Southeast Asia's moment of shame (Al Jazeera)

June 20, 2015

By Richard Javad Heydarian  

The ASEAN region is far from fully realising its ideal of becoming a multicultural, sharing and caring community.

For decades, the Southeast Asian region has been hailed for its multicultural diversity, economic miracles that gave birth to tiger cub economies of Malaysia and Singapore, and the almost total absence of inter-state conflict. Next to the industrialised powers of Japan, China, and South Korea, much of Southeast Asia has stood as the embodiment of Asia’s growing fortunes.

Perennially underperforming countries like the Philippines and Indonesia are now seen as among the most promising emerging markets. And with regional countries aiming to establish a common market, Southeast Asia is poised to become a major global investment destination. In recent weeks, however, the region has been in the global spotlight – but not for good reasons.

For long, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been bound by the “One Caring and Sharing Community” motto.

But the Rohingya migrant crisis, triggered by an ongoing civil strife in Myanmar, has put into question the region’s commitment to its founding ideals. The region is confronting a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, and the world is scrambling for an immediate response.

A humanitarian crisis

For long, at least going as far back as the colonial period, Myanmar has been home to the Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group in a majority Buddhist country.

There are an estimated 1.3 million of them in Myanmar, but they have struggled to gain recognition as citizens in their own country. They were even excluded from the latest national census in Myanmar. For decades, they have suffered various forms of persecution and marginalisation, but recent years have seen a spike in inter-ethnic strife in the state of Rakhine, which has been a home to many from the Rohingya minority group.  

Up to 140,000 Rohingyas are reported to have left their homes in search of safety in neighbouring countries. The refugee crisis has been compounded by the simultaneous waves of Bangladeshi citizens escaping crushing poverty at home in search of greener pastures in the relatively more prosperous states of Southeast Asia.

Year after year, a network of organised trafficking groups traversing the Indian Ocean has precariously loaded groups of refugees and/or economic migrants into creaking boats, crossing towards Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Malaysia has hosted up to 45,000 Rohingya over the years. But as the number of Rohingya refugees has increased – due to growing violence in Myanmar, with some experts and human rights groups going so far as warning about a potential campaign of ethnic cleansing – some Southeast Asian countries recently began to consider pushing back the refugees into the high seas.

The ensuing buck-passing has left up to 6,000 desperately hungry, sickly and tormented Rohingya and Bangladeshi men, women, and children at an unacceptable risk. Hence, the refugees were dubbed as the “boat people”, stateless and stuck in a maritime wilderness – and left to fend for themselves under atrocious conditions.

Changing tide

The move was met by a chorus of condemnation from across the world, with a whole host of non-governmental organisations, international bodies, and governments calling for immediate and unconditional humanitarian relief and rescue for the stranded asylum seekers. Meanwhile, the government of Myanmar has repeatedly denied responsibility for the crisis.

It didn’t take long before the Philippines expressed its willingness to accept as many as 3,000 Rohingya, a decision that elicited international praise and placed tremendous pressure on some neighbouring countries to revisit their policy of denying the refugees. The Catholic-majority country has long served as a refuge for persecuted minorities from across the world, providing safe haven to 1,500 Jewish refugees during World War II and thousands of Vietnamese refugees during the Cold War.

Citing the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (1954), Manila reaffirmed its obligations, as a signatory state, to provide refuge to asylum seekers from Myanmar. Soon, Malaysia and Indonesia reconsidered pushing back the refugees into the high seas and offered to provide temporary humanitarian relief.

Seeking a coordinated response, the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand held high-level talks and tried to put pressure on Myanmar to change its course and provide protection and citizenship rights to the Rohingya minority group.

In late-May, Thailand hosted an international conference, attended by 17 nations, to tackle the refugee crisis, but the government of Myanmar refused to attend unless the organisers dropped the term “Rohingya” in the invitation letter, and later engaged in a verbal spat with a UN representative over granting Rohingya citizenship rights. 

A long journey

The lack of high-level representation among regional states, however, underlined the limits of the gathering in pressuring Myanmar to take responsibility for the crisis. It is also not clear how the region seeks to battle organised trafficking networks.

Since 2009, Myanmar’s military regime has embarked on a process of political liberalisation, introducing more competitive elections, increasing representation for civilians in the government, and downgrading restrictions on opposition groups. In response, investments have poured in and the West has relaxed its sanctions against the Southeast Asian country. There was some genuine hope that Myanmar will eventually transition into a democracy.

But the unfolding humanitarian crisis has exposed the follies of such rose-tinted expectations, forcing some Western countries to reconsider their pre-mature embrace of so-called democratic reforms by a regime that denies citizenship to a 1.3 million people from a minority group, which has been suffering an escalating campaign of persecution in recent years.

More broadly, the crisis says a lot about how the ASEAN region is far from fully realising its ideal of becoming a multicultural, sharing and caring community. It’s high time for regional governments to step up to the challenge and address this humanitarian crises head on.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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