Entries by akmal.muhammad.f

How Does RED II Discriminate Indonesian and Malaysian Palm Oil Industry?

By Intan Tawaddada Ilaiha (Photo: World Resource Institute Indonesia)

The banning of Palm oil usage in the European Union ruins the economy of smallholder farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia. It remains the issue of poverty for developing countries to suffer.

In December 2018, the European Union revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED) called RED II, which bans the use of palm oil (WTO, 2018) and closes the opportunity for Indonesia and Malaysia to export their palm oil production. They maintain to use another biofuel such as sunflower oil that they start to produce themselves. The reason to ban the use of palm oil is that the European Union claims that the production of palm oil causes a lot of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Leaving the palm oil market in Indonesia and Malaysia makes the smallholder farmers suffer from being collapsed as Indonesia and Malaysia are the biggest exporters for European Countries. Almost 85 percent of palm oil in European Countries is from Indonesia and Malaysia. Moreover, palm oil is versatile if we compare it to other oil for cosmetics, pharmaceutical, food, fuel, etc.

The main reason to ban is because of bad practices of palm oil plantation. The fact is that palm oil-producing countries have done so much to solve this issue such as the commitment of reforestation, conservation, research, and also the stricter certification for sustainable palm oil industry such as ISPO (Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil) Certification, MSPO (Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil) Certification, and RSPO (Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil). It is called discrimination because in RED II they do not give a clear explanation about how a sustainable plantation should be. There is no such amount of how large the plantation is. So, no matter how hard Indonesia and Malaysia have tried to prove that they have improved their palm oil production sustainability, it will be no use since the European Union will claim the whole production of palm oil as a non-sustainable production that will damage our environment.

The problems remain with the ban and the significant difference of palm oil tariffs in Europe. The Netherlands maintains its partnership with Indonesia and Malaysia to buy palm oil. The Netherlands is one of the countries in the European Union territory that does not want to bind its regulation with the RED II result. The Netherlands itself is also a producing country of palm oil, but they can sell their palm oil at way higher prices in the European Union Countries. The difference is around USD 150 per-metric ton (CPOPC, 2020), it remains unfair since we can say that the Netherlands palm oil is mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia. The tariffs sanctions exist because the European Union claims Indonesia and Malaysia have bad practices of palm oil plantation. Under the same logic, it means the Netherlands also distributes the palm oil that has the chain of bad practices palm oil plantation, but why does the Netherlands not have the same tariffs sanctions? So, the European Union proclaimed aim to stop the deforestation of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests by giving them tariffs sanctions is questionable.

From 9 December 2019 to 2 November 2020, Indonesia has requested consultation in WTO to talk about the palm oil dispute (WTO, 2020). Other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Norway, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States reserved their third-party rights in that consultation (ibid). Nevertheless, the palm oil settlement dispute remains unclear for Indonesia, Malaysia, and the European Union. This means that the future of smallholder farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia remains unclear as well.

This whole regulation from the European Union will give no benefit at all to Indonesia and Malaysia. Nevertheless, I can assure you that banning palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia will give no benefit the decreasing global warming and climate change. The whole world will rely on Indonesia and Malaysia for its reforestation to the lungs of the world. At the same time, they also give no benefit at all to Indonesia and Malaysia with a ban from the European Union. How can the world expect Indonesia and Malaysia somehow to change its palm oil plantation into a complete forest by giving them sanctions? The people in Indonesia and Malaysia especially smallholder farmers of palm oil are suffering from this regulation while the world forces them to change their lifestyle and jobs drastically. Furthermore, there is no such guarantee if the European Union leaves the Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil market and they will change its plantation into the forest due to the economy of hundreds of smallholder farmers. The worst case scenario will find another market apart from the European Union Countries market to survive and we cannot guarantee this new market will demand sustainability. We are sure if Indonesia and Malaysia still try their best for a sustainable palm oil industry even though the new market will not demand sustainability. But it is really unfair because Indonesia and Malaysia do not get the reward they deserve for trying their best to sustain the sustainable palm oil industry amid economic setback due to the coronavirus outbreak.

At the end of the day, saving the environment has to be everyone’s commitment on this whole planet due to our existence, and we all take advantage of it. It is a selfish act to leave this issue to Indonesia and Malaysia just because the forests are located there while we all take advantage of it no matter what country we live. Then, we close our eyes when their smallholder farmers are suffering from the impact of discrimination regulation. We cannot leave the palm oil market, but we can demand to reform the palm oil market to be a better one.

Intan Tawaddada Ilaiha is a Final Year Student of Communication Science from the Social and Political Faculty in Universitas Sebelas Maret. She concerns about low politics, international relations, and humanitarian issues.

Press Release – Webinar “Solidifying the Role of Think Tanks and CSOs in the Advocacy to Strengthen the ASEAN Commission of Women and Children (ACWC)”

Yogyakarta, 8 October 2020.

On Thursday, 8 October 2020, ASEAN Studies Center UGM held a webinar under the theme of Solidifying the Role of Think Tanks and CSOs in the Advocacy to Strengthen the ASEAN Commission of Women and Children (ACWC). The webinar, with the support of Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and FORUM-ASIA, was held online via YouTube at 9am. The webinar was held to launch the Report on the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) +10 titled Assessing the Commission’s Impact on Protecting Women and Children’s Right in ASEAN, composed by FORUM-ASIA.

The webinar invited five keynote speakers, namely Rachel Arinii Judhistasari (FORUM-ASIA East Asia and ASEAN Advocacy Programme Manager), Sri Danti Anwar (Indonesia’s ACWC Representative for Women’s Right), Yuyum Fhahni Paryani (Indonesia’s ACWC Representative for Children’s Rights), Yuyun Wahyuningrum (Representative of Indonesia to the AICHR), and Agustina Kustulasari (Senior Fellow, ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada).

The webinar commenced with opening remarks by Dafri Agussalim as Executive Director of ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada, and Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA. Dafri highlighted the importance of protection of women and children as they are also part of the community. Following these remarks, the Report on Assessing the Commission’s Impact on Protecting Women and Childrens Right in ASEAN was officially launched.

The webinar, question, and answer session was moderated by Rita Serena Kolibonso.

