To solve boat people crisis, ASEAN has to engage with Myanmar

Rohinga people face triple discrimination. EPA/Hotli Simanjuntak

As a crisis involving thousands of people stranded at sea unfolded in April and May, ASEAN was inactive and impotent. The grouping of ten Southeast Asian countries did not issue a formal statement, nor did it initiate any meeting to resolve the crisis.

To address the plight of Rohingya people fleeing Mynanmar, ASEAN must step up to its vision of being a people-oriented community and play an active role in solving the refugee crisis. ASEAN members should engage with Myanmar to persuade the former military dictatorship to deal with the causes of this humanitarian crisis.

So far, ASEAN members have responded to the issue individually or trilaterally. On May 29, Thailand hosted a meeting of 17 countries and several international organisations in Bangkok to discuss the crisis.

But current efforts, including the Bangkok meeting, have yet to address the root causes that led people to risk their lives to take on a harrowing journey that left thousands of people adrift in the Andaman Sea. The Bangkok meeting merely proposed “band-aid” solutions.

Triple victimisation

Thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi people were left stranded at sea by a crackdown on people smuggling by the Thai government.

The Bangladeshis taking the journey are mostly looking for better economic opportunities. The Rohingya are fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

Rohingya people face triple victimisation: by their own government, by human traffickers and by neighbouring countries that are unfriendly to refugees.

Myanmar’s government would not acknowledge Rohingya, whom they call Bengalis, as their ethnic minority and has refused to grant them citizenship. Their stateless status exposes them to becoming victims of trafficking and smuggling.

Bangkok meeting

The Bangkok meeting resulted in pledges on humanitarian assistance. Indonesia and Malaysia pledged to shelter the refugees for a year before they are repatriated to their home countries or are resettled in a third country.

The meeting also called for international co-operation to combat people smuggling and trafficking in the region.

Australia and the US promised to provide funding both for immediate humanitarian needs and to assist the economic development of Rakhine State in Myanmar and Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. Turkey and Japan also offered funding. The US, the Philippines and Gambia reiterated their commitments to provide permanent asylum for refugees.

Despite these pledges, many criticised the meeting for not addressing Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya people.

Challenges for sustainable solutions

There are at least three challenges to overcome in solving the Southeast Asian refugee crisis: asylum seeker policies in the region, human trafficking and persecution.

First, fewer places in the region are available to resettle Rohingya refugees. One of the main reasons is Australia’s decision not to give asylum to refugees registered by the UNHCR in Jakarta after July 1, 2014. Australia is also transferring some refugees to Cambodia from Nauru in a controversial deal.

Indonesia and Malaysia, which host most of the Rohingya refugees, are not parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention. They seem reluctant to ratify it.

But resettlement also creates another dilemma. It can give Myanmar an incentive to continue persecuting the minority groups. Countries fear that if they openly accept Rohingya refugees, this will not send a strong message to Myanmar to stop its discrimination against these people.

Second, the human-smuggling and trafficking networks in the region are very organised and sometimes involve corrupt state officials. These networks have moved hundreds of thousands of people outside of Myanmar. According to the International Organisation for Migration, around 160,000 people have moved into Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia since 2012, including around 88,000 in 2014 and 25,000 in 2015.

Third, the plight of Rohingyas is related to religious and ethnic conflicts between them and the Buddhist Rakhine majority. The poor economic condition of Rakhine State also makes the Buddhist majority see the Rohingya people as a burden and competitors in getting jobs.

Furthermore, as Myanmar undergoes its democratic transition, Myanmar’s elite are increasingly driven by popular opinion. This is perfectly illustrated by the silence on the Rohingya’s plight of Myanmar’s democratic champion and Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

ASEAN engagement

ASEAN has the potential to engage with Myanmar and has succeeded in doing so before. During the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, when Myanmar rejected all international aid, ASEAN’s “constructive engagement” resulted in it being the only organisation allowed to distribute aid inside the country.

ASEAN’s constructive engagement is the organisation’s way of using political dialogue instead of coercive measures such as economic sanction or diplomatic isolation. This approach also succeeded in persuading Myanmar to open up and undergo a democratisation process.

The way ASEAN member countries are dealing with Rohingya refugees shows that they prioritise their national interests over human rights. In the face of this crisis, ASEAN should use its discretion to waive its principle of non-interference.

The international community should also encourage and support ASEAN more in finding sustainable solutions to the boat people crisis.