MEMBER of Parliament Louis Ng recently visited the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, and he promised the Rohingya refugees that their stories will be shared to the world.
“These are stories that everyone need to hear,” says Mr Ng. “We need to extend a helping hand. There is not enough awareness at this point in Singapore about the plight of Rohingya refugees.”
Making Singaporeans aware of the issue was one of his top priorities as Mr Ng went on a four-day visit to Bangladesh with others from the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights group, a group of current and former Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) parliamentarians aiming to promote human rights in the region.
“This is an issue that is happening in our own backyard, yet so few people know about it,” he says. “Everyone knows about the Syria refugee crisis but very few people know about the Rohingya crisis.”
About 655,000 Rohingyas have crossed the border in Bangladesh from Myanmar since August last year, in the wake of a military-led crackdown in the country’s Rakhine state.
He reiterates Bangladesh generosity for sheltering the refugees. “They’re land scarce, with limited resources yet they didn’t close their borders,” he says.
Pragmatically, 39-year-old Mr Ng, the MP for Nee Soon GRC who is also chief executive of animal welfare group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), says land-scarce Singapore can extend more to help, citing previous Government donations of relief supplies.
In a sincere plea, he urged Singaporeans to stand up at this “moment of humanitarian crisis at our backyard”. He says: “This makes it incumbent upon everyone in the international community to ensure that Myanmar guarantees the safety, rehabilitation and livelihood of Rohingya in the long term. They deserve freedom of movement and access to basic services such as health care and education.
CAMPAIGNS TO HELP
“I’ve also spoken up about the Rohingya issue in Parliament, not only because this is a crisis happening in Asean which Singapore is a part of but, most importantly, because terrible things are happening which we should not remain silent about.
“I visited the refugee camps not just as someone who is an MP but also as a human being. And to hear all those stories and see how fellow human beings suffering so much, I cannot remain silent.”
Walking the talk, he also visited refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, but wanted to hear directly from those in Bangladesh too.
“The stories they shared with me I don’t know how you can ever describe it,” he says, his voice choking with emotion. “I don’t even know where to start…it really was an emotionally painful day to say the least. I sat there listening to Rohingya refugees cries as they recounted stories, terrible stories of rape, murder, burning of their houses.”
He cited a heart-breaking story of a middle-aged father watching his nine-month-old baby get stabbed to death. A 22-year-old who lost his entire family of seven, who came to the refugee camp alone and who showed a video he had filmed of the dead bodies. He even held the hand of a five-year-old child who survived the ordeal but with a bullet wound to her arm.
He adds: “Yes, people need to hear these stories, realize that this is still happening in the 21st century. The plight of the Rohingya needs to be shared with the world and we need to speak up for them.
PROJECT HEARTS TO HANDS
“They just want to go home, a place where they can feel safe, where their children can go to school, where they can move around freely. They want a country they can call home. They want something most of us take for granted – citizenship.”
Mr Ng added that the Project Hearts to Hands (Project H2H) refugee initiative – which he started with a group of volunteers – will initiate a donation drive soon for the refugees in Bangladesh ahead of the upcoming monsoon season.
Project H2H volunteer Suzanah Sarkwan who also toured the camps shared: “I do see resilience in the camps and generosity from the local host community. They are a country with limiting resources but full of people with big hearts as they chose to open their borders to help the Rohingya refugees. Plantations and forest were cleared to house the huge influx of refugees.
“I saw many homeless beggars on the streets including children who will knock on the sides and windows of our vehicle as we maneuver the overly congested traffic. We’re blessed to meet up with many inspiring NGOs groups such as Save the Children. It’s the amazing work of the humanitarian workers at the camps that restored my hope in humanity.”
Facebook writer Rachael Tang was among scores shocked at Mr Ng’s recounts. She says: “Thank you for doing this, Mr Ng. Yes, we need to continue to share stories of the plights of Rohingya and all refugees around the world. Being the Asean chair, Singapore should at least urge member states (and our own Government, too) to reconsider the position of non-interference.
“(PM) Lee Hsien Loong said one of the functions of Asean is “…to co-operate to improve the lives of the people in South-east Asia”. Let us not forget to help those who are the most in need in this region.”
FORGOTTEN VICTIMS OF WAR
Aminah Bee, over Facebook, adds: “Children are too often the forgotten victims of war. Thank you for speaking up for them, Mr Ng.”
Another Facebook activist Victor Perinparaj says: “Singapore can draw on its own experience as a successful multiracial, multi-religious and multicultural experiment, offering lessons on how to get the people of Myanmar to embrace one another and work together as one for the greater good of the nation.
“Singapore, of course, continues to encourage all parties, including the Myanmar government and the international community, who hand-in-hand can foster a long-term solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Its position is that those directly responsible ensure the safety and protection of all people, regardless of race or religion.”
Some have also commented that we should care about Singapore and not the Rohingyas. To which Mr Ng replies: “This isn’t about caring for Singapore only or caring for the Rohingyas only. As some have rightly pointed out, we can do both and I intend to do both.
“I care deeply about Singapore and that is the reason I became an MP. And the Rohingya issue is one out of the many issues I focus on and have spoken up in Parliament about.”
As recently highlighted in the national media “the most vocal backbencher in Parliament”, Mr Ng has spoken up on a “swathe of issues – from gender equality to support for parents or premature and multiple babies – and for needy groups that have fallen through the aid cracks”.
‘WHERE IS ASEAN?’
After completing a fact-finding mission to Bangladesh, members of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) have called upon South-east Asian governments to take greater action to resolve the Rohingya crisis.
“Where is Asean? This is the question we kept hearing from everyone we met,” says APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP who headed the delegation. “We call on Asean to convene an urgent meeting of foreign ministers of all member states to discuss the crisis and establish a plan of action to resolve it.”
Former Thailand lawmaker Rachada Dhnadirek adds: “Asean countries must stop using the non-interference principle as an excuse for inaction. Financial commitment to support humanitarian assistance is critical, but it must be accompanied by pressure on the Myanmar military to end persecution that lies at the root of the crisis.”
Nearly five months into the Rohingya refugee crisis, UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) is increasingly worried about the deterioration of the overall protection environment in which refugees are living. In this environment, refugees face a multitude of protection risks, says Mr Ng.
CHALLENGING TIMES APPROACHING
Challenging times are inevitable. The monsoon season in southern Bangladesh has now ended and temperatures will soon decline. The average low for January is 15 degrees Celsius. While that temperature is moderate compared to many other regions, the lack of adequate clothing and shelter insulation makes refugees vulnerable to even modest declines in temperatures, especially at night.
“It’s the kids, who are 55 per cent of the Rohingya refugee population, who are particularly vulnerable,” says Mr Ng, who is also Chairman of Nee Soon Town Council. “So are the women and they represent more than half of all refugees in Bangladesh. An estimated 10 per cent are either disabled, have serious medical conditions or older persons at risk.”
Mr Ng reiterates that the “truth is that refugees are still traumatised by the violence that they fled”.
He adds: “Experiencing first-hand, instances of mass killings, summary executions and widespread abuse in Rakhine, most of the refugees are drained and emotionally distraught. They have suffered a lot during the crisis and are struggling to overcome the tribulations.
“The UN, too, must be allowed full access to the Rakhine state to monitor the repatriation processes. The world cannot afford to allow the honor and dignity of refugees to be violated – at any cost.”
Singaporeans must continue to be made aware of this issue. Remember: Our response matters to ensure the safety and stability for the future generations.