The first speaker, Rachel Arinii Judhistasari, explained the findings within the Report with a highlight on the need for a robust regional mechanism to address human rights violations and discrimination. Although the mandate of ACWC includes balancing rights and responsibility, a pretext of religion and socio-cultural norms which often detrimental to children and women’s rights, this has yet to take form. The Report also suggested the importance of solidifying the role of CSOs across the region to support the work of ACWC.

The second speaker representing ACWC (women), Sri Danti Anwar, stated that 15 programs focusing on gender mainstreaming and strengthening human protection had successfully been achieved. Still, further plans need to be carried out, including eliminating violence against women and drafting the standard and protocol guidelines for ACWC. However, these initiatives were not without challenges. There remains a looming gap between the socio-cultural, economic, and political-security communities that often work in silo.

Similar to the effort of the ACWC (women), as specified by Yuyum Fhahni Paryani representing ACWC (children), the implementation of the current ACWC Work Plan 2016-2020 is an effort to be in step with a contemporary trend in the region in these fast-changing times. The next work plan’s strategic initiative would explore a “life-cycle” approach to take a more in-depth look at the needs of women and children in particular. This approach would ensure that they are advocated for and will not be left behind.

Meanwhile, Yuyun Wahyuningrum highlighted synergy efforts between AICHR, ACWC, and CSOs to further the agenda of gender mainstreaming in ASEAN. The creation of regionalization allows us to organize cooperation talks about the rights of women and children. In terms of ASEAN, to develop the standard, states need a space and interconnection through intergovernmental models that centralize on states’ initiatives.

It is also essential to understand similar ratifications pertaining to the rights of women and children, such as Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as Agustina Kustulasari presented in her findings. However, ASEAN’s moves have been slow-paced, particularly in areas of policy-making and implementation. It is challenged mostly by the non-intervention principle and peer-pressure. To address this issue, she suggested the involvement of other strategic policy actors such as the media to play their vital role as a potent agent in shaping the language of gender and the role of academia to provide an academic approach in addressing the challenges of ACWC.

The following are key points summarized from the Question and Answer session, namely: CSOs and think-tanks have to work closer if more advocative policies are to be developed in the future, the importance of distinguishing particular groups to identify their specific needs in the society, such as domestic violence victims during the lockdown, inclusive education to respond to mixed migration, mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 to women and children, and to monitor ASEAN member states’ response to these issues and further develop policy framework through AICHR. These points will be taken into account when establishing the forthcoming working paper.

Challenges and Prospects for Korea’s New Southern Policy

By Truston Yu (Picture: The Republic of Korea Cheong Wa Dae)

On 9 November 2017, President Moon Jae-in announced the New Southern Policy (NSP), a new “core diplomatic initiative” aimed at building closer ties between the Republic of Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states as well as India. Three years after the formulation of this policy, there remain certain obstacles for Korea’s agenda. On the flip side, Korea has great potential in deepening its ties with Southeast Asia.

There is a long history of interactions between Korea and the Southeast Asian region. The 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-ROK Dialogue Relations was celebrated in 2019 with a Commemorative Summit in Busan. Korea has participated in the ASEAN+3 grouping since 1997, and the ASEAN-Korea Centre was subsequently inaugurated in 2009. Despite such a track record, Korea’s role in Southeast Asia is often overshadowed by its two larger neighbors.

Southeast Asia is an emerging market with a combined population greater than the European Union and a gross domestic product (GDP) of around US$3 trillion in 2018. ASEAN is the fifth-largest economy in the world and will continue to grow. For these reasons, many countries have been eager to foster relations with the region. Japan is one of the earliest to do so, playing a significant role in the modernization of Southeast Asian countries; China has its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative; even Taiwan has a New Southbound Policy since 2016.

The traditional focus of Korea’s foreign policy has been the participants of the Six-Party Talks: China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Since his election, Moon Jae-in has shown great interest in Korea’s neighbors to the south: “For the first time as a sitting president of the Republic of Korea, I visited all 10 ASEAN member states in just over two years.” The NSP was announced within months after Moon’s inauguration, and its current brochure states that they intend to elevate Korea-ASEAN relations to the “same level Korea maintains with the four major powers”.

However, Korea is rather “late in the game”; and unlike Belt and Road or the Asian Development Bank, Korea’s NSP still has not become a household name yet. Japan has established a long presence in the region, assisting with railroads and other infrastructure; the influential and wealthy Chinese diaspora network has acted as a bridge between their countries and Chinese corporations. The policy sector in Korea lacks people who are rooted in Southeast Asian expertise.

As one of the four Asian Tigers, Korea’s rapid economic growth is a role model that Southeast Asian countries are eager to emulate. The Mekong-Han River Declaration for Establishing Partnership for People, Prosperity and Peace was signed at the 1st Mekong-ROK Summit, featuring the Mainland Southeast Asian states: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – a region which Korea has a bigger presence in as compared to Maritime Southeast Asia. It is as if the title of this Declaration alludes to Korea’s “Miracle on the Han”, hinting that collaboration with Korea could facilitate a “Miracle on the Mekong”.

The Korean Wave, also known as Hallyu, has taken root in the Southeast Asian region. In Thailand and Vietnam, the influences of Hallyu are evident in the styles of actors and singers. Southeast Asian e-commerce giant Shopee featured Korean girl group BLACKPINK in its birthday advertisement in Indonesia, which became controversial following complaints about the “failure to adhere to decency norms”. Immediately, this resulted in a huge backlash from Indonesian K-pop fans, again reflecting the popularity of Korean pop culture. As such, Korea could be said to have the highest cultural capital in Asia. This soft power leads to greater awareness of Korea among Southeast Asians, which is advantageous for its New Southern Policy.

On the other hand, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is also a unique opportunity for Korea to distinguish itself as a reliable partner. Korea is one of the most successful Asian countries in the fight against the virus. They once had the highest number of confirmed cases outside China, with the Southeastern city of Daegu referred to by some as “the Second Wuhan”. Through high transparency and aggressive testing, Korea has been able to squash the curve effectively. Seoul, the capital city, was never in a lockdown; Korea even managed to hold the National Assembly elections on 15 April as originally scheduled. Korea’s success has won international applause, and they are sharing technical expertise and resources to Southeast Asian countries. A webinar co-organized by the Korea Foundation and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, for example, featured the Korean Ambassador to Indonesia and a health expert from the Seoul National University College of Medicine. The private sector has also been lending a hand – the LG group donated some 50,000 PCR COVID-19 test kits to Indonesia. Though some may claim that there is a political factor, support from Korea for this pandemic could only be beneficial to Southeast Asia.

