JAKARTA — On the sidelines of ongoing trade negotiations related to the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Malaysian MP Charles Santiago yesterday called for a halt to the trade talks, citing concerns related to the unfolding crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
“At present, ASEAN is facing an unprecedented crisis involving one of its partner countries, Myanmar, which is alleged to have unleashed ethnic cleansing on one of its minority populations,” Santiago, who is also Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said during an RCEP stakeholder consultation meeting with civil society in Jakarta on Wednesday.
“My concern, is that in the context of such violence against women and children and a vulnerable community, silence among RCEP trade partners will send the wrong message. In fact, it will violate the ASEAN Charter, which upholds human rights as a core value of the ten-nation bloc. It will also give ammunition to critics that governments involved in the RCEP are motivated by profits and not people. So it would be in the interests of these nations to stop further negotiations on the RCEP until the ethnic cleansing accusation is investigated and resolved.”
Myanmar authorities in northern Rakhine State have waged a brutal counter-insurgency campaign targeting the Rohingya population there since a 9 October attack on police outposts. Access to the area for aid workers and independent journalists has been blocked, but reports of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and sexual violence have continued to come out. On 24 November, a UNHCR official in Bangladesh, where an estimated 21,000 Rohingya have fled since the start of the violence, voiced concerns about “ethnic cleansing.” The Malaysian Foreign Ministry raised similar concerns in a 3 December statement.
For over a month, APHR and its members have consistently called for a thorough, impartial investigation supported by the international community, including ASEAN. On Wednesday, the collective of lawmakers issued a statement welcoming the Malaysian government’s recent remarks and calling for regional action to protect Rohingya inside Myanmar, as well as those who have fled to neighboring countries.
During the RCEP consultation yesterday, Charles Santiago said that all nations involved in the trade talks should treat these developments with similar concern in order to avoid jeopardizing their legitimacy.
“If the talks are not halted, countries at the RCEP negotiating table will be accused of aiding and abetting ethnic cleansing. This failure will call into question the role of trade in promoting peace, prosperity, and international cooperation. By stopping the negotiations at this time, RCEP countries could change the exiting negative global perception of free trade agreements into a positive one where people matter,” Santiago said.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a proposed free trade agreement between the ten member states of ASEAN, plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. The current talks in Jakarta are the 16th round of negotiations between the 16 countries.