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Why Southeast Asia must act on Rohingya crisis

Why Southeast Asia must act on Rohingya crisis
Published 15 May 2015   Follow @elliotbrennan

The unfolding humanitarian crisis in the waters off the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia, and in particular the response of Southeast Asian nations, is deplorable. 

With an estimated 7-8000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis stuck in squalid conditions on boats run by traffickers, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have pushed back boats into international waters. Many have no access to food or fresh water.

On at least one occasion, Indonesia furnished a trafficking boat with supplies and pushed it back into international waters. The BBC's Jonathan Head reported that one boat carrying 350 people, refused entry into Thailand, was abandoned by its crew and left stranded. With few supplies, at least ten people had already died on that boat.The UNHCR estimates that 300 people have died at sea this year. That number looks set to increase dramatically. 

Borders have been locked down, with sea and air patrols in Malaysia and Indonesia monitoring waters and turning boats around. Malaysia's deputy home minister stated bluntly 'We don't want them to come here.'

This crisis is of the region's own making. It is the result of ASEAN’s non-interference policy, with states loathe to intervene in a crisis in Myanmar that has seen over 100,000 Rohingya pushed into internally displaced people camps. Similarly, Kuala Lumpur's quiet acceptance of migrants and refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh in recent years has enticed more people to make the perilous sea journey to Malaysian shores. The UN estimates that 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi people have gone to Malaysia since the beginning of the year to seek refuge from the deplorable conditions in IDP and refugee camps. [fold]

These actions have been a boon for traffickers and the waves of criminality they support. It has also supported corruption in Myanmar and in the Thai police and navy, entrenching the problem of corruption in a year when ASEAN is looking to solidify its association through enhaced EU-style ties. It also flies in the face of a commitment by the current ASEAN Chair, Malaysia,  for a 'people-centered ASEAN' community.  

But the blame doesn't just rest there. This crisis is also a result of foreign governments too wary to shake the apple cart in Myanmar before the country's November elections. They refuse to apply more pressure on Naypyidaw to resolve humanitarian crises that have seen 230,000 people displaced as a result of violence and discrimination.

All these states must recognise the impact that not rescuing boatloads of Muslim Rohingya may have on their own Muslim communities. From discussions I've had, the plight of the Rohingya has so far not been a dominant radicalising issue for Southeast Asian Muslims. But that may change. A demonstration of compassion for the plight of thousands of desperate Muslims at the mercy of traffickers would go a long way to cutting short such a narrative. If not, the stateless Rohingya may quickly become Southeast Asia's Palestinians, dividing the region. 

This must be a wake-up call for collective intervention in problems that have regional consequences. And it must start immediately or many thousands may perish at sea. Debates over settlement are secondary. Of first and greatest importance is rescuing those stuck at sea and bringing the traffickers to justice. 

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