Asean all at sea over Rohingya problem
Lest we forget, this weekend it is timely to take a look back at the fundamental questions raised by the plight of the Rohingya boatpeople. Hundreds are feared to be still at sea, risking a perilous crossing from Myanmar or Bangladesh to Thailand's Andaman coast during the calm of the winter monsoon.
Across on Thailand's other coast, regional leaders are gathering for their annual summit under the banner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The air is thick with well-meaning and high-minded talk of the need for 'regional solutions' and 'comprehensive dialogue' and 'multilateral approaches'. If you want news of an actual long-term solution, however, don't hold your breath. That effort was effectively doomed before it started.
The membership of Myanmar's ruling junta in the grouping means the Rohingya question was always going to be reduced to the so-called sidelines. This allows Myanmar's recalcitrant generals to once again use the organisation's cherished concepts of consensus and non-interference to sweep hard questions under the lush carpets of the Asean staterooms.
And yes, the Rohingya represent the hardest of questions for Myanmar. Scholars have traced the settlement of the Muslim tribe in Myanmar's Rakhine region back to the ninth century, yet recent decades have seen them stripped of the basic rights of nationality. Stateless, they are unable to legally work, marry or move home.
Myanmar's consul general in Hong Kong provided an alarming insight to the junta's view when he wrote recently to this newspaper and all his local peers to describe the Rohingya as 'ugly as ogres' and highlighted their dark skins.
Thailand and its Muslim neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia are nudging Myanmar, knowing that any solution which does not involve the country that is the source of the problem is unlikely to work. But each have their own agendas, too. In calling for firm action to tighten borders, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took swipes at Thailand and Myanmar.
Thailand has been among the loudest of those calling for an international solution but has apparently been less keen to answer questions about its domestic handling of the Rohingya, now the subject of internal investigation.
At this point it is not hard to imagine the plight of the Rohingya getting lost in the diplomatic fog and political manoeuvring. And if it is not solved, the problem will simply recur next year, when they take to the seas again during winter calms.
This sailing season it was a change of Thai policy that sparked concern across the region and internationally. The South China Morning Post revealed that after washing ashore, the Rohingya were being secretly detained on Koh Sai Daeng, an island on Thailand's Andaman coast.
This operation was conducted with the direct knowledge and involvement of the Thai army, through the Internal Security Operations Command. The army-led ISOC had at least 1,190 Rohingya boatpeople towed out to sea in engineless vessels and abandoned. Hundreds are now dead or missing.
This information was obtained through many sources directly involved in the expulsions, including members of the Thai uniformed services. Survivors from five wrecked or drifting vessels described the same events - even though they had been rescued far apart and had no means to communicate.
We passed this information and other background material to Thai authorities, even before Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appealed for evidence from international media.
Mr Abhisit has insisted that he has the political will to take action over any abuses, even if powerful army figures are involved, as well as find a meaningful solution to the Rohingya long term.
But this weekend, despite a flurry of activity, the questions outnumber the answers. And still the Rohingya come.