Mark Anthony V. Ambay III, Philippines, APMA 2018

I am a Star Trek fan.

I have avidly followed Star Trek’s different series with much enthusiasm since I was a child. In the 2200s, far into the future, humans and several non-human races alike live peacefully with each other and are governed by the United Federation of Planets, or simply the Federation, a body of semi-autonomous planets bound by the common principles of liberty, rights, and equality. The member-planets share their knowledge and resources in peaceful cooperation and coexistence with each other. Although the member-planets maintain their own political and social structures, the Federation is able to impose rules and policies as well as discipline any wayward member that steps out of line, especially those planetary governments that violate the rights of their citizens.

But this is 2019. We have no such thing as the Federation yet. What we have are regional bodies like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has at many times shown how much its bark is worse than its bite, and ASEAN-wide bodies like the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), whose own barks often come off as whimpers compared to the ASEAN. ASEAN and AICHR have embarrassingly failed to ensure that its member-states respect, uphold, and promote human rights, things that ASEAN and AICHR supposedly adhere to.

The difference between the Federation and the ASEAN is that the Federation can actually intervene in its members’ affairs. In fact, it is duty-bound to do so. ASEAN, on the other hand, prefers to look away whenever its members-states commit grave abuses against its citizens.

Take for example the case of Myanmar. The Myanmar government has parallels with the ruling council of the Klingon empire in Star Trek in that both ruling bodies have instituted murder and mayhem as part of their cultures. Ordinary Klingons, however, are very willing participants in the ritualistic murders they inflict on one another to prove who is the better warrior. A Klingon who is able to kill another Klingon is seen as a true warrior, worthy of honor and a place in society.

In Myanmar, the government allows the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar armed forces, to murder its own populace. They have beaten, raped, maimed, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians belonging to ethnic minorities. They have also burned to the ground whole villages. Yet the ethnic minorities in Myanmar are not willing participants. Countless people from various ethnic groups have fled to Bangladesh (the Rohingya) and the Thai-Myanmar border (the Karen and Karenni) as refugees to escape the bloodshed wreaked by the Tatmadaw.

Almost 80,000 refugees from the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups are currently living along the Thai-Myanmar border in nine camps managed by a consortium of humanitarian organizations. The Myanmar government has, to date, refused to provide aid for the refugees in this crisis it has itself produced. It has, however, offered reintegration schemes, in line with the United Nations call for repatriation as the best solution to the refugee problem along the Thai-Myanmar border. This, despite the fact that there is no clear evidence that the safety of the refugees can be assured upon returning to their lands, or even if they have anything to return to at all.

ASEAN, however, has so far remained relatively silent on the issue of aid, and support for the refugees from the regional body and other ASEAN members states aside from Thailand does not seem to be forthcoming. ASEAN has, however, released a vaguely worded statement calling the recent Rohingya genocide a “matter of concern.” It has also started talks with the Myanmar government regarding repatriation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but nothing substantial has resulted from these talks. No mention has been made of the fate of the Karen and Karenni refugees, who have been waiting in Thailand for decades to be able to return to their homelands that were ravaged by the Tatmadaw.

Indeed, ASEAN is quite adept at holding talks that result in anything but substantial outcomes, at least with regards to refugee issues. However, what has not been talked about is the reason behind the existence of refugees from Myanmar in the first place. What has not been talked about is the culpability of the Myanmar government in the human rights violations committed against ethnic minorities in Myanmar. What has not been talked about is how to prevent the Myanmar government from committing more abuses against its peoples. What has not been talked about is how to stop the Myanmar government from making refugees out of its own people.

While the Klingons may be theoretically accepted into the Federation, I am quite sure the Federation will ensure that the Klingons desist from their murderous ways. I am not so certain about the ASEAN in relation to Myanmar. In truth, despite Myanmar’s gruesome human rights record, ASEAN accepted Myanmar into its fold with open arms. Myanmar even chaired the ASEAN in 2014, and then started killing the Rohingya wholesale only a few years after that. You even have a Nobel Peace Prize laureate at the helm of the Myanmar government who is willing to engage in doublespeak and defend its horrible human rights record.

Admittedly, ASEAN member-countries are themselves not paragons of virtue when it comes to upholding human rights. Not one of ASEAN’s member-countries has a spotless human rights record, although some governments are more adept than others at pretending to uphold human rights. It is probably no surprise then that ASEAN as a body is willing to accord membership to Myanmar. After all, birds of the same feather, right?

ASEAN’s inability–or unwillingness–to sanction Myanmar regarding its abuses emboldens the Myanmar government to commit more, secure in the knowledge that it can get away with it. ASEAN must show that it can enforce the principles it is supposedly founded on, which include respect for human rights. Otherwise it just becomes an accessory to the villain in a very bad science fiction TV series.

Star Trek’s Federation in the 23rd century protects its people from human rights abuses. Perhaps ASEAN can start doing the same. ###

Photo from New York Times.

*This opinion piece was written in 2018. The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

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