The world's attention has been captured by the predicament of more than 8,000 migrants stranded in the Straits of Malacca, with dwindling supplies of food and water. The International Organization for Migration have darkly termed it “maritime ping pong with human life”, and it is the Rohingya—Burma’s long persecuted ethnic minority—who are the victims of this incredible failure of international cooperation in Southeast Asian waters.
The Long Term Rohingya Crisis
In the year that was meant to mark the beginning of ASEAN’s economic integration, its main member states have displayed a remarkable, and deadly, commitment to political non-interference. Yet, this crisis is not simply humanitarian—nor is it simply a problem restricted to boats and migrants meeting the closed borders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. It is not simply a problem of 2015—it is a problem that began in the 1970s, a problem of systematic discrimination in Myanmar enabled by equally systematic non-interference by its ASEAN neighbors.
Since 1978, the Myanmar government has organized campaigns under the guise of “illegal immigration crackdowns”, which have lead to mass killings, large scale internal displacement and community destruction. Currently the Rohingya live in conditions where the doctor-patient ratio is 1:80,000, and more than 80% are denied citizenship on the basis of ethnicity. The Rohingya are considered by the UN to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The plight of the Rohingya asylum seekers suddenly rose to the world stage following the Thai military government’s decision to crack down on human smuggling. Smugglers used to bring the Rohingya into neighboring countries and hold them ransom, using them for forced labor or human trafficking. Now, they are simply being abandoned at sea. And now, agencies from Human Rights Watch to the UNHCR to the US State Department are calling this a “humanitarian crisis” that must be resolved.
The Jews of Asia
The image of stricken, stranded migrants strikes a haunting resemblance to one of the defining moral failures of World War II: the “Voyage of the Damned” of the St. Louis. The ship of 937 Jewish asylum seekers left Hamburg, Germany, in 1939 as Nazi persecution intensified—yet, the ship was stranded in the Atlantic for a month as both Cuba and the United States failed to open their borders to the Jews. It was a humanitarian crisis that sparked international outrage and prompted European nations to open their borders to the Jews, resolving the issue by offloading them in France, Belgium and the Netherlands among other countries.
A humanitarian crisis is always the focal point of international sympathy, but also leads to an international reaction that prioritizes the fastest, most efficient solution. However, when Germany promptly conquered the rest of Europe, these Jews were massacred. It is the recognition of the political problem, and the attempt to combat it, that is most needed. The indifference of the American State department condemned the 937 Jews aboard the St. Louis; yet, it was the indifference of an isolationist United States to the atrocities of World War II that ultimately condemned the millions eventually killed.
Already, sympathy is evident across the world.
On a very grassroots level, Thai fisherman Kraiwut Chusakul said in an interview with CNN,“I feel so sorry for them. It's so different to when you see these refugees on land, and the conditions are so terrible.” Malaysian Prime Minster has been quoted saying this was a“humanitarian catastrophe”, whilst the United Nations Human Rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, condemned the actions of ASEAN nations“pushing boats full of vulnerable people back to sea, which will undoubtedly lead to many unavoidable deaths.” “The Andaman Sea is about to become a floating mass grave, and it’s because of the failure of governments, including our own, to do what is necessary,” said former member of U.S. Congress Tom Andrews.
But what is necessary?
As of Wednesday 20th May, the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia have agreed to offer temporary shelter to these refugees. A conference is being convened in Thailand on May 29th to address this emergency. Notably, these measures are framed with language such as “temporary” and “emergency”—and whilst it appears action is being taken, the policies of the Myanmar government that lead to this crisis still appear to be in motion. Just four days ago, Major Zaw Htay, director of the office of Myanmar’s president, stated blatantly, “We will not accept the allegations made by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem.”
There is no talk on any government’s behalf of decisively pressuring Naypyidaw to reassess its discriminatory policies, nor is there a movement to reinstate the autonomous region within Burma that the British once gave to the Rohingya. There is talk of providing shelter for the Rohingya, but there is no talk of providing a state.
If this political crisis is to be resolved, that is the talk that needs to be had. Undoubtedly, ASEAN nations have a moral imperative to address the Rohingya migrants’ plight. But it is one far greater than what is being proposed, and it requires a commitment to something ASEAN countries have rarely been able to do: take a moral stance against political wrongdoing.