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The UNGA Resolution on the Situation in Myanmar: Why was the Rohingya Issue Neglected?

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The United Nations General Assembly resolution on the ‘Situation in Myanmar’ adopted on 18 June 2021 with 119 votes in favour, 1 against and 36 abstentions has raised a fundamental question of excluding a critical issue of today’s world, the Rohingya crisis. The resolution has basically called for an arms embargo against Myanmar and condemned the military’s February seizure of power. The 193-member body also requested unimpeded humanitarian access to stop the country’s slide into poverty, dysfunction and despair. It makes a plea for the Myanmar military to “respect the people’s will as freely expressed by results of the general election of November 8, 2020, to end the state of emergency, to respect all human rights of people of Myanmar and to allow the sustained democratic transition of Myanmar, including the opening of the democratically elected parliament, and by working towards bringing all national institutions, including the armed forces, under a fully inclusive civilian government that is representative of the people’s will.” The resolution was initiated by a core group of 50 sponsoring member states, including the US, EU, UK, and Canada, among others. The core group finalized the resolution in consultation with ASEAN members.

Thirty-six countries have abstained from voting. It is altogether 74 (1+36+37) member states who have not cast their votes in favour of the resolution. Some key OIC members such as Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates abstained from voting. Some ASEAN and SAARC members such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka also abstained. Many African and Pacific Island nations did not find it worthwhile to participate in the voting. Countries like Russia, China and India abstained mysteriously abstained from voting virtually, opposing the resolution apparently voicing their reservations against the UN interference in domestic affairs of Myanmar. Interestingly, although Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry rejected the resolution, the UN-based Myanmar Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who in February denounced the military takeover, voted “yes” and urged the international community ‘to take the strongest possible action to immediately end the military coup.’ It is clear that the resolution has failed to create a resounding majority, what we generally observe in the UNGA voting patterns.

One of the fundamental limitations of the resolution and its failure to draw more support from the UN members was its inability to incorporate the Rohingya issue in it. The resolution has evidently skipped the most pressing and widely discussed global issue, the Rohingya crisis. There was no reference to the issue of genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas in the resolution. The resolution did not include any recommendations or actions on the issue of repatriation of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Neither does it recognize nor stress the need for creating a conducive environment in Rakhine for the safe, sustainable and dignified return of the Rohingyas. The resolution also lacks the determination to address the root causes of the Rohingya crisis through collective means.

Bangladesh, along with other nations, have expressed their utter disappointment and strong views for the UNGA’s failure to include the Rohingya crisis in the draft so that the resolution would reflect a broad-based and comprehensive reality in Myanmar. In this context, the deliberations of representatives from some members may be mentioned for understanding the importance of the Rohingya crisis. The representative of Bangladesh asserted that the resolution is of utmost to the country, which shares borders with Myanmar.  Stability in Myanmar is critically important for finding a durable solution for the Rohingyas hosted by Bangladesh. To Bangladesh, the resolution fell short of its expectations, failing to recognise the urgent need to create conditions for the safe, voluntary and sustainable return of the Rohingyas. Bangladesh makes a strong point expressing disappointment, as the representative in her speech stated that text deviates from other resolutions and outcomes adopted in the Third Committee (Social, Cultural and Humanitarian), the Human Rights Council and the Security Council.

The Turkish representative and the President of UNGA stressed that this is not just a crisis for the people of Myanmar, highlighting the 1 million Rohingyas sheltering in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and commending that country for helping its neighbours in their “darkest hour.” The representative of Iran asserted that the country would abstain from the vote because the draft resolution failed to address the plight of Rohingya Muslims adequately. The Egyptian representative stressed the need to ensure the safe, sustained repatriation of the Rohingya and protect that population’s fundamental rights.  The representative unequivocally mentioned that Egypt would abstain from the vote due to the unclear link between the agenda item and the Rohingya issue. The representative of Saudi Arabia said his delegation abstained as the resolution ignored his delegation’s request for sponsors to include a clear reference to the plight of Rohingya refugees in the operative paragraphs. Although voted in favour, the representative of Iraq told the text does not accurately describe the situation facing Rohingyas on the ground.  The delegation disassociated from preambular paragraph 19. The representative of the United Arab Emirates said her delegation also abstained because certain operative paragraphs did not sufficiently address the Rohingya issue.

Why was the Rohingya issue neglected in the crucial voting of the UNGA?

First and foremost, the exclusion of the Rohingya issue in the UNGA resolution is a major diplomatic blunder in the UN-based global diplomacy. It demonstrates a lack of commitment or vision about the most persecuted community in the world, the Rohingyas. To put it candidly, the interests of the Rohingyas have been sacrificed in the resolution. Second, the Rohingya crisis has been undermined due to geopolitics and the power politics of major powers in the world. Although the sponsoring nations of the resolution have shown their support to the Rohingyas, this particular action shows a contradiction in their policies and attitudes. Third, the sponsoring nations might have wanted to draw more support from some of the UN members who are historically supportive of the Myanmar regime. Countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam may be mentioned in this context.

Fourth, the resolution has repeated the historical misstep of the Western powers that have always prioritized ‘regime change’ over the acute humanitarian emergencies like the Rohingya crisis created by the genocidal crime of the Myanmar regime. The premature visit of the former United States President Barack Obama in Myanmar in 2012 was criticised that it rewarded the military who just released Suu Kyi and did not embark any genuine political changes for future democratic Myanmar. Finally, the resolution has overemphasized the role of the ASEAN that has undertaken a peace initiative through convening a special Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, in April 2021. Ironically, the ASEAN initiative has been ineffective and inadequate to force the Military coup leaders in Myanmar to reverse the political order in the country. The killing of more than 900 people in Myanmar, arrest of Suu Kyi and hundreds of political leaders and activists, identifying the National Unity Government (NUG) as a terrorist organization and continuing violation of the 5-point consensus of the ASEAN by the current military regime does not speak for any change in their approach.

In conclusion, one may argue that although this UNGA resolution was initiated under the agenda item ‘Prevention of Armed Conflict,’ there was a scope to include the Rohingya issue. A closer look at their real intention behind the resolution would clearly show that many countries who have drafted and supported it were guided by narrow geopolitical interests. It also shows that despite facing a deep political crisis, the Myanmar generals enjoy geopolitical and diplomatic advantages of unusual nature. The sudden dependence of the US and Western world on ASEAN has already proved ineffective for the Myanmar Junta who enjoys cosy relations with its influential members. After all, the support of 119 out of 193 members is far less an expected outcome against the violence and cruelty perpetrated by the regime in power in Myanmar. The UNGA resolution has divided the world instead of uniting it due to its failure to include the Rohingya issue. The resolution has once again demonstrated that the global community is yet to fathom out the sufferings, helplessness and hopelessness of the Rohingyas. It should be emphasized that the Rohingya crisis is integral to any political solution of the Myanmar crisis today or tomorrow. The earlier the global community recognizes it, the better for all Myanmar and surrounding regions.

Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Director, East Asia Center, University of Dhaka.

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Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys

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Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Southeast Asia

Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma

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With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Southeast Asia

Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific

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In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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