ASEAN’s Refugee Embarrassment
Image Credit: REUTERS/Roni Bintang

ASEAN’s Refugee Embarrassment


The plight of thousands of Rohingya stuck on rickety boats after fleeing their homes in Myanmar is quite possibly the greatest embarrassment ASEAN has ever faced. And the reality is the 10-nation trading bloc is incapable of dealing with the tragedy.

Whether it’s Montagnards fleeing Vietnam or Uighurs from China looking for sanctuary, the history of the leaders of ASEAN on this issue has always lived up to the worst of ruthless stereotypes made of “thin skins and thick skulls.”

Vietnamese persecution of ethnic Chinese – who were Vietnamese citizens – in the late 1970s and 1980s had all the hallmarks of the Rohingya eviction from their own country.

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The difference between Vietnam then and Myanmar now is that Hanoi had ensured its sovereign borders were locked and the country a closed shop. Nothing came in and the Vietnamese-Chinese were thrown out.

That’s not the case in Myanmar which is desperately opening up, driven by its leaders’ sense of greed and their desire to legitimize their wealth, accumulated despite years of financial sanctions.

This is why it’s time for the United Nations – a gormless institution on refugees in recent years – backed by Western countries to step into the breach. These people will need homes, it need not be the country of their choice, and access to shelter, healthcare, food, and basic needs.

Relocation costs would be expensive but could be imposed on the military leaders who have swapped their uniforms for Italian-tailored suits, and have either backed actively or with their cognizant permission allowed the exodus of Rohingya to spiral out of control.

Business and Burmese politicians could be singled out through a UN-sponsored tax regime enforced by Western countries who will have little option but to accept the Rohingya. Meanwhile, an investigation must be launched by the prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

The possibility of imposing further costs on ASEAN, in particular Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand with wealthy Singapore acting as guarantor would be another consideration along the corridors of Western powers, whom ASEAN, and in particular Naypyidaw, would like nothing better than to step in and clean up a human mess of their own creation.

To borrow a few lines from The Age in Melbourne and the Phuketwan online news service in Thailand:

“There are 400 on board. Some are already dead but I cannot tell you how many because I do not have the strength to move around the ship,” Abdul Rahamad told the Phuketwan news website by mobile phone.

“We have been at sea for a month,” he told a reporter in a weak voice and his Rohingya language.

“This is a Thai trawler modified to carrying people,” he said. “We are not sure where we are. We have used up most food and water … we beg for your help.”

Events in Europe and in Australia signal that much tougher policies against asylum seekers, illegal migrants and economic refugees are ahead.

Those who believe in open borders with welcoming, open arms for refugees are increasingly in the minority because, like the Rohingya, most arrivals are Muslim. Islamic fanaticism in the Middle East is simply frightening off mainstream populations in the West.

Muslim countries within ASEAN – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – have more than enough wealth to care for their Islamic neighbors. The Burmese are bound by international law and if the rest of ASEAN expects its economic community, to be launched later this year, to be taken seriously then now is the time to act. If not, others will.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

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