Members of the ASEAN regional bloc have
long known about the plight of the stateless Rohingya in Myanmar and
Bangladesh. However, those who continue arguing over the ethnic group's
geographical origins and blaming two centuries of British colonialism for the
refugees' "pariah" status miss the point.
The pressing issue is that the Rohingya are facing
intolerable conditions where they live. Authorities in Myanmar and Bangladesh
refuse them citizenship and regard them as illegal settlers. Buddhist-majority
Myanmar even refuses to acknowledge their existence, misidentifying them as
At the end of the monsoon season every year, thousands of Rohingya board boats
in the Bay of Bengal in search of a better life elsewhere. The desperate trek
is managed by people-trafficking syndicates. Malaysia is the favoured
destination, though not the only one.
Most Rohingya migrants
are willing to go anywhere they might make a comfortable living.
Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are preferred, but
neighbouring Thailand has also been a convenient haven, despite the risks of
falling foul of traffickers. An estimated 100,000 Rohingya have
settled elsewhere in Southeast Asia since they began fleeing Myanmar nearly
half a century ago.
Asean member-countries have experience in dealing with crises resulting from
this mass migration. Last week the Indonesian navy followed the example set six
years ago when the Royal Thai Navy towed out to sea a boat containing 300 Rohingya seeking to
land on our shores.
That action in 2009 made international headlines and became an embarrassment
for Thailand. It was also the focus of Asean attention, since Thailand was at
that time chairing the association.
Unfortunately the regional bloc has never properly addressed the issue of Rohingya migration,
no matter which country has been at the helm.
When the Asean chair passed
to Myanmar last year, the government in Nay Pyi Taw consistently
barred the subject at regional meetings, resulting in media at home proudly
announcing that the government had succeeded in keeping the Rohingya off Asean summit agendas. Last month saw that
silence maintained at the latest summit, despite pressure for a debate from
With Malaysia now pushing to bring the issue to the table again,
member-countries should resist the temptation to play the blame game. Instead
they must focus on forging the strategies and putting in place the measures
that are urgently needed for both the short and the long term.
The priority is to save the lives of the Rohingya already on
the move and find them safe havens. The United Nations and other international
organisations that can render aid should be urged to join the effort.
With the safety of the migrants secured, Asean can then agree on their
origin-identity and decide where they should live. Much of the current talk can
be postponed. Right now only action will save the thousands of lives at risk.
The Nation, Bangkok