The Asian region faces a full-blown refugee crisis. Thousands of migrants, many of whom are Rohingya Muslims fleeing state-sponsored persecution in Myanmar, are stranded at sea, caught between a home country that denies them citizenship rights and a regional neighborhood seemingly indifferent to their suffering. The response of ASEAN governments from Indonesia to Malaysia to Thailand has been: “It’s not our problem.”Boatloads of migrants have been arriving on the shores of Southeast Asian states in recent days.
But rather than providing much needed assistance to these victims, authorities in Indonesia have simply towed them back out to international waters. Such a response is unacceptable, unproductive, and ultimately unbelievable — particularly for a government that so recently criticized — Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. I was outraged to hear officials in my own country of Malaysia make it clear they intend to pursue the same policy toward to these migrants. Such a stance is morally reprehensible, and turning a blind eye to human suffering will not make it disappear.
No ASEAN member state can escape culpability for this unfolding tragedy. The refugee crisis and the persecution and conflict that have produced it are problems that require collective resolve on the part of all ASEAN leaders to confront. Together we share a legal and moral responsibility to act, and we are failing to take that responsibility seriously. The discovery of mass graves of trafficked Rohingya and other victims in southern Thailand earlier this month shined a spotlight on the failure of successive Thai governments to seriously combat a full-blown human trafficking epidemic. For years Thai authorities allowed traffickers to operate relatively freely, frequently turning a blind eye to and in some cases directly supporting their operations.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has now vowed to crack down on human trafficking rings. But the pursuit of a broad crackdown without simultaneously addressing the root causes of the mass exodus has arguably exacerbated the problem. Hoping to avoid prosecution, traffickers have set adrift boats filled with their victims, leaving them to die out on the open ocean. These events are a stark reminder of the regional impact of the escalating plight of Rohingya in Myanmar, where state-sponsored persecution has reached alarming levels.
The horrors that have befallen trafficked Rohingya in Thailand and off the coast of Indonesia and Malaysia represent an extension of the tragedy they have experienced in their home country. The government of Myanmar restricts the basic rights of Rohingya, including freedom of movement. Meanwhile, religious extremists have fanned the flames of hatred in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, inciting deadly inter-communal violence that has left over 140,000 displaced. The government’s refusal to even recognize Rohingya’s ethnic identity (referring to them instead as illegal “Bengali” immigrants) has strengthened the ability of nationalist demagogues to stoke discrimination and violence.Over the past three years, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled the country by sea — a direct result of this systematic persecution — many falling into the hands of traffickers like those revealed in Thailand. Those that remain face a growing humanitarian catastrophe and restricted access to basic services, including healthcare.
The key to addressing the roots of the refugee crisis therefore lies in Myanmar. ASEAN must pressure the Myanmar government to end its campaign against Rohingya. Existing mechanisms, including the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, must be bolstered and utilized to credibly investigate the situation on the ground and respond appropriately to the humanitarian crisis. What the region also needs is a binding treaty on migrant rights and refugees.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman recently took up calls from the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights for ASEAN to work to find a regional solution to the unfolding crisis, saying that the Rohingya problem was indeed a matter for ASEAN to tackle. But no concrete action has come from that talk.At a minimum, ASEAN member states should grant refugee status to Rohingya feeling the horrors in Rakhine State. They must commit to protecting asylum seekers, rather than driving them into the hands of abusive thugs or leaving them to die at sea.
The tragedy in Myanmar continues to develop as an issue that directly impacts the wider ASEAN region. The need for effective regional action to combat the crisis is clear, yet our leaders have consistently failed to act. They hide behind the arcane and ultimately destructive policy of non-interference, repeating the demonstrably false claim that the Myanmar government’s persecution of Rohingya is an “internal affair”.
They have stood by and watched, celebrating their achievements at fancy dinner tables, while ignoring the human misery that their failures have produced. What are we to do then but seek to take matters into our own hands? Do we have to construct our own parallel ASEAN — one that truly involves the people of the region and seeks to protect the marginalized? Perhaps only from that we will find a community driven to action by the threat of crimes against humanity.
For the time being our leaders remain paralyzed by their own weakness and self-protective impulses, and we are compelled to watch one of the world’s great human tragedies unfold before our eyes.
The key to addressing the roots of the refugee crisis therefore lies in Myanmar.
The writer is the chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and a member of parliament in Malaysia - http://www.thejakartapost