslims to help fellow Muslims. It’s about humanity’s duty to help and protect its own in times of crises.

This is about the shared responsibility of world leaders and governments around the world to use the powers and resources at their disposal to act when it is time to act. Timely action could save lives of thousands of innocent, helpless people who desperately and urgently need our help.

The world community needs to send a strong and loud and clear message to Myanmar’s generals that the Rohingya Muslims are not totally friendless and without support and that there will be a price to pay if the terrorising of the helpless, voiceless minority does not end right now.

The failure to do so would almost inevitably result in the loss of thousands of precious lives. We all know what happened in Europe, Rwanda, the Balkans and more recently in the Middle East when the world failed to speak out and act.

Do not let history repeat itself all over again. Please. Speak up and do something to save precious lives when you can! Silence and inaction in the face of injustice and oppression is a crime. In the end, as Martin Luther King warned, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.

The writer is a Middle Eastbased columnist. 

Email: [email protected]

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