The summit’s Thai hosts – who have invited 17 countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, other Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) members and Australia – say they want immediate, collective steps to deal with the recent surge in Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing Burma and economic migrants leaving Bangladesh.

An emergency international summit called to tackle the migrant boat crisis in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, convening in Bangkok on Friday, may prove long on talk and short on answers if countries shy away from coordinated joint action to address the root causes in Burma and Bangladesh, diplomats and aid groups say.

“It is an urgent call for the region to comprehensively work together to address the unprecedented increase of irregular migration across the Bay of Bengal in recent years,” said Panote Preechyanud, of the Thai foreign ministry. But with little sign of agreement on what to do or who should do it, such calls look destined to go unanswered.

Migrants wait to be rescued off Aceh, Indonesia. About 3,500 migrants have fled by sea in the past month.
Migrants wait to be rescued off Aceh, Indonesia. About 3,500 migrants have fled by sea in the past month. Photograph: S. Yulinnas/AP

About 3,500 migrants have fled by sea in the past month, mostly coming ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia or being rescued at sea, often after initially being turned away. Unknown numbers have died, and the UN estimates that up to 2,600 are currently at sea on seven boats, the abandoned victims of people-smuggling gangs.

After fierce international criticism, Malaysia reversed its policy of sending boats back to sea and now says it will accept migrants for up to 12 months. But it is unclear what will happen to them after that. Despite its economy’s reliance on foreign workers, Malaysia complains that it is home to 120,000 illegal migrants from Burma and is already doing its bit.

Indonesia has adopted a similar stance toward the Rohingyas, but is insisting that all Bangladeshi migrants be repatriated. Thailand, whose crackdown on people-smuggling gangs precipitated the crisis last month, is now saying it will provide temporary “humanitarian help” but that it is hosting 100,000 refugees from Burma and does not want any more.

Rohingya migrants who arrived recently by boat receive their breakfast at a temporary shelter in Kuala Langsa, Indonesia.
Rohingya migrants who arrived recently by boat receive their breakfast at a temporary shelter in Kuala Langsa, Indonesia. Photograph: Darren Whiteside/REUTERS

So great is its denial of the problem, the Burmese government agreed to attend the summit only if the word Rohingya was not mentioned in the invitation. Predominantly Buddhist Burma maintains that the much repressed and discriminated against 1.3 million-strong Muslim minority concentrated in Rakhine state are not Burmese at all, but rather Bangladeshi immigrants.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, has declined to speak up for the Rohingya, an omission that brought criticism this week from the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader and a fellow Nobel peace prize winner.

“It’s very sad. In the Burmese case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something,” he told the Australian newspaper. “I met her two times … I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”

Criticism of Burma’s actions provoked counter-protests in Rangoon this week. Banners carried through the streets by nationalists, including Buddhist monks, featured slogans calling the migrants “terrorists” and “beasts”.

Bangladeshi migrants rescued by the Burmese navy at a temporary refugee camp in Rakhine.
Bangladeshi migrants rescued by the Burmese navy at a temporary refugee camp in Rakhine. Photograph: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

In Bangladesh, the official reaction has been similarly unsympathetic. Its prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, said migrants who risked their lives fleeing Bangladesh were “mentally sick” and tainted the country’s image abroad, and she vowed to punish them. Meanwhile, plans were announced to forcibly relocate Rohingya camps.

About one-third of Bangladesh’s 166 million people are under the age of 15. Youth unemployment is around 13%. The economy depends to a significant extent on remittances from more than seven million overseas workers.

The US, which will be represented at the summit, has said it will consider admitting more Rohingyas. But others are unyielding. Asked whether Australia would help with resettlement, the prime minister Tony Abbott replied: “Nope, nope, nope … We are not going to do anything that will encourage people to get on boats.”

Asean countries have another reason for eschewing joint action to pressure Burma: the group’s long-established principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. In an unusual step, Malaysia, Asean’s current chair, sent a delegation to Rangoon last week to discuss the issue.

But diplomats say unless and until Asean acts tough, Burma’s regime will continue to try to ignore the problem. “It is an Asean issue and has to be resolved by Asean,” a western diplomat said.

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