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March 3, 2024

INTERVIEW: ‘There is light at the end of the tunnel’

Radio Free Asia with Malaysia’s former Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who was often a strong advocate for ASEAN to take stronger action on the crisis in Myanmar. He spoke about the current geopolitical situation in the country and ASEAN’s reaction to it, as well as where things stand with the shadow National Unity Government that opposes the junta in the last two years since the Feb.  1, 2021, military coup. 

RFA: What do you think about the situation in Myanmar currently? 

Abdullah: Well, it is now already two years after the coup d’etat and things are getting worse day by day. More than 18,500 clashes, more than 1.2 million people are internally displaced, Many thousands have been killed, Civilians killed, and civilians arrested. Your president [Win Myint] and Aung San Suu Kyi are now behind bars for 12 years and 33 years. These are all very, very unfair. It was a kangaroo court that made the decision.

So things are getting worse for the people. But I salute the people of Myanmar because they have been steadfast in fighting against the junta since two years ago. And even before that, we know the story of the struggle of the Myanmar people.

The confidence-building work done by the NUG and the NUCC seems very fruitful. I understand people are talking to each other more today compared to before. All the stakeholders I have met the NUG, the NUCC and some of the other stakeholders more than once before, and I understand that they are working together very hard, including with the People’s Defense Force militias. And the Myanmar diaspora, those who are living as refugees outside, are always in contact with the fighters and activists in the country. I think after two years, they are very resilient. And I think this is something that I really take my hat off to the people of Myanmar.

RFA: What do you think about ASEAN? So far we don’t see any significant response from ASEAN.

Abdullah: ASEAN decided to do the five-point consensus. Unfortunately, the five-point consensus has not shown any real progress, not even on humanitarian assistance.

But this year, the chair of ASEAN is Indonesia. I am very hopeful that President Jokowi and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi will do more. Both are very passionate. I have spoken to Retno Marsudi many, many times. I think she will put a lot more effort into getting the five-point consensus working.

However, when I met the foreign minister of the NUG, he was very polite in telling me that the five-point consensus is not sufficient. I don’t know. I know that for them it is not going to work. It is something that was done without consultation with the NUG, the NUCC and the other stakeholders so they do not have any hope for the five-point consensus. But they were very polite to me saying that it is not enough.

So I think ASEAN has to have more of a sense of urgency, and I had spoken to my colleagues when I was Foreign Minister saying that ASEAN must have a framework with a straightforward end game, that is, to bring back democracy to the people of Myanmar. Until and unless you have a clear framework with a straightforward end game, this will not end. So the people will still suffer. I think ASEAN and the international community must have a higher sense of urgency in helping the people of Myanmar.

RFA: So, do you think Indonesia can persuade the Myanmar junta to go with the ASEAN five-point consensus? Would that be enough? 

Abdullah: I’m very hopeful that Indonesia, as chair of ASEAN, can do something. I understand that Jakarta  is planning to send generals to speak to the junta. I don’t know what the objective is, but perhaps we can try, you know, many ways of talking to the junta. But at the same time, whether we like it or not, ASEAN must engage NUG and the NUCC officially, because this is the only way to do it. We have spoken to the junta many, many times. Nothing happened. So this is the time, two years after the coup d’etat. We must engage the NUG and the NUCC.

RFA: Do you think ASEAN will do it?

Abdullah: I know Retno Marsudi has met, or, if not her, her team has met NUG and the NUCC.That I know for a fact. And that I think is a good beginning. 

RFA: So do you think ASEAN is going to officially contact NUG?

Abdullah: There are at least three ASEAN member states who are of the opinion that we should engage openly with the NUG and the NUCC. Malaysia has spoken about it. Indonesia has spoken about it. I’m sorry, I cannot mention the other ASEAN member state. I will let them say it in public themselves.

RFA: And what is the Malaysian government’s stance on the Myanmar crisis? 

Abdullah: Well, I have not spoken to the current foreign minister, but Malaysia’s foreign policy is normally very stable. We normally continue from where we stood in the past. So I am hoping that the current prime minister and foreign minister will continue what we were already doing. But on a personal level, I am still engaging my friends. Of course, as a former foreign minister, It’s not official, but I am still talking to them and sending whatever messages that need to be sent to people that need to receive those messages.

Myanmar nationals who had been detained under Malaysian immigrant law wait to board a chartered flight to Myanmar, Oct. 6, 2022. Credit: Myanmar Embassy in Malaysia

RFA: Yeah. Since the coup in Myanmar, a lot of Myanmar people have crossed the border and at least a thousand people arrived in Malaysia from Myanmar, maybe some illegally. There were reports that the Malaysian government deported some of the refugees who were detained. So what should the Malaysian government do about Myanmar migrants who are here? 

Abdullah: There are two things here. Number one, we are not a signatory to the International Convention on Refugees, but we have always been very helpful, including to people from Myanmar. We have about 180,000 people from Myanmar in Malaysia. Most of them are Rohingya, but there are non-Rohingya residents too. I think what has happened [the deportation] is regretful, something that I really don’t know. It may have happened when I wasn’t in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or maybe when I was there, but it was something that didn’t come to my attention because there are many agencies involved in this kind of program.  

What Malaysia really needs is a proper and better management system for refugees. What I know is that a new amendment to a directive from Malaysia’s National Security Council is now on the table. And I’m very hopeful that we can quickly amend or improve the way we manage refugees and people asking for asylum and continue working with UNHCR so that we can prevent deportation, especially unnecessary deportation from happening again. 

RFA: Are you aware that on February 1st, Myanmar’s people participated in a silent strike to show their defiance of the junta? What are your thoughts on that?

Abdullah: I really salute them. I think they are being very brave and very bold and very resilient. They are steadfast in showing their opposition to the junta. The silent strike I thought is a very innovative way to demonstrate, you know, that they don’t fear the junta and they are continuing with the struggle.

And this is where I keep on saying that ASEAN and the international community must not fail the Myanmar people. They are daring and they are willing. So we from our side must be equally willing, if not so daring, but must be more willing to help them. 

RFA: Do you have any suggestions for the NUG government?

Abdullah: No, I think the energy knows what needs to be done. I always believe that the pro-democracy struggle of the people of Myanmar must be led by the people of Myanmar. And for the Myanmar people. I understand that NUG is your elected government.

RFA: Is the United Nations doing enough for Myanmar? 

Abdullah: The United Nations Secretary-General has appointed Dr. Noeleen Heyzer as the special envoy. I think she is also trying her best. She is working on a new program to provide better education for Myanmar refugees who are now outside Myanmar but also looking for funding to help the NGOs who are working within Myanmar to provide education. 

I understand this is not going to be very easy, but this is one area that I understand she is trying to work on. But the international community, whether it is through the U.N. or other platforms, must do more. For example, sanctioning military assets – We must stop the supply of military assets, and military equipment, including fuel for aviation, especially. Because so long as the junta can fly the plane, they will still bomb people, including children attending school. So we must stop the supply of military assets, equipment, and fuel.

RFA: Any final message to the Myanmar people?

Abdullah: I think the people of Myanmar are a strong people. They are very bold. They’re very brave and they’re willing and daring. And I am very, very confident that there is light at the end of the tunnel. All I’m hoping for is for the international community, especially ASEAN, to have more urgency to assist the people of Myanmar.

Edited by Nawar Nemeh and Malcolm Foster.

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