This year, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is expected to make the ASEAN Economic Community a reality. It is envisioned as a single common market and production base that leads to the freer flow of goods, services, investment capital and skilled labor in the region, tying the member countries into a closely shared destiny.
But what is going on in the Bay of Bengal right now makes that vision a mockery. Arguably the worst refugee crisis since the exodus of boat people from Vietnam in the 1970s is exploding on the shores of ASEAN members while they largely ignore it. The events have highlighted what has been described as “the alarmingly inept regional response to the longstanding refugee problem.” ASEAN still lacks a regional framework on refugees, and only two ASEAN member states have signed onto the UN Refugee Convention.
Rohingya Muslims are driven into the sea by fired-up Myanmar ultra-nationalists feeling their murderous Buddhist oats, and by Bangladeshis who do not regard them as natives. There are believed to be as many as 8,000 people on the boats.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have vowed to push the boats back out to sea even as starving refugees reportedly resort to cannibalism on the high seas. Indonesia has already done so, pushing a boat with 400 aboard back out from Aceh Province.
The Philippines refused to allow any visitors at first, saying the country’s navy would push them back out to sea, but then relented under fiery criticism and said it would take 3,000 refugees.
It would seem a time for ASEAN to step forward.
But, said Trinh Hoi, an Australia-based human rights lawyer who was once a refugee himself along with thousands of Vietnamese boat people, "The latest humanitarian crisis unfolding in Southeast Asia strikes me as history repeating. Despite a new world order of unprecedented prosperity and 4G connectedness, and despite ASEAN's motto of "One Vision, One Identity, One Community," when it comes to alleviating human suffering and saving lives, the people and nations of this region are anything but a community."
Malaysia is the ASEAN chairman for 2015. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak issued an equivocating statement calling for a solution on the part of the 10-nation organization, saying the affair is not only the concern of Asean leaders but one requiring an external solution as well. But he refused to say ASEAN would take a stand on member nation Myanmar’s policy, which appears to be to drive the Rohingya out of the country.
"We respect the Asean principles whereby we do not interfere with the internal affairs of other Asean countries,” he said. "However, when a certain problem has spread and affects the leadership of other Asean nations and possibly outside Asean, then we need to find solutions through an Asean forum and cooperate with other parties."
Malaysia, he said, would work through the Asean network to find an Asean solution. But then, he said, “we hope that the Myanmar government will not consider this as interfering with domestic matters but look at it as to avoid human tragedy of gargantuan proportions."
But Malaysia is not going to take on any additional refugees.
As Najib and other Asean leaders have wrung their hands, notoriously leery of interfering in the affairs of member states and unwilling to exert pressure on Myanmar to reform its policies, nearly 31,000 refugees took to the boats in the last three months of 2014, followed by another 25,750 in the first quarter of 2015, dwarfing the refugee crisis of Africans fleeing across the Mediterranean for southern Europe.
Instead, the ASEAN governments have turned to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and the International Organization for Migration to provide humanitarian aid to the several thousand migrants and asylum seekers who have made it ashore to Indonesia’s Aceh Province and Malaysia’s Langkawi Island according to the humanitarian news service IRIN.
“I appeal to the governments, and all who can help, to find these boats and let the migrants land and get medical treatment,” IOM Director General William Lacy Swing told IRIN. “We will assist you in resolving the longer-term problems of accommodation, transport home for some, and other options, but in the name of humanity, let these migrants land.”
The crisis began after Thai officials discovered dozens of bodies in trafficking camps in the southern jungles near the Malaysia border, believed to have been killed by smugglers who demanded more money to move them further down the pipeline into Malaysia. Thailand began cracking down on the established people-smuggling networks, including those with boatloads still at sea. That caused the smugglers to abandon the boats, leaving the refugees to fend for themselves.
“Trafficking of persons in Thailand has long been out of control, something that senior officials have admitted to Human Rights Watch and others,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The long involvement of Thai officials in trafficking means that an independent investigation with UN involvement is necessary to uncover the truth and hold those responsible to account.”
Despite the fact that they have lived on Myanmar’s west coast for centuries, the Buddhists describe the Rohingya as Bangladeshis or Bengalis. They have been described as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. About 800,000 live in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, including about 140,000 in government-built camps built to separate ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya after several bouts of savage communal violence. They have been denied citizenship, their freedom of movement has been restricted and they have no access to education.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a group of liberal, human rights-oriented parliamentarians, criticized Indonesia’s approach to dealing with the influx of migrants, saying that “Towing migrants out to sea and declaring that they aren’t your problem anymore is not a solution to the wider regional crisis,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP. “Any solution must include securing binding commitments from Myanmar to end the persecution of Rohingya that is fueling their exodus. Furthermore, Indonesia's actions are fundamentally inhumane and ignore the urgent humanitarian needs of those on board the boats.”
“Regardless of their legal status, their means of arrival or where they come from, the rights of these people must be protected,” said a statement by Amnesty International. “People should not be detained, prosecuted or otherwise punished solely because of their method of arrival. Amnesty International is calling on countries in the region to immediately step up and co-ordinate efforts for search and rescue in the region and to protect the rights of people stranded at sea.”