The drama of the Rohingya boat people revealed two glaring failures of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations: a disinclination to criticize systematic human rights violations against the Rohingya inside Burma, and the bloc’s reluctance to address the resulting decades-long exodus.
Asean has been well aware for years of the disgraceful treatment of the Rohingya in Burma. They are denied citizenship, basic freedom of movement, employment and access to services. The Muslim Rohingyas routinely suffer religious persecution. Many Rohingyas flee to neighboring Bangladesh, but a lack of security and primitive camp conditions have caused many to take to the seas each year.
Burma’s Rohingya have made their way to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand for more than a decade now. Some survive as migrant workers, sending money back to their impoverished families in Burma and Bangladesh. Others see the countries as a transit point to seek asylum because of persecution in their homeland.
The distressing images of Rohingyas in Thailand and the tales of survivors who washed ashore in Banda Aceh appeared just before Asean’s annual summit in Thailand in late February. Regional leaders, including Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and Former Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi agreed that the Rohingya boat people should be addressed at the meeting, and a regional solution to stem the flow should be found. At the time, Human Rights Watch called on Asean to see the Rohingya as a pivotal test of the association’s new charter and its fledgling human rights mechanism.
Yet, in a diplomatic diversion emblematic of Asean’s approach to the Rohingya for more than 20 years, the issue was not placed on the formal agenda. There was little serious discussion of multilateral initiatives, and no solution was found.
Instead, Asean passed on the Rohingya issue to the Bali Process for People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, a multilateral mechanism created in 2002 by Australia and Indonesia for increased cooperation between regional governments and law enforcement agencies on human trafficking and smuggling.
Given the fact that many Rohingyas are asylum seekers and refugees, the issue should never have been treated simply as a human smuggling issue. Asean should have addressed the need for comprehensive refugee protection among member states receiving Rohingyas, and the root causes of the exodus.
But even in the Bali Process, the only action agreed was an ad-hoc working group to discuss Rohingya movements at future meetings. The Burmese delegation, led by the national police chief, Brig. Gen. Khin Ye, denied that the Rohingya were from Burma, prompting the foreign ministers of Australia, Indonesia and Bangladesh to criticize Burma’s military government for the harsh treatment that caused them to flee.
The failure of Asean member states to comprehensively address the Rohingya issue is baffling. Firstly, if the bloc really wants to stem the flow of new arrivals, then pressure on Burma is necessary to stop the abuses from which the Rohingyas flee.
Second, if the countries receiving the Rohingyas want to equitably allocate state responsibility for Rohingya boat people they will need a fair and transparent process to assess the boat people’s claims and needs. Permitting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help screen new arrivals to ascertain whether they are asylum seekers, refugees, stateless persons, or migrant workers and allowing the International Organization for Migration to assist victims of trafficking would enhance transparency and burden-sharing.
In a recent statement, Asean rightly condemned the sham trial of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, stating that Burma risks its credibility within the association. If Asean continues to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Rohingya, Asean’s credibility to manage regional issues and respect basic human rights is at risk. It will also only prolong the conditions for continued sailing by desperate Rohingyas to foreign shores.
David Scott Mathieson is a researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch.