Text and Photos Stefano Romano
Interview with Professor Dr. Kamarulzaman Askandar, Professor of Peace and Colfilct Studies (USM), Coordinator, Research & Education for Peace (REPUSM) Regional Coordinator, Southeast Asian Conflict Studies Network (SEACSN) and Founder of Penang Peace Learning Centre. Talking about Rohingya’s issue.
- How long has Peace Learning Centre been set up?
On the Island itself is just this one. There are another two schools on the mainland. This is the only privately-funded school, meaning that we don’t get big funding from big NGOs, government. This is basically private owned. We get donations from families and friends, and contributions like we get today.
- How do you think the children feel staying here? Do you think the children wish to go home to Myanmar?
Well, I would say that a lot of them love living in Malaysia. Many of them were actually born in this country. They don’t know any other places. Many of them also arrived in this country when they were very youngs. So again, I think their memory of Myanmar, their memory of the Arakan is very little. All they know is Malaysia, and all they know is Penang. And if you ask them if they want to go home, most likely they would say they want to stay here in Malaysia. All of them are registered with the UNHCR as people of concern, which means that when their time comes, maybe they will settle in other country. I have heard from many of them that they would not want to go to anywhere else; they don’t want to go to US, Europe, Australia, etc. They are comfortable in Malaysia.
- I have seen in the Centre’s blog that there was a visitor from Italy. How do you think the children feel about the interests from foreigners about them?
They are very excited to interact with foreign visitors because this gives them exposure to the outside world. They can practice their English too. They are also happy that other people from other parts of the world are also concerned about their wellbeing. Every time they have visitors they are so happy.
- How many teachers are there? What are being taught to the children?
Three. The children are taught writing, reading, Malay, English, maths, science, arts – basics for children at the primary school level.
- Malaysia plays an important role in hosting the Rohingya refugees like Bangladesh and Banda Aceh in Indonesia. In early September 2017, Malaysian PM Najib Razak discussed the crisis with Donald Trump in Washington. What do you think about the roles of America and Malaysia in the Rohingya’s issue?
I think all of the countries should have a greater role in trying to resolve the Rohingya issues in Myanmar because it is not only an issue about the Rohingya; it is humanity, it is an issue about a group of people being basically cleansed from the area, it is a genocide issue, it is a crime against humanity issue. It is an issue that everybody from every country should be not just aware of but also to promote the resolution of the issue. Malaysia is in a good position to make even greater contributions to the resolution of the topic because at the moment we have almost close to 90 thousand Rohingya refugees living in this country.
They have been coming here for many years, and despite Malaysia not being a signatory of the convention on refugees, this country has accepted a big number of Rohingya refugees and has to deal with that on a humanitarian basis. We have allowed the UNHCR people to register them and we have allowed them to live here on a humanitarian basis, but we still need to consider what needs to be done with this big number of Rohingya refugees in this country. And the problem is not only here in Malaysia but we have to look at the root cause of the problem which is in Myanmar.
Because if we resolve the issue in Malaysia but the core issue in Myanmar is not resolved, we will keep having all these refugees, not only Rohingyas but there are also other ethnic groups that have come out of Myanmar because of there is conflict over there. So Malaysia would have to do something to pressure the Myanmar government to deal with this situation in Myanmar, to treat them humanly, to give them the social and political lives that they really demand and they should have. And Malaysia being a close partner to Myanmar because we have so many dealings with Myanmar on various issues, and also we are part of Asean, Myanmar is also part of Asean.
So Malaysia has been taking and should be taking a lead to try to influence Myanmar to resolve the conflict as humanly as possible. So Malaysia has that particular role. With regards to the Americans, they can play a role too in bringing other countries of the world, in bringing the UN to pressure Myanmar to do something about the Rohingya issue. But it is not only about Malaysians, it is not only about the Americans, it should be about all of us pressuring Myanmar to resolve the issue before it is too late and to give the Rohingyas the rights that they truly deserve.
- Recently, Pope Francis visited Myanmar and it is clear that he is pro Rohingya; in fact he advised not to use the term “Rohingya” during his visit. The control of language is the famous way of power to dominate people like in the 1984 of George Orwell. What is your opinion about this as an intellectual figure?
I think everybody has the rights to call themselves what they want to, according to their own identity, according to who they see they are. For example I am a Malay, I want to call myself a Malay, and I call myself a Malay. Nobody can tell me that I should call myself in another term because that is my identity. The term reflects my identity. The same applies to the Rohingyas because that is the term that they call themselves through hundreds of years of development as a people, and the term Rohingya is connected to the identity that they have.
So their identity is as a Rohingya people. The name reflects the people; the name reflects the identity of the people. The same thing in Myanmar, they have so many terms, so many groups. They have the Chin, the Kayah, the Mon, the Bamar, and so on. They all called themselves by their own identity name. The names identify themselves. The names have been there for hundreds of years, so they should be allowed to use these names, and not somebody else’s names because otherwise they will lose out as a people. A people that does not have identity, does not use his own language will cease to exist as a people. That is what they are trying to prevent.