Korea expects to start its New Southern Policy 2.0 in 2021; the successful continuation and enhancement of the policy would require more connections built between Korea and Southeast Asia. It is imperative that both sides work together to nurture a new generation that is well-versed in both regions. Fortunately, the wave of Hallyu has already drawn many Southeast Asian youngsters to Korea, a proportion of which are scholarship recipients. As this generation enters the workforce, the NSP could be perpetuated by a new class of transnational leaders.


Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. His primary research interest is Southeast Asian Studies, including the concept of regional identity. He could be reached at their e-mail: trustonyuofficial@gmail.com

Press Release – Bincang ASEAN: “Challenges for Indonesia and ASEAN”

Yogyakarta, 3 July 2020

The fourth edition of Bincang ASEAN Webinar was held on Thursday, 23rd July 2020. Co-hosted by the ASEAN Studies Center and the Coordinating Ministry of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs (Kemenkopolhukam), the event invited five keynote speakers namely: H.E. Ambassador Chilman Arisman (Chief Diplomat of the Directorate of ASEAN political and security cooperation), Dr. Dafri Agussalim (Executive Director of ASC UGM), Dinna Prapto Raharja Ph.D. (Associate professor Binus University), and Abdullah Zulkifli, S.T, M.Si (Assistant Deputy of ASEAN Cooperation at the Ministry of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs. The topic of the webinar is “Anticipating traditional and non-traditional security threat in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic: Challenges for Indonesia and ASEAN”.

The webinar was started with opening remarks from H.E. Ambassador Dr. Lutfi Rauf. He spoke on the economic threat the region faces following the pandemic with the potential to reach a recession, the need for robust cooperation as traditional and non-traditional threat looms after this pandemic and the ASEAN strength in fending off infighting as geopolitical terrain shifts after the pandemic. Following the remarks, Dr. Wawan Mas’udi gave an opening remark as a representative from the Faculty of Social and Political Science Universitas Gadjah Mada. He touched upon the function of academia in knowledge production through academic work in supporting the efforts of handling the pandemic. He also reminded that being a natural leader, Indonesia should be in the front guard in arranging the regional framework to handle COVID-19 cases.

The topics discussed within the webinar are divided into four parts. First, in achieving regional stability, the pillar of the political security of ASEAN must be strengthened as great power competition re-emerges. ASEAN needs to show unity and resilience through the existing framework of political cooperation. Second, ASEAN has several modalities in operating the framework of cooperation in the health sector following the pandemic. The international regime model coined by Koremenos, Lipson, & Snidal (2001) has been used to measure the effectiveness of handling the pandemic. However, the implementation of such a model still leaves incongruities. Thus, ASEAN is given the opportunity to enhance further cooperation, especially in handling the pandemic. Third, there are several commonalities in the interest of ASEAN and Indonesia in maritime security and non-traditional security. The transnational crime could see an increase if states are focused on traditional security threats. Cooperation is an integral part of the safety and security of all member states of ASEAN. Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the scarcity of resources resulting in a larger potential for conflicts. ASEAN could be threatened by such conflict as competition for resources between member states is inevitable. However, member states should uphold the ASEAN cooperation in politics and economy to deter such imminent conflicts.

The biggest challenge for ASEAN is massive uncertainty on all parts. However, the crisis is not parallel to chaos as countries are not faced against one another directly but are struggling to take on the problems faced within. The three components of ASEAN: trust, relevance, and a binding identity, could be the key to maintaining the efficacy of ASEAN’s framework to deal with challenges coming ahead.


By Alifa Salsabila, SH (Picture: Council on Foreign Relations)

In April 2020, the Rohingyas were denied entry to Malaysia due to the country’s fear over Covid-19 transmission. Recently, around a hundred people of the Rohingyas reached Indonesian soil and are locally received by Indonesian citizens while the government has not yet decided any further legal nor diplomatic action aside from having them (the Rohingyas) in Aceh.

The Rohingyas, for the past few years, have become quite a concern of the international community. They were first labeled as “boat people,” signifying phenomena of hundreds of people struggling to reach the nearest shores outside of their home country, Myanmar, which later were identified as the “Rohingyas.” Geographically, the Southeast Asian neighboring countries such as India, Thailand, and Indonesia are the nearest runaways for them.

But it is miserable to learn that the phenomena of the ‘running away Rohingyas’—which have been discovered by international media for more than ten years ago—are still happening today as efforts on diplomatic progress to end oppressions toward the Rohingyas are running sluggish. At the regional level, ASEAN focuses to repatriate hundreds of the Rohingyas. But this effort would never be enough to resolve the case. This article would provide a different approach in helping out the Rohingyas under the ambit of international criminal law.

Roots of the Problem

There are many facets to explain the oppressions to Rohingyas. But all might agree that the oppressions toward them are rooted in the long-time dispute over Myanmar’s historical records that delivers a contestation over the Rohingyas’ legal status whether they are considered as an indigenous group of Myanmar or a group of foreign settlers coming to reside in the country throughout the nineteenth century (Irish Center for Human Rights, 2010).

Myanmar’s government and citizens refer to the Rohingyas as “Bengalis”. For them, the “Bengalis” are groups of Indian laborers and merchants migrating from India hundreds of years ago during the British colonial rule and making them (the Rohingyas) considered as “illegal immigrants” (Southwick, 2018) who take advantages to reside in Myanmar. The Rohingyas are thus known to be the most persecuted minority group in the world (Mohajan, 2018).

In its early days, the oppression toward the Rohingyas was led by an operation in May 1978. The government of Myanmar—having the military backup—launched a fatal operation called “Naga-Min” or translated as “Dragon-Min” Operation whose order was to dispel as many illegal immigrants as possible found residing in Myanmar, which by all means, included the Rohingyas. Arguably, the operation had the Rohingyas as their primary targets (Khairi, 2019). The operation has since then always led and developed the oppressions to the Rohingyas until today.

