I care or I don’t mind. The distinction between democracies and dictatorships in the refugee crisis of Southeast Asia

Simon Kneebone

Europe has been recently criticized because of lack of generosity, vision and wisdom in treating the “problem” of refugees. Emergencies always make states to act on the wave of emotions (like for the thousands of migrants died recently in the Mediterranean Sea) but emotions are not good advisors for long term and efficient policies. Actually apart the fight against the traffickers the EU just decided some quotes for the refugees to host for each European country and this is not going to work at the root of the problem, which is the situation of poor countries in Africa and Middle East, with conflicts that provoke the migration of refugees. But at least it showed that the EU starts to care about other human beings, suffering from poverty and violence to which Europe greatly contributed.

Now is the time of South East Asia, to deal with the emergency of refugees. ASEAN has the same problems of coordination of EU, plus it has no instruments to impose the respect of human rights inside its member countries. ASEAN for example every year criticizes Burma’s treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority and its poor response to the religious clashes, but ASEAN has among its principles the “non-interference” one, as all countries know that they have some problems and they prefer not to bother the other members in order not to be bothered in the future. But the reality is that ASEAN will have to deal sooner or later with common principles, like the respect of human and minority rights, if it want to become a real integrated community based on collective security and democratic principles. Burma for example, even if it will have its first elections at the end of this year, still struggle to be defined a democracy. A democracy care about its people, cannot imagine to kill its people in order to do a leap in its development for example (like in Chinese Great Leap Forward). A democracy needs to care about its ethnic groups, that in Burma are nothing less than 135, either if they have citizenship or not, as all the resident in a country have to be protected by their sovereign state. Even a noble peace price like Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t act at the height of her name, given the fact that because of religious power of Buddhism in Burma, she doesn’t express what should be a normal worry of a Nobel peace prize, for a minority mistreated and discriminated. The same problem of democracy can be said for Thailand, that didn’t want to welcome the poor refugees, until the EU and the international community protested and Thailand had to organize an international conference on this issue today, the 30th of May, in which nothing was decided. Thailand also is not anymore a democracy since one year, when a military junta took power, as usual in a country whose history has been dominated by military dictatorships.

The future will say if Burma and also Thailand will be able to mature on their path to democracy and if ASEAN will be able to increase its level of integration and efficiency, closer to that of EU. But for now we can say that only the generosity of poor fishermen in Aceh, Indonesia, was able to save the life of hundreds of people, while the nation states remained still, watching the situation. Together with few NGOs working on helping refugees, these fishermen were the only people that “cared” about other human beings in a suffering situation, instead of turning the head to the other side, being them also people that have suffered in their recent history (the 2004 Tsunami killed hundreds of thousand of people in a region tormented by thirty years of civil war). We can conclude that elites in democracies have to turn to their most poor citizens, if they want to learn how to improve their abilities of caring and protection, a fundamental criteria to define a democracy.
(For info and for helping a local NGO in Aceh: https://www.facebook.com/yayasangeutanyoe).

Cartoon image: Simon Kneebone

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