The surge of migrants and refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar, on unstable boats and headed towards an unknown horizon in Indonesia and Malaysia, has shaken human conscience. Unwanted in their home countries these people are virtually prisoners of unscrupulous human smuggling networks spread across South and Southeast Asia. The discovery of mass graves in northern Malaysia illustrates this saga of cruelty and exploitation of the powerless.
Not unlike the drama unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea — where people from Africa are dying in bids to enter Europe — the plight of the Bangladeshis and Rohingyas adrift in the Andaman Sea poses thorny policy challenges.
While Malaysia and Indonesia have resolved to proactively rescue the floundering vessels, the government of Myanmar has not cooperated in stemming the outflow of Rohingyas.
Frequent pogroms by Buddhist militant outfits against the Muslim Rohingyas have been occurring in Myanmar with the complicity of the State. Absolute intolerance for the Rohingyas has been mainstreamed in Myanmar, with even so-called civil society activists deeming them as interlopers who must be deported to Bangladesh.
Such is the complicity of silence that the democracy icon of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has also not dared to educate her nation to embrace the approximately 1.5 million Rohingyas.
Myanmar is a member of Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations), just like the Rohingya-receiving countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. But despite the existence of this intergovernmental institution, no joint solution has been worked out.
Malaysia and Indonesia have only agreed to offer temporary shelter to a few thousand boat-borne supplicants, insisting that the responsibility to prevent this calamity lies with the countries from where the exodus has begun. Myanmar invokes the principle of ‘non-interference in internal affairs’ to block Asean consensus on fairer treatment of the Rohingyas. So, although Asean has a sub-regional human rights mechanism in place, it remains toothless to concretely redress the Rohingya catastrophe.
Complicating matters is the mixture of economic migrants from Bangladesh with the politically and economically marginalised Rohingyas of Myanmar in the same boats and human smuggler camps. Bangladeshis, who face no political harassment at home but seek wage employment overseas, are lured into the perilous sea journeys because they physically resemble Rohingyas and could potentially pass off as candidates for asylum status in Malaysia.
The fact that nearly half of the boatloads of forlorn people comprise Bangladeshis means that the problem is not limited to Asean alone. What is required is combined political will and coordination between Saarc and Asean for a comprehensive settlement that is in the mutual interests of both sub-regions of Asia. It must include financial incentives for poorer migrant-exporting countries from richer migrant-absorbing ones, as well as a commitment from the former to respect the human rights of their minorities and crack down on smuggling syndicates.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak correctly argues that the boat people disaster is an international problem that transcends Asean. It is high time that South Asia and Southeast Asia converged on an innovative fix to this heartrending dilemma.
Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed are personal