On the other hand, it is unfortunate to learn that the oppressions to the Rohingyas are driven and fueled by ‘Buddhist nationalism.’ Buddhist nationalism first emerged in Myanmar as a response to fight against the British colonial rule in the region. Back then, Buddhist nationalism significantly contributed to the country’s fight by mobilizing the people of Myanmar—who were referred as the Burmese—through identifying and embracing their Burmese culture whose majority were—and still are—Buddhists. Today, Buddhist nationalism is arguably no longer a pack of cultural values nor historical memories associated with Buddhism. Buddhist nationalism has been brought into contestation over ‘life and death’ matter in which the country’s economics and politics are taking significant parts in. It has now changed the cultural-historical records into narratives of an unbalanced local economic growth and security issues between Myanmar’s citizens in general and the Rohingyas. It is also learned that Buddhist nationalism, in a way, provokes the fear of Islamophobia that Moslem people in Myanmar—which fundamentally signifies the presence of the Rohingyas—would one day take over the country and thus people have to prevent this from happening.

As result, the Rohingyas have been suffering from many kinds of discrimination and a wide range of abuses for so many years. They are denied citizenship rights, limited access to education, healthcare, freedom of mobility, and even giving births (Khairi, 2019). In other cases, they are also suffering from deportation and forced transfer and displacement, rapes, and sexual violence. But, among these all, one form of oppression is less identified than the rest: forced labor that indicates enslavement. As a side note, both forced labor and enslavement are identified as crimes, international crimes, and forms of modern slavery (Siller, 2016).

Forced Labor: Enslavement as A Crime Against Humanity and A Form of Modern Slavery

Enslavement to the Rohingyas is carried out in the form of forced labor. According to the Rome Statute, enslavement is as a crime against humanity which is widely and systematically committed against civilians—which in the case of the Rohingyas is. As enslavement, ‘forced labor’ here is understood as a form oppression that does not target a particular person nor group of people, rather people in general as “civilian population.” The ‘forced labor’ here distinguishes itself from a ‘mere’ forced labor which purely targets workers based on exploitation for profit orientation (money and pleasure) of the employers that takes place in common workplaces.

The legal framework of forced labor as enslavement could be found in Article 7(2)(c) of the Rome Statute. In the Rome Statute, enslavement is explained as “the exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person and includes the exercise of such power in the course of trafficking in persons, in particular women and children.” Historically—prior to having the International Criminal Court (ICC) established—enslavement was included as a crime against humanity in the Article 6(c) of the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, the Nuremberg Principles (Principle VI), Control Council Law No. 10, Article 5 of the statute of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and Article 3 of the statute of the International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). It is known that in the ICTY, the judgment of the Krnojelac case decided that “enslavement constituted a crime under customary international law.” The Chamber reiterated that “forced labor, when operating outside of the permissible exceptions under international humanitarian and human rights law, is an established indicator of enslavement.”

In the Rakhine State, the enslavement of the Rohingyas is committed by NaSaKa, a security force formed by the Myanmar government (Southwick, 2018). The enslavement is carried out in the forms of labors that could be conducted seasonal or perennial, including (but not limited to) construction of roads, bridges, model villages and military facilities, camp maintenance, guard and security functions, forced cultivation and agricultural laboring, and even arbitrary taxation. The labors do not distinguish gender roles nor ages—a male or a female and a child or an adult—each of the Rohingyas has to endure the misconduct, difficulties, and mistreatment in their workplace (Farzana, 2017) which the government officials claim are done voluntarily. Consequently, this form of oppression situates the Myanmar authorities namely government officials and military apparatus as the alleged perpetrators (Lee, 2019). This situation seemingly answers questions upon why and how oppressions to the Rohingyas have been so legit to be carried out for long.

Furthermore, forced labor as enslavement is articulating a practice or form of “slavery.” According to Article 1(a) of the 1926 Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery, slavery is defined as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” Forced labor delivers a particular realm of modern slavery, slavery-like practices, or contemporary forms of slavery (Allain, 2012). Forced labor becomes the root to identify enslavement as a form of modern slavery, which in the ambit of international law, is customary and strictly prohibited. Having laws forbidding forced labor began along with the commitment of ending slavery as well as practices similar to it.

At the end of the day, even though Myanmar is a non-state party to the Rome Statute, the path to serve justice to the Rohingyas does not end just yet. International law—specifically, international criminal law—provides other options and mechanism to still hold these perpetrators responsible, through the ICC or other courts having international legal personality. As efforts to try the perpetrators from a non-state party at the ICC might sound difficult (but is not impossible), perhaps ASEAN needs to utilize its own body and commitment first. Because apparently, its very own regional mechanism is not able to take enough part in solving the problem, let alone addressing the roots of it, since everything seems to be blocked by the non-interference principle ASEAN is very proud to perform.

As part of the community, the Rohingyas should have had ASEAN as their utmost sanctuary following Myanmar’s failure in providing the protection needed. It has been a common sense in international law that even the non-intervention principle should never be applicable to exceptional circumstances as in humanitarian crises such as what happens to the Rohingyas. The forced labor of the Rohingyas—as a crime against humanity and a portrayal of modern slavery—is among exceptional circumstances needing immediate responses to overcome the emergencies. Therefore, ASEAN does need another approach in resolving the case.


The forced labor here is understood as enslavement. As enslavement, it requires perpetrators to have the crime widely and systematically committed to civilian population rather than to a particular person or group of people, as well as the emphasis on power as an oppression rather an exploitation—and that it targets the Rohingyas—making it categorized as a crime against humanity. At the same time, forced labor is included in slavery-like practices. Moreover, having enslavement as a form of modern slavery could also strengthen the legal framework of international criminal law to prosecute the perpetrators, end the oppression to the Rohingyas, and ‘serve justice to the table.’ Despites the diversities ASEAN has in carrying out the technicalities, forced labor as enslavement articulates modern slavery, common senses, and universalities which international community—including ASEAN—should admit and uphold.

Alifa Salsabila, SH is an American Studies graduate student at Universitas Gadjah Mada. Currently, Alifa is a research intern in Research Division, ASEAN Studies Center UGM. Alifa could be reached at her email: alifafauziar@mail.ugm.ac.id.


Allain, Jean. (2012). The International Legal Regime of Slavery and Human Exploitation and its Obfuscation by the Term of Art: “Slavery-like Practice”. Civilian Research Development Foundation, 27-42.

Farzana, Kahzi Fahmida. (2017). Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees, Contested Identity and Belonging. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Irish Centre for Human Rights. (2010). Crimes against Humanity in Western Burma: The Situation of the Rohingyas.

Khairi, Aizat. (2019). Supply Chain and Human Trafficking of Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia. International Journal of Innovative Technology and Exploring Engineering 9, 4561-4565.

