Nations must act now on Southeast Asia's refugee crisis

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2015, 5:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2015, 9:10am

Were it not for determined journalists, the plight of thousands of refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh adrift in appalling conditions on rickety boats in the Andaman Sea would be little noticed. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, whose governments had made clear they were not welcome, had had their navies quietly pushing the vessels out to open water. But the international outrage has forced a reassessment, and regional meetings to work out a strategy are planned for today and later this month. A crisis has been created that Southeast Asian leaders must urgently resolve through taking in the hapless victims and pushing for a long-term solution.

Untold numbers on the boats have already died of starvation, dehydration and infighting. They are ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and Bangladeshis seeking jobs. Traffickers had abandoned them after a crackdown by the Thai military, which had uncovered a mass grave at a smugglers' camp on May 1. But Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have taken in tens of thousands since 2012 and claim there is no room for more.

Room or not, every nation has a moral obligation to help people in trouble. Pushing them out to sea, regardless of whether they are first given food or water, as the Thai navy has done, merely evades responsibility. Deporting them back to their home countries is no solution, particularly for Rohingyas, who are denied citizenship by Myanmar's government and have been subject to threats and violence from Buddhists. The meeting today in Malaysia's capital between the Malaysian, Indonesian and Thai foreign ministers has to be a starting point from which long-term solutions can be hammered out. Regional talks called by the Thai government for May 29 offer further hope, although Myanmar has declined to attend.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which all involved countries are members, has to get to the root of the problem. Its founding principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of fellow states has to be set aside. Myanmar has to be convinced to participate in talks and acknowledge mistreatment of Rohingyas. Western nations, which have embraced Myanmar's seemingly liberal-minded government, also have a role to play. China can similarly use its influence. Preventing the tragedy from worsening has to be a priority.