“Myanmar said it cannot be held solely responsible for the mass exodus of mainly Rohingya boat people and may not attend the May 29 meeting Thailand has called to tackle the humanitarian crisis” (Rohingya Exodus Not Solely Our Problem: Myanmar, Nirmal Ghosh).
While the practice of destination countries to push the migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar – the “boat people” – is deplorable (ST, May 16), the present humanitarian crisis highlights not only the responsibility of the Myanmar government, but also the impotence of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). In fact the Ministry of Home Affairs in Singapore has taken a similar stance on these migrants, arguing on Friday that because of limited land the country “is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin”.
In this vein most governments in the region are quick to blame the human traffickers who have taken advantage of and abandoned thousands of these refugees. They are also quick to blame the government in Myanmar for persecuting the Rohingya minority, yet forget their complicity through the ineffective regional organisation, ASEAN. Officials in Myanmar may retort that the “root cause of the crisis is increased human trafficking”, but these migrants will only be anxious to risk their lives if circumstances were bleak back home. As they drift in the open seas the chances of survival are slim, and those who live so do in an arduous manner.
The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar is well documented. Since 1982 they have been denied of their citizenship and thus stripped of corresponding rights, are victims of regular attacks by radical Buddhist mobs, and the horrible notion of genocide has been raised too. The United Nations seems distracted by similar episodes happening in Europe, the silence of opposition leader and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi has been deafening, while ASEAN and its governments are rendered impotent by the policy of non-interference.
In other words, one might say that they have turned a blind eye to these unfortunate developments.
Harmonisation of international and regional efforts is necessary to provide humanitarian assistance, to ascertain the events unfolding in Myanmar, and to eventually collaborate if transgressions are confirmed. When that happens the organisation and individuals responsible must be held accountable – otherwise, this unfortunate cycle of persecution, migration, and subsequent abandonment by other states will only persist into the future.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.