Lee, Ronan. (2019). Myanmar’s Citizenship Law as State Crime: A Case for the International Criminal Court. State Crime Journal 8(2), 241-279.

Mohajan, Haradhan Kumar. (2018). History of Rakhine State and the Origin of the Rohingya Muslims”. IKAT: The Indonesian Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 2(1), 19-46.

Siller, Nicole. (2016). Does International Law Distinguish between Slavery, Enslavement and Trafficking?”. Journal of International Criminal Justice 14, 405-427.

Southwick, Katherine. (2018). Straining to Prevent the Rohingya Genocide: A Sociology of Law Perspective. Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 12, 119-142.

Rejection to the Rohingyas: Reimagining the Law, With or Without A Pandemic

By Alifa Salsabila, SH (Picture: The Diplomat)

“Unaccepted where they are, unable to return whence they came” by Leon Gordenker (1987, p. 213) is articulating what had just happened in Malaysian maritime territory on April 26, 2020. The situation depicted the Rohingyas refugees and asylum seekers feeling Myanmar trying to reach Malaysian shores were denied entry to the country and sent back to the sea, which later was “received” by Bangladesh authorities. The rejection was based on the country’s consideration of pandemic, which resulted in the “fear of Covid-19 infection,” as the Malaysian officials said. Unfortunately, the attention of a pandemic and the excuse of fear of the infection could not justify and eliminate the Malaysian international responsibility to this international humanitarian issue and justify its indecorous and inappropriate action to the Rohingyas.

Arguably, refugees and asylum seekers are the living individuals whom the international community is committed to safeguarding, for the sustain of “jus cogens.” In international law, jus cogens is often interpreted as a compelling norm and is considered to have the highest position or primary source of norms governing international relations. This concept gives rise to the view that there are norms in international law that cannot be excluded under any circumstances (Brownlie, 1998, p. 515) so that in the event of conflict whereas jus cogens and other norms meet, the norm that has the degree of jus cogens must be the first and foremost prioritized one without questioning other stances such as whether different norms are more specific than the jus cogens ones (Saraswati, 2017, p. 166).

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

On the very basis, asylum seekers are individuals who seek international protection based on particular reasons, consideration, and have not yet been granted any statuses of asylum. Meanwhile, refugees are people who, by and under international (refugee) law, are granted the status of “refugee” after being forced to flee their home country due to safety and life-threatening persecutions that endanger their lives and well-being based on specific reasons limited only to persecutions based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion which transform “them” into becoming the international community’s responsibility and put them monitored under the international legal regime. The status of “refugee” articulates a failure that the home country performs: the inability or unwillingness to provide a good, decent living environment and protection for people who once were their national responsibility. Hence, refugees are struggling to find other kinds of protections just to survive the harsh life they have been experienced. And morally speaking, this kind of protection is what the international legal regime creates to provide and is being demanded by the international community: international protection to the refugees and the asylum seekers. But, the cases of refugees and asylum seekers like Rohingyas are being rejected due to a fear of infection, another failure then evidently arises in the realm of the international community.

“The Rejection Over Fear” and “Obligation to Proper Responses”

An expert explains, “pandemics of infectious disease are not just events in which some infectious ‘bug’ spreads throughout the world. Pandemics are events in which the population’s psychological reactions to infection play an essential role in both the spreading, containment of the disease, and influence the extent to which widespread emotional distress and social disorder occur” (Taylor, 2019, p. 2). In other words, it is very natural for people to worry about their health, safety, and well-being in the face of a pandemic and perform different behavior from the normal standards which are driven by their psychological forces in a pandemic. But critically speaking, with or without a pandemic, are not these things the small parts of human nature that refugees and asylum seekers perform? They are solely struggling to survive the life itself.

Many people outline domestic problems such as security, economies, and cultures when taking in refugees and asylum seekers. But not many have outlined its international framework and how it is supposed to be under the international legal regime. International law is demanding the international community to provide international protection as its global responsibility.

But theoretically speaking, the failure to respond fleeing refugees coming to territories of other sovereigns is, most of the time, determined by “the political and international nature of the problem” (Haddad, 2008, p. 3). Consequently, this situation is adding another failure to the existing one with the country’s inability and unwillingness to protect the refugees and the asylum seekers at the very first place. International protection, hence, becomes the most needed response to fill in the absence of national protection, for at the very least, until a new nationality is obtained.

International Responsibility

In international law, responsibility is divided into “liability” and “answerability.” As liability, responsibility is understood as an entity that has violated its obligations and becomes liable to be held responsible by receiving “negative response” such as “punishment, censure, or enforced compensation,” and as answerability, responsibility is explained as “not necessarily imply that a wrong has been done since a person may respond to a charge by offering a valid justification for their conduct, thereby deflecting any imputation of wrongdoing” (Janmyr, 2013, p. 105).

International Protection

International protection can be understood through various interpretations and standards. But generally speaking, as being defined by the UN Security Council, “protection” can mean physical protection, legal protection, general assistance, or “protection by publicity” which at the end of the day, it makes international protection can be understood as a protection that sets out a common ground of protection to the well-being of the protected.

The Rohingyas, Malaysia, International, and ASEAN Community

The Rohingyas are a Muslim, ethnic, minority group residing in Rakhine State, Western Myanmar (Mohajan, 2018, p. 19) bordering Bangladesh. Not only the life of the Rohingyas are put at stake, but it is also learned that the term “the Rohingyas” alone, which refers to this particular minority group sharing the same identity, has been disputable since the very beginning of the Rohingyas presence in the country. For Myanmar’s government and most of the citizens, the Rohingyas are referred as “Bengalis,” which identifies the origins of Rohingyas as laborers and merchants who were migrating from India to Myanmar in the nineteenth century under the British colonial rule and making them, the Rohingyas, is then believed to be “illegal immigrants” (Southwick, 2018, p. 119) residing in Myanmar.

Malaysia, as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is also tied to the burden and responsibility to respect the ASEAN Community. By rejecting entry to the Rohingyas, who were not able to choose where they were heading to only to seek sanctuary, arguably, Malaysia is also neglecting the ASEAN Community itself.

