Tuesday, 12 May 2015

High hopes on Malaysia to push for rights to self-determination

ASEAN FOCUS: Across the border from Kelantan, Muslim-majority Pattani is one of the three provinces in Thailand - covering an area of approximately 10,936.864 square kilometres - that has been trapped in an ongoing cycle of civil unrest.  

With an estimated population of close to two million people, the other two provinces in Southern Thailand are Yala and Narathiwat. 

A total of 17,005 deaths and injuries were recorded in southern Thailand within the 10-year period (January 2004 to April 2014), according to figures from Deep South Watch, a monitoring body based at the Prince of Songkla University Pattani campus.  

A Muslim Pattani, Areena Doloh, told Theantdaily that the community have placed high hopes on Malaysia as Asean chairman to help lobby support for their struggle to achieve peace.   

“I came here (to Malaysia) to raise awareness on the conflict in Pattani and southern Thailand.

“The Thai government (in Bangkok) is not serious in addressing the problem,” said the undergraduate student at the Prince of Songkhla University.   

According to Pattani peace activist Arfan Wattana, the true voice of the people must be heard in the ongoing peace negotiations with Bangkok - a process which started two years ago and facilitated by Malaysia.  

And this, Arfan argued, would only be realised if the people’s right to “self-determination” - a legal right recognised by the United Nations for all people “to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status.” 

“Many people in Pattani do not even know the status of the peace talks with Bangkok.  

“Just like in Sabah and Sarawak, people who speak up about the right to self-determination are often accused of (only) wanting Independence,” said Arfan.  

He stressed that fighting for Independence is just one option that can be considered in exercising the people’s right to self-determination, aside from seeking to hold a referendum or fully supporting any government-backed peace talks.  

On April 1, Thailand Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha reportedly announced that the military government has lifted martial law which was imposed on May 19 last year, after months of anti-government protests. 

Prayuth had at the time said that martial law would be replaced with a new security order and Reuters news agency reported that Thailand's National Reform Council will finish its week-long debate on April 26 before sending the draft constitution to the Cabinet and the junta regime for feedback.

This new security order was heavily criticised by human rights groups for fear that it would give more powers to the Thai military regime. 

Meanwhile, apart from mediating the peace talk between Pattani and Bangkok, Malaysia had also played a part in brokering a similar agreement in Mindanao, Southern Philippines. 

The peace deal, witnessed by Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, was signed between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  

More than 12 years of negotiations, however, is now on the verge of collapsing after an anti-terror operation in Mamasapano on Jan 25 reportedly ended with a deadly confrontation that claimed the lives of Moro fighters and more than 50 police commandos.  

On March 29, The Star quoted Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein as saying that Malaysia is preparing offshore military bases in the Sulu Sea, to intercept potential refugees from Mindanao in the event of a breakdown of the peace process. 

As of March 17, the International Organisation for Migration reportedly quoted government sources who indicated that 123,000 people, or 24,700 families have been forced to flee their homes in Maguindanao, a province located in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). 

At the Asean People’s Forum (APF) 2015, where 1,400 delegates from civil society groups across the region had gathered ahead of the 26th Asean Summit, these voices were also heard from communities who are living in situations of conflict or post-conflict - including from Myanmar, Acheh and Timor Leste.  

In Malaysia, any talks of a ‘separation’ between Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia have been criminalised under the amended Sedition Act.  

Even so, more and more Sarawakians and Sabahans are now demanding for their rights to be treated as equal partners - the same status as Malaya - in the formation of Malaysia, instead of merely considering Sarawak and Sabah as the 12th and 13th states in the Malaysian Federation.

As the current chairman of Asean, there is high hopes placed on Malaysia to play its role in not only mediating peace talks, but also ensure that the true spirit of a “people-centered Asean Community” can be achieved.   

This commitment was first made by Najib himself when he received the Asean chairmanship from Myanmar president U Thein Sein in October last year and also reiterated by government leaders who spoke at the APF.  

And indeed, while Malaysia has been credited for its contributions towards achieving peace in the region, the Najib Administration can certainly do more to ensure that any voices of dissent among our own citizens are also not silenced. 

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