22 May 2015edge review

An ethnic Rohingya fisherman tends to his boat at Ohn Daw Gyi beach, near Sittwe, Myanmar (Alex Bookbinder).

A temporary fix for Southeast Asia’s refugee crisis as Malaysia and Indonesia offer rescue to thousands of drifting Rohingya


n the wake of last month’s devastating earthquake in Nepal, Southeast Asian governments flocked to offer assistance, with Thailand sending planeloads of supplies, soldiers and medics, and Singapore and Malaysia pitching in.

Weeks later, as Southeast Asia considers the equally desperate plight of thousands of refugees drifting and dying on tiny boats off its coast, the response has been rather different.

Up to 8,000 people – nobody is quite sure how many – are currently crammed into barely seaworthy vessels on the Andaman Sea, ethnic Rohingya fleeing ethnic persecution or crippling poverty in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and parts of neighbouring Bangladesh.

Up to 25,000 are thought to have attempted to escape by boat since the beginning of the year, most trying to head south via Thailand to Malaysia, but the current crisis was sparked after a Thai crackdown on the refugees earlier this month. Traffickers have dumped hundreds offshore, hundreds more have been forced to drift as countries refused permission for them to land.

After weeks of hand-wringing, the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia agreed on Wednesday to allow the boats to land on their shores – a belated move but one that will nonetheless save thousands of lives.

Anifah Aman, Malaysia’s foreign minister, made it clear to the press that only migrants currently on the water would be allowed to land, and that the government was under no obligation to accept further arrivals.

The international community, he said, would have to be responsible for “resettlement and repatriation” within one year. Thailand, whose foreign minister Tanasak Patimapragorn was present at the talks, notably broke ranks with Indonesia and Malaysia, choosing to uphold its existing policy forbidding boats from making landfall.

While the announcement is undoubtedly welcome, it came only after countless unnecessary deaths, and does nothing to address the underlying dynamics that have led to massive southward migration from Myanmar.

Thailand has organised a regional meeting on the crisis scheduled for the May 29, but Myanmar’s government – which bears the brunt of responsibility – threatened a boycott, with presidential spokesman Zaw Htay telling The Wall Street Journal that Naypyidaw would snub the conference if it was “related with the Rohingya issue”.

ASEAN’s voice has been conspicuously absent as the crisis has unfolded, prompting accusations of moral and political failings. But this was no accident: one of the ten-country bloc’s founding principles is a notorious clause stressing “non-interference” in other member states’ affairs.

This mantra has seen Southeast Asian governments evade responsibility with the claim that the Rohingya issue is strictly a domestic political issue for Myanmar, allowing the crisis to escalate to its current proportions.

Rohingya have for years faced a stark choice: endure extreme persecution and brutal conditions at home, or take their chances with human trafficking networks operated largely by ethnic Rohingya themselves.

These networks have operated with the acquiescence of authorities outside of Myanmar, with varying levels of complicity from regional governments and authorities. Most notably a Reuters investigation in 2013 found Thai navy and police personnel colluding with smugglers and profiting directly from the trade.

On May 1, mass graves were discovered in Thailand at an abandoned internment camp near the Malaysian border, where migrants had been held until their relatives were able to pay up to US$2,000 per person to secure their release.

Shamed into action, Bangkok decided to launch a face-saving “crackdown” on people smuggling. Due to this disruption – and the fact that Thai officials are no longer able to turn a blind eye or abet the trade – boats can no longer land on safely on Thai soil.

The mass exodus from Rakhine State isn’t a new phenomenon. The Rohingya – considered stateless under Myanmar’s restrictive 1982 citizenship law – have suffered intense government persecution since the 1970s, and have been particularly compelled to flee since 2012, following xenophobic rioting targeting their homes and businesses.

About 140,000 have subsequently been interned in dismal camps, with paltry access to clean water and food and subject to extreme mobility restrictions by security forces.

This situation confuses the question of “repatriation and resettlement” raised by Malaysia’s foreign minister: if Myanmar continues to deny that the Rohingya have citizenship rights, where are the refugees – who fear persecution if returned – supposed to be repatriated to?

ASEAN’s silence on the “Rohingya question” over the past three years has not precluded other diplomatic initiatives, but none have ultimately borne fruit. In 2013, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world’s largest intergovernmental organisation outside the United Nations system, attempted to engage Naypyidaw on normalising the status of the Rohingya through a series of visits that included – notably – officials from Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, radical Buddhist elements in Myanmar attempted to cast OIC intervention as part of a sinister plot to “Islamise” Myanmar – sentiments that drive much of the persecution faced by Rohingya.

The US, perhaps, holds a trump card in inducing better behaviour in Myanmar and further afield – if it chooses to play it. Thailand and Malaysia languish on the bottom tier of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which is expected to be revised within six months. For key US allies, being lumped in with the likes of North Korea, Eritrea and Libya constitutes an extreme loss of face.

But Washington has shown little resolve to act on its rhetoric. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the key US legislation on human trafficking, calls for the suspension of most foreign assistance to offending governments. But President Obama was quick to reassure Thailand and Malaysia that no sanctions would be placed upon them, despite neither government making a concerted effort to tackle trafficking for four years prior to their demotion to the TIP report’s lowest category.

Myanmar, meanwhile, sits just above Thailand and Malaysia on the “Tier 2 watchlist”; Naypyidaw’s evident failure to protect its Rohingya or stem the tide of those fleeing might be expected to prompt its relegation to Tier 3 this year.

But with Hillary Clinton touting engagement with Myanmar as a foreign policy success under her watch as she makes her presidential bid, and because Myanmar’s stalled reforms are largely still seen positively when compared to chaos in the Middle East and Russia’s growing belligerence, Washington has few incentives to do so.

Closer to home, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference is unlikely to be scrapped soon, as it allows the bloc’s nations – many of which comprise authoritarian governments – to escape scrutiny and focus on trade. Ultimately, however, the economic – and moral – costs of ignoring abuses in one state can have knock-on effects for all the others.

As for the Rohingya, this week’s stopgap measures will do little to restore the rights and basic dignity long denied to them.

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