- Aung San Suu Kyi lost a lot of consent in the world, especially in the human rights area. And a lot of people has asked for her Nobel Price for Peace to be retracted. It is also a fact that her leadership is not complete. She cannot become president because her children are British citizens; so her democracy is always under veto of military Junta and Buddhist nationalists. It seems it is a never-ending story; do you think that there will be a positive solution to this?
That is her choice. I think she is aware of her own weak position within the country. I think she is aware that she does not command full support from the military or from the other groups within Myanmar. She has to ask herself, what kind of legacy she wants to leave in Myanmar, as a leader, as a person. All of us, including myself, among with other friends, were helping to advocate her release from house arrest and all those things during the time when she was a political prisoner in Myanmar. She was getting lots of support from everywhere. We were fighting for her to get her political rights as an individual, as a person, as a leader in Myanmar.
It is unfortunate when she is now the leader, she has neglected her obligations to the people of Myanmar, especially to various groups that are currently being oppressed including the Rohingyas, that is very unfortunate. I think that has been forced by the fact that she wants to be a political player, a political figure, a political leader in Myanmar without really thinking that if you are in politics, but if you are part of a regressive regime, it does not matter. As a human being, you want to create a better society for everybody, for all your people.
And if your people are oppressed, it does not matter. Unfortunately, that is the way, that is the path she has chosen. Myanmar politic is complicated because you not only have the influence of the other political parties but as you said, they also have the influence of the military. Their military is very strong, it holds a big portion of the parliament, everything has to go through them, but you also have the politics of identities, and you have various ethnic groups in Myanmar wanting independent.
But now they say everything is okay, we will settle for economy. But the people would like to settle for a political solution where they have their rights as a people. So you have to juggle everything, you have to look at all these things – the political issues, the military, the different ethnic groups. Aung San Suu Kyi as a leader, unfortunately, has to juggle with all those things, but that is the role that a leader has to do. Unfortunately also, she has chosen the path of maintaining he own position, her own political power through working closely with the other political parties, and with the military especially, disregarding the plights of the Rohingyas.
I would say the Rohingya people at this current moment is trapped in the political struggle within Myanmar. Unfortunately, at least in the short term, things are not looking up for them yet because we are still not sure of what kind of solution that will have for the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Work is being done to pressure both from inside and especially from outside. Hopefully the political figures in Myanmar will realise that the problems are interconnected. And it is impossible for them not to address the Rohingya issues in a positive way because it will also have an influence in other aspects of their political life, both internally and externally. So we hope that there will be a positive solution, sooner or later.
- There is also the geo-politic issue. Because if helps can come from outside more than the voice of intellectuals, presidents, there is the problem that Rakhine, where the majority of Rohingya live, it is a strategic place to access to Bay of Bengal, under the interest of China. In fact they have a good relation with the government of Myanmar. It is not easy to talk about humanity issue when there are also economic interest. What do you think about this?
That is always unfortunate when people are living in strategic areas, everybody wants access to the areas. The area of the Arakan of the Rohingya people is not really in the path of the gas pipeline that is going to connect the Bay of Bengal with China, but it is close to it. I do understand that China has lots of interest in Myanmar, economic interest especially. They don’t care about humanity, they don’t care what will happen to the Rohingya people. I think they only care for profit, that their interests are secured. But if you look at it only from that angle, it is really hopeless, so I would like to look at it from a more positive way.
Countries like China have economic interests, and they want their economic interest to be maintained. They don’t want to have instability because it will jeopardise their economic interest. So it is through their interests also that the problem of the Rohingya people must be resolved as quickly as possible. The problem will have to be resolved in a way that will not only satisfy the government but satisfy the people, because if you resolve the issue in a way that does not resolve the people, the issue will come up again in the future. So it will be an unending issue. We have to find a way that the people will also be happy with the resolution.
China has to see it in that way. China has to see it from the perspective that resolving a humanity issue can be beneficial to its economic interest. China actually can play a strong influence on Myanmar because they are very close. China has so many strategic interests in Myanmar. They are very influential with the separatist groups, they are also very influential with the Myanmar government because of so much investments, not only from Chinese government but also from so many Chinese companies. China can actually play a positive role, and China must be persuaded to play that positive role. Any kind of resolution of the Myanmar issue, I think, China has to be a part of the solution because of the role that it can play to influence the Myanmar government. At the same time, China can help develop the Arakan state by bringing in more investments. I think China can play a bigger role.
- Here we are in the children’s school. In Myanmar, more than 420.000 Rohingya flooded refugee camps and nearly two-third s were children. What do you wish for them?
I have many wishes for them. I wish for a peaceful future for them. I wish that the oppressive situation within Myanmar will be resolved. I wish that their conditions in the refugee camps in Bangladesh will be improved. I wish that the living condition will be better over there. I wish that they will have a better life here in Malaysia because there are a big number of them here. I wish we Malaysian people will treat them in a better way and not to look at them as a problem. My hope is that all Rohingya children can develop themselves and can have a childhood that they can enjoy. I hope the Malaysian government will at least allow them to join the national school, free public education. If they are educated, they can improve their life. Once their life has been improved, I am sure they can make contribution to our society.