As a matter of fact, the refugee movements of the Rohingyas in the ASEAN region are not a “new problem” in ASEAN Community. Yet, none of the focuses of the ASEAN Community has ever really touched the urgency to solve this “problem” of persecutions to the Rohingyas. On the other hand, Myanmar, as the home country of the Rohingyas as well as a member of ASEAN, insists on keeping the matters of the Rohingyas as domestic and internal, which implies the manner of “non-intervention” that ASEAN long keeps and preserves.

The absence of a regional human rights mechanism in ASEAN itself is, directly and indirectly, driving and keeping the lack of human rights issues addressing within the region. ASEAN is “geographically, politically, and culturally too diverse for human rights to be managed effectively by a single overarching mechanism”—adding another obstacle in solving the Rohingyas “problem” through ASEAN way as well as in ASEAN Community—which is quite contradictory to human rights values that are based on and demand universality.

As a part of the international community, even though Malaysia is a non-state party to the 1951 Convention and thereby is not, by treaty, legally bound to the Convention, Malaysia is still bound to the principle of non-refoulment that is embedded in the Convention. The principle functions as a (customary international) law that puts Malaysia to still be obligated to respect the law, as Malaysia is a part of the international community and also the ASEAN Community.

Media coverage, in fact, has recorded that many Rohingyas who fled their home country, Myanmar, were already “thrown here and there” by neighboring countries due to rejection against them long before the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak. Even though on the surface, it seems that the fear over pandemic is understandable, in its foundation, the response of rejection is not to be carried out. Therefore, the rejection of the Rohingyas due to fear of infection is utterly unjustified.


Malaysia is bound to the international responsibility to provide international protection to refugees and asylum seekers to extent and degree that are relevant for a non-state party to the 1951 Convention in commitment and accordance to the international legal regime. With or without a pandemic, it can never efface the trait of “refugees” and “asylum seekers” in an international landscape that they become the living reminder of international responsibility to a failed system of a country that takes place in modern society as well as a reminder to us as parts of the international community that we are not going to fail our shared system too.

Alifa Salsabila, SH is an American Studies graduate student at Universitas Gadjah Mada. Currently, Alifa is a research intern in Research Division, ASEAN Studies Center UGM. Alifa could be reached at her email: alifafauziar@mail.ugm.ac.id.

The Achilles Heel: Disputes Between ASEAN Member State

By Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman (Picture: Peter Paul Rubens)

This essay will discuss intra-ASEAN regional disputes and their impact on more significant economic and political integration in the region. Since ASEAN was built in 1967 by the first five countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines (and then joined Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Myanmar and Laos in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999), ASEAN has to face the challenges of political security and economic instability. ASEAN came to aim at promoting economic growth, social and cultural development, and strengthening security in the Southeast Asian region. This condition led to the formation of ASEAN by signing an Amity and Cooperation Agreement, which involved principles and norms upheld by every ASEAN member to date, including respecting any sovereignty, not interfering in other members’ domestic matters, and consensus agreements. In fact, until the late 1990s, ASEAN was recognized as a successful organization in hiding problems such as territorial disputes between ASEAN members and conflicts in Cambodia (although not yet members) through informal and formal means or the so-called “ASEAN Way.”

Nevertheless, a dispute in disguise is still a dispute, and states could not just abandon it altogether. Unlike the dispute between ASEAN member states and the People’s Republic of China, this dispute has a little airing time on the mass media. However, the minimum coverage that it got was not proportional to the effect that it imposes towards the unity of ASEAN. These disputes create distrust and malign intentions between member states, which leads towards an emerging security dilemma to compel each state in arming themselves against the possibility of aggression from the others. This intra-ASEAN security dilemma, in return, hinders a cohesive and united response towards external security challenges, such as the South China Sea dispute.

The foundation of the emerging security dilemma could be traced to the suspicion that each contending states have suspicion over one other. Ever since the European states colonized Southeast Asia, the modern-day state border was established based upon the lines that the colonizers made of them. In other words, the ethnic and religious groups that live in a particular area would be separated by the border without their considerations or opinion.  For instance, the current separatist movement in the Pattani region of Southern Thailand is rebelling since the majority of people that live in that area are predominantly Muslims and Malays, whereas the majority that live in Thailand were Buddhist and Thais.  Moreover, the region used to be a sovereign nation called “The Sultanate of Patani” until Thailand invade and annex the region under the Burney Treaty. Hence, tension still exists between Thailand and Malaysia over the insurgency in Southern Thailand, and ASEAN prefers to keep the issue of the discussion in its meetings or summits.

Similarly, the issue of North Borneo is also contested by Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Malaysia and Indonesia are conflicting to determine the sovereignty of Ambalat island, and several incidents have erupted where the armed forces of both nations are involved in a military confrontation.  On the other hand, the Philippines and Malaysia are still disputing the status over the State of Sabah, as Manila claims that the province was leased towards the British North Borneo Company while Malaysian believes that the 1878 Agreement was a transfer of sovereignty.  In 2013, a military conflict occurred between the Malaysian Royal Armed Forces and the militants loyal to King Jamalul Kiram III of the Sultanate of Sulu, based in the southern Philippines. As a result, these developments raise a sense of insecurity between the three nations and force them to restraint themselves in the ASEAN to preserve order and stability in the region. Even then, the Southeast Asian states still have to deal with the Chinese onslaught in the South China Sea. With China building military bases in the Spratlys and Paracels, Beijing is directly confronting Southeast Asian claimant states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

Even though the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is present and active, its implementation by signatories states could be seen as a deviation from its original purposes, such as the recent standoff between the Chinese oil survey ships and the Vietnamese coastguard. With the tension boiling in the region, the United States intervene under the pretext of ‘maintaining the freedom of navigation’ as stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. By sailing its Carrier Battle Group through the South China Sea and conducting naval exercises with ASEAN member states, America has challenged the Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea by conducting a show of force of its military might. In other words, the U.S. can attack Chinese installation in the South China Sea and increase suspicion in Beijing about the real U.S. intention.  Therefore, all stakeholders in the South China Sea issue have suspicion towards each other. If this situation is not addressed, then the region would face a similar fate that it endures in the Colonial era: chaotic, divided, and conquered.

Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman is an International Undergraduate Program student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, majoring in International Relations with a concentration on Global Politics and Security (GPS). Currently, he serves as a Research Division Intern at ASEAN Studies Center UGM. He could be contacted through email: fadhilf50@gmail.com

Sustainable Fisheries in Southeast Asia: A Long Way to Go

By Fadilah Rahma (Picture: Blue Growth)

The fisheries industry plays a vital role in the ASEAN economy. The region has been a significant producer of fish and other fish products, where it accounted for a quarter of fish production globally. It has also served as a vital source and a key contributor to rural livelihood, export revenue for several billion dollars in GDP, and even the food security for the region. However, its significance does not always result in a good cause. The hurdle insists, such as the problem of Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that still happens region-wide. More than that, the human rights issue that has been lingering among the workers in the fishing industry, especially migrant workers, is another issue that subsists in the region for decades. Still, there is very little progress in addressing them despite the demand and supply in the industry that is growing substantially.


A windy, and rocky road to sustainability

IUU is a notable threat to the exploitation of the world’s fisheries resources, which attributes to many problems that lie within in achieving sustainable fishers. As one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, ASEAN is in a vulnerable state. Threatened by overfishing and destructive fishing, the data shows that 64 percent of the fisheries’ resource base in the region is at a medium to high risk, affecting Cambodia and the Philippines the most.

The  Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Index, as an index that benchmark countries according to both of their exposure and response to the problem of IUU, showing that four of the ASEAN member states include in the ten worst performing countries for coastal state responsibility, with Vietnam as the worst. While the maps, ranking tables, and country profiles on the IUU Fishing Index in 2019 provide indicator scores for all individual countries for different combinations of indicator groups, Indonesia and Cambodia are in the particular concern on all features. Both are part of the ten worst-performing countries in regards to two out of three indicator types.

Some ASEAN member states were also facing trouble because of its pervasive problem to the extent of external trade. Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines have been given yellow cards from the European Commission in the past related to its poor fishing industry standards. It was revoked in January 2019 for Thailand and the Philippines, with Vietnam is at the pre-identification phase measure.

However, the problem does not end there. The lack of supervision, law enforcement, and management in the industry causes another major problem: the human rights violations that happened almost for years, and IUU is inextricably associated with the mater. Just about this year, in May 2020, the fishing industry has again raised concern about its working standard and conditions as a video allegedly showing Chinese sailors throwing a body overboard, which went viral. The victim was later found as an Indonesian migrant fishery worker. It is, of course, not only the problem of the affected countries, because historically speaking, ASEAN member states have a similar case that has not been settled thoroughly. For example, Thailand has been heavily criticized following reports of human and labor rights abuses in the fishing industry that happened in the region. The 2015 Benjina case also proved that there is still a failure of the regional mechanism, in combating the challenges.


An urgent need: regional collective action in the fishing industry

Achieving sustainable fisheries is not easy, of course. As it involves a major trans-boundary crime such as IUU and human rights abuses, ASEAN definitely needs a collective action done by its all member states. The weak law enforcement of fishing regulations, the lack of supervision among the regions, and the poor coordination on collective management fisheries are some of the homework that needs to be addressed.

So far, the actions that have been done by ASEAN are not yet enough, with very little progress has been made. The member states have pledged to enhance sustainable fishing through the ASEAN-Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) on regional cooperation forum in Thailand in 2016. But the implementation does not come with no challenge. From the violators that range from small scale actors to large-scale enterprises in the region, the excessive demands on the sectors have helped to sustain the practice of IUU, and maritime jurisdiction becomes tricky to address the problem. A further step has to be made, such as a synchronization of the national plans among the member states regarding the fisheries policies.

Other than that, the commitment among the member states to ensure the safety of the migrant fisheries worker also has not been declared collectively. For example, the convention of ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention C18, that addresses the major issues affecting workers on board fishing vessels, such as occupational safety and health, rest periods, written contracts, and social security protection is not yet ratified by most of ASEAN member states. Only Thailand is set to become the first country in ASEAN to ratify the convention.

To achieve the sustainable fisheries that are set to accomplish by at least in 2025, ASEAN can do better by adopting more science-based knowledge of the region’s marine ecosystem to help them having a strategic regional marine policy. Together, the member states can work side by side to combat IUU and human rights abuse as the problems can not be done unilaterally. Delaying the matters is the same as putting the life of migrant fisheries workers and our biodiversity in jeopardy, and we do not need any more victims to be sacrificed for the sake of fulfilling the demands in the industry.

Fadilah Rahma Nur R is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada, and currently is an intern under the program division at ASEAN Studies Center UGM. She is interested in environmental, animal welfare, and sustainability issues, mainly in Southeast Asia.

Indonesian “Total People’s Defense” Against Coronavirus

By Rafyoga Jehan Pratama Irsadanar and Muhammad Aziz Irfanuddin (Photo: Indonesian Ministry of Defense)

Unlike some other countries which utilize military measures to push the people to stay home under the social distancing plan, the Indonesian Minister of Defense, Prabowo Subianto makes a minimalist appearance in public. As others are deploying troops to prevent riots or to shoot lockdown offenders down, many have questioned the absence of Prabowo in the battle against coronavirus. The critics are asserted by the notion that COVID-19 is considered as a non-military threat against national security, in which people assume that it is within the Ministry of Defense domain to deal with. However, earlier in his administration, Minister Prabowo highlighted a concept of Total People’s Defense (Pertahanan Rakyat Semesta) as the central tenet for the national security. That military doctrine could be a sidekick to lead the people battling the outbreak.

Total People’s Defense and Coronavirus

The core idea of Indonesian Total People’s Defense was initially introduced in article 27 of the Indonesian 1945 Constitution, stating that every citizen has the right and obligation to defend the country. The principle was advanced in Indonesian Constitution no.3 of 2002 as it the article 2 states “the national defense system is a total defense system involving all citizens, territories and other national resources, and is prepared by the government and is carried out in a total, integrated, directed, and continuous manner to protect state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and nation’s security from all kind of threats.” In the sense of traditional war, it will require all layers of Indonesian citizens to be part of the battle.

Even though it was criticized for being outdated when Prabowo planned to amplify the concept through country defense program (program bela negara), Total’s People Defense could be a good deal in combatting the outbreak. Through Regulation no. 23 of 2019, the concept explains that Indonesia’s total defense system is divided into three components; the main component, secondary component, and the supporting component. The classification works as an inclusive parameter easing citizens to participate in the defense system based on their roles and occupations. So even when the citizens are not incorporated in the military forces, they will still be able to fulfill their obligations based on their specialty among the three clusters.

