After the sinking of a vessel carrying some 700 refugees off the Italian island of Lampedusa in mid-April, the world’s attention has turned to a crisis of even greater proportions. Since early May, up to 8,000 migrants had been stranded in six boats spread over the Andaman Sea, off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Most of the migrants are Rohingya, a Muslim minority native to the Burmese state of Rakhine and the borderlands between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Following the offer of temporary asylum by Indonesia and Malaysia, an estimated 3,600 migrants have disembarked. However, both countries stressed that they were acting on the condition of financial and operational assistance from the international community, and that those taken in would be resettled or repatriated within a year.
The crisis highlights two points: First, ASEAN lacks both political agreement and a clear legal framework on how to respond to refugees. Second, unless Myanmar changes its policy of systematic discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya population in Rakhine state, the crisis will continue.
Although Malaysia and Indonesia eventually agreed to suspend their policy of towing migrant boats back to sea, the Kuala Lumpur summit was hardly a display of political unity: Myanmar, claiming that the migrants are Bangladeshis and thus denying any responsibility, did not attend. Thailand’s military government participated, but despite the long reliance of the Thai economy on Myanmar refugees for cheap labor, insisted on the country’s status as a transit country. Malaysia and Indonesia alternately emphasized the responsibility of Myanmar, the region and the international community. While Bangladesh announced an official strategy to address the issue in 2014, little has happened since.
The apparent disagreement over responsibility for the boat people is no coincidence. Only three of Southeast Asia’s states – and none involved in the crisis at hand – are parties to either the Convention or Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which regulate countries’ treatment of refugees under international law. Similarly, ASEAN has failed to establish an effective legal framework on refugees. The 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ACMW) commits sending and receiving states, among others, to promoting “the full potential and dignity of migrant workers in a climate of freedom, equity, and stability,” but notes that states are only required to pay adherence to their own domestic laws and policies. Likewise, the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration states that “the realization of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context.” Such vague statements are commensurate with the “ASEAN Way,” namely the organization’s reliance on quiet diplomacy and the principle of non-intervention. Though successful in advancing the region’s economic integration, the principle is often criticized as a tacit consensus on turning a blind eye on Member States’ human rights abuses. Indonesia for instance, while affirming that the present crisis is a regional problem, has emphasized that rather than pressuring Myanmar it would follow its policy of “constructive engagement.” Criticism by the “ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights,” while demonstrating that alternative voices exist within the organization, elicited no official response. However, while Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia provide higher living standards and more welcoming conditions for Muslims, the root cause of the mass migration of Rohingya lies with the policies of the government of Myanmar.
Discrimination against the Rohingya goes back to the government of Ne Win in the 1960s, which declared them foreigners in 1982. Although the Myanmar government has exhibited signs of reform since 2011, systematic discrimination and persecution of the Muslim group by the Burmese authorities continues. Given the long-standing tensions between Myanmar’s Burman majority and the country’s numerous minorities, some reforms have proven a two-edged sword. Persecution of the Rohingya in particular has clearly been exacerbated by the increased freedom of expression and the media, and the public space available for nationalist and even outright racist organizations such as the “969” movement.
The 2012 violent clashes in Rakhine State left more than 160 dead, and displaced an estimated 100,000. The Rohingya are denied not only Burmese citizenship, but are not even recognized as an ethnic group. Nay Pyi Taw reluctantly accepted an invitation by Thailand to participate in a summit on refugees in late May, previously having threatened to withdraw its participation should the agenda make direct reference to the Rohingya, and thus implicitly acknowledge their existence. The UNHCR estimates that some 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis embarked on the dangerous journey between January and March this year, nearly double the number over the same period in 2014.
On May 22, Burmese authorities rescued some 200 migrants stranded in two vessels off the coast of Rakhine state and, according to a spokesperson, had begun to repatriate another 500 migrants. Nonetheless, statements by the government that Myanmar “shares the concerns of the international community” and “stands ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea” seem hardly credible. In a meeting convened on Thursday U Nyan Tun, one of Myanmar’s two vice presidents, denied the fact that migrants were fleeing from Rakhine because of persecution. He added that Myanmar would carry out “citizenship scrutiny” tests, and would afford protection and care to those who are found to be genuine citizens. In light of the fact that Myanmar is carrying out a comprehensive campaign of collecting the Rohingya’s documents of identification, and the government’s insistence that the migrants are Bangladeshis, these words do not bode well.
There is no immediately obvious solution to the current crisis. Myanmar is scheduled to hold its first general election later this year, the first since the beginning of the reform process in 2011. The oppositional National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been largely silent on the Rohingya. Nonetheless, this is an issue on which the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) could draw support away from the NLD by playing to Buddhist nationalists, who have been rapidly gaining influence among Burmese society.
For those Rohingya who have left Myanmar the future looks bleak. Though international press coverage and a resolution issued by the UN General Assembly Human Rights Committee are likely to have contributed to Wednesday’s agreement between Malaysia and Indonesia, few countries are willing to engage with the issue. India and China, each boasting multi-million dollar investments in Rakhine state, have been silent on the issue. The EU appears hardly able to cope with refugees itself, and may have indirectly contributed to the current crisis by demanding better regulation of Thailand’s fishing industry. The U.S., while displaying little creativity in threatening to resume sanctions, has at least offered to play a leading role in assisting Indonesia and Malaysia, both financially and in terms of resettlement. While external actors could alleviate this crisis, they will not solve it. If Southeast Asia is to reduce the number of people entrusting their lives to human traffickers, a solution needs to be found within Myanmar.
Joshua Webb is an administrator with the Asia Programme at Chatham House.