Rohingya crisis highlights ASEAN’s unwillingness to tackle thorny issues

Originally published on 21st May 2015 at

The tragic plight of the Rohingya migrants adrift off the coasts of Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesian has brought ASEAN’s shortcomings and its unwillingness to tackle difficult issues firmly into the global spotlight. In recent days,pledges of shelter and humanitarian support from some ASEAN nations have finally been made as mounting international pressure forced ASEAN leaders into action, but only after hundreds of migrants had already lost their lives and ships overladen with starving refugees began to be rescued by local fishermen. Were it not for the international publicity this crisis has received, these refugees may well have been conveniently ignored by some of ASEAN’s leaders.

With an estimated 25,000 Rohingya refugees having fled Burma since the beginning of 2015 and as many as 10,000 refugees still adrift on the Andaman Sea, this crisis is quickly becoming the largest of its kind in the region since the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s. For the past few weeks, ships laden with desperate migrants have been pushed between national waters as Southeast Asian nations attempt to avoid dealing with this pressing humanitarian crisis. But despite ASEAN leaders’ attempts to distance themselves from this crisis, the reality is that it is the product of ASEAN governments’ non-interference policies and their avoidance of difficulties issues.

The source of this humanitarian disaster is clearly Burma’s state-sanctioned discrimination against the ethnic Muslim minority who are denied citizenship, denied education and detained in conditions likened to open-air prisons. Burma refuses to accept responsibility for the exodus of the Rohingya and has even gone so far as to criticise its ASEAN neighbours for not providing humanitarian assistance to the desperate refugees.

In response, ASEAN member nations have been quick to point the finger of blame back at Burma, but none of the Southeast Asian nations are able to pressure Burma on its systematic mistreatment of the Rohingyas. ASEAN’s policy of non-interference has allowed Burma’s military government to continually act without retribution or consequence and there are no signs the military leaders are going to change their ways anytime soon.

Thailand’s own military leader Prayuth Chan-ocha has planned a regional meeting to discuss the issue, but with Burma threatening to boycott the talks there seems little hope the root of this problem will be tackled. Thailand’s timing of the meeting also raises questions over its sincerity to resolve this issue promptly. The regional meeting was announced on Friday, May 15, and scheduled for May 29 – a full two weeks later. An issue of such urgency, in which lives are being lost daily, may perhaps have deserved a somewhat more immediate response.

Thailand has also been quick to claim that the refugees had no interest in coming ashore in Thailand. The country’s media went on to report how the navy provided the refugees with ‘ready meals’ and graciously repaired their ships. The reality is that the boats were simply made operational enough to reach their next destination, a neighbouring ASEAN country from which they would be once again turned away. While it’s true that Thailand was not the primary destination for most of these migrants, it would be naïve to consider the country a passive party in this tragedy because the escalation of the crisis can be traced directly to international actions against ‘irregularities’ in Thailand’s fishing industry.

Reports of Rohingya migrants being sold into slavery and forced to work in Thailand’s fishing industry have been documented by NGOs and human rights groups for a number of years now. In April this year the EU threatened Thailand with a seafood import ban unless it cleaned up the industry. In response, Thailand’s prime minister vowed to crack down on slavery in the region and no sooner had these investigations started than numerous trafficking camps and mass graves of Rohingyas were discovered in Thailand’s southernmost provinces. A number of individuals were arrested as it came to light that local officials and influential individuals had been working with human traffickers in the region. This crackdown led many of the traffickers to simply abandon their most recent human cargo at sea, leaving as many as 10,000 migrants adrift on rickety boats across the Andaman Sea. These long established and previously uninterrupted criminal networks of human trafficking were another difficult issue that ASEAN had been unwilling to tackle. It was only a reaction to international pressure and the threat of financial loss, in this case the EU’s ‘yellow card’, which forced regional governments to reluctantly react. Despite its pivotal role in this current crisis Thailand refuses to offer the Rohingya refugees shelter, a decision that has led to further international criticism.

The first glimmer of hope for these unwanted boat people came from the Philippines, which has a record of welcoming refugees going back to the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people. On Tuesday the Philippines offered to accept Rohingya refugees, though it remains highly unlikely these poorly maintained and overcrowded could ever negotiate the passage from the Andaman Sea to the Philippines.

On Wednesday, after intense criticism of their attempts to push the refugees back to sea, Malaysia and Indonesia issued a joint statement declaring that they would provide temporary shelter and humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya boat people. Malaysia and Indonesia had been the primary destination for most of these refugees who were hoping to escape religious persecution in Burma and practice their beliefs in freedom.

With the ASEAN Economic Community opening at the end of 2016, this tragedy has raised questions about ASEAN’s legitimacy while highlighting its apparent lack of leadership and its unwillingness to tackle difficult humanitarian issues. For an organization founded to ‘promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law…. and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter’ (principles which include respect for human rights), the manner in which ASEAN leaders have fumbled through this crisis paints the picture of an organization with fundamental shortcomings. Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, explains how important a successful resolution to this crisis is for the organization, ‘This is a test for ASEAN, for ASEAN’s sustainability. Its legitimacy will depend on this and how it is resolved’.

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