Contextualized with COVID-19, the main component would be carried out by the Ministry of Health as the frontline to stop the virus spreading through its leadership, expertise, and authority. The secondary component will be the Indonesian army as well as relevant stakeholders and related ministries to support the logistic distribution. Indonesian citizen will be the supporting components to stop the spread of COVID-19 by enforcing the physical distancing and to follow the government regulations.

In a pandemic, the Total People’s Defense is accurate to execute the concept where the ‘enemy’ is literally in front of everyone. It also requires collective practical participation from all layers of society to combat it, ranging from essential key workers in the frontline to corporate workers working from home. Regardless of the invisibility of the virus, everyone’s life is as stake without the collective actions.

Supporting Central Government Leadership Crisis

In the current crisis, the manifestation of the defense doctrine could support the lacking central government leadership in facing the outbreak. The mismanagement of the outbreak and controversial statements made by the Indonesian Health Minister has revealed the flaws of government leadership. Even though Prabowo admitted that he was not trained to face the ‘unseen’ such as to cure a pandemic, but the retired general was prepared in leading people to face the worse situation in crisis. This military trait should be able to back the government, regaining the people’s trust.

The military doctrine has the potential to mobilize people to stay at home. As characterized earlier, the Total People’s Defense could make everyone feels significantly involved in defending the country. It fits the context of Indonesian society where the people are more likely to be swayed by a personal approach, as many campaign strategists are making the candidate personally attached to voters during elections. This trait could be taken advantage of in dealing with coronavirus, as the current measures are making the society as the object by forcing them to stay home, sometimes against their will. The Total People’s Defense will make Indonesians the subject against coronavirus as they feel personally involved in flattening the curve.

Despite the aptitudes, raising the awareness to battle the virus is difficult when the vulnerable are not protected yet. As what is happening around the world, many are not able to stay home as they worked daily jobs, forcing them to break the rules for social distancing. However, many are not self-quarantining themselves due to the lack of information. The latter group could be the initial target of the Total People’s Defense narratives in flattening the curves. As the most significant active internet user in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian government should massively campaign the military doctrine to increase its people’s awareness and reaffirm its leadership amidst this health crisis.

From the government standpoint itself, the government must be transparent and establish effective coordination among its ministries, preventing contradictive policies in stopping the COVID-19 pandemic. Unified policies by related ministries and agencies should be made harmoniously under the Ministry of Health and COVID-19 Task Force strategy, with the President Office taking the command. Rather than focusing on resource-wise, as the central government has proven to be able to pay influencers to boost tourism amidst coronavirus, they could readjust the focus to campaign the Total People’s Defense against coronavirus. Such a budget could be allocated to support the frontline workers as the main component of the national defense and to subsidize the vulnerable actors.

Rafyoga is Monbukagakusho Scholar in Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies (GSICS), Kobe University. Prior joining GSCIS, he was a research intern and research assistant at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada.

Muhammad Aziz is scholarship grantee in Indonesia Defense University. He is a post-graduate student in the Faculty of National Security, Department of Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in the Pandemic

By Muhammad Fakhri Abdurahman (picture: Flickr/ILO)

Southeast Asia is arguably the region with the heaviest implications of the coronavirus pandemic. With one the most populous region and one of the biggest economic regions in the world, the impact of the health crisis that have led submerged into other sectors will be hard felt by all layers of the society. Notwithstanding the grievances and difficulties faced by other members of the workforce, some of the impact of the crisis are exacerbated in the case of migrant workers. Southeast Asia is home to 9.9 million international migrants with 6.9 million have moved in between the region. With the differences in policies in response to the pandemic taken by governments in the region, migrant workers face varying degrees of threats towards their livelihoods, healthcare, and jobs.

The crisis has led to a restriction in the workforce having to stay at home, strict traveling and border measures, and a host of policies that stretches the thin safety nets migrant workers have. Several concerns of migrants include but not limited to wages, job security, social security, healthcare and insurance, and housing.

First, migrant workers face a rising trend of extreme wage cuts in almost all sectors. This concerns all workers but would hit migrant workers the most as the majority are recipients to barely living wages. Some face wage cuts up to 50% in the manufacturing industry. Employers of workers have been affected severely by the pandemic, while some sectors, including manufacturers, are unable to shift their work into work-from-home arrangements. Migrant workers would also be impacted, noting that a proportion of them are daily wage earners, informal workers, and low-income workers.

Second, workers are faced with job losses as some employers would be unable to continue businesses or could only survive at the expense of cutting workers. Third, the concerns over healthcare, insurance, and social security is also a question towards the citizenship status of these migrant workers. Even more worrisome is the case of undocumented workers as having to visit a hospital should they contract the virus will lead to a series of legal repercussions.

Governments have had different approaches to migrant workers. Following a border closing, Singapore is left to deal with 300,000 Malaysian migrant workers unable to return home. The government has resorted to public housing that led to a new cluster of transmissions. The public dorm for migrant workers is home to 85% of Singapore’s positive cases. Notwithstanding the setback, Singapore has been at the forefront of the outbreak as the policies have allowed for free masks and hand sanitizers, mass tests and contact tracing, and strict border rules.

However, Singapore has had restrictions over testing foreigners over fears that recently arrived individuals purposefully visited the country for a test while the country is short on supplies. With the ASEAN Economic community’s aim to ease the transfer of jobs between countries, there is a necessity to focus on migrant workers, and the impact of COVID-19 brought to them. ASEAN has only had a limited focus on labor rights and a national government response equally sub-optimal.

In the regional level, ASEAN members have been late to promote the ratification and implementation of the International Labour Organization (ILO) measures on labor rights towards its members, let alone migrant workers. Despite the adoption of the ASEAN Consensus on the Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2017, governments have been less than adept in handling migrants, especially in times of crisis.

Mobility and social security of migrant workers should be the concern for ASEAN during the crisis as borders close and works are depleting. Public health, as a matter of national security and the economy, has been the talking point for most of ASEAN meetings following the summit. These topics have come with a limitation over what can be done. The case of migrant workers should be promoted further as the more profound question of globalization, freedom of movement, and the grand project of the ASEAN Economic Community is looming.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an abruptly changed world. The pre-COVID 19 worlds held its grievances for migrant workers in Southeast Asia. The impact of this pandemic has only added salt to the wounds. The policies taken by governments at the national and regional level will be detrimental to the fate of the migrant workers.

Muhammad Fakhri Abdurahman is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada. Fakhri is currently an intern at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.