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Opinion

A solution for SE Asia's boat people problem

Southeast Asian governments have a precious chance on Friday at a meeting convened by the Thai government in Bangkok to respond to the humanitarian and diplomatic crisis plaguing Southeast Asia -- and to arrive at some meaningful decisions. The urgency revolves around the many thousands of people adrift at sea or held in camps, victims of the unscrupulous network of human traffickers that has been making headlines in recent weeks.

     The issues are vast and complex. They reach into the inner workings of governments and societies of the region. Are the governments, international organizations and other key parties attending this "crisis meeting" capable of coming up with solutions? More importantly, do they have the will?

Rohingya migrants who arrived recently by boat receive their breakfast at a temporary shelter in Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 25.

     The international community, particularly Thailand and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, had extensive experience and significant success when tackling the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1980s.

     At that time, a Comprehensive Plan of Action to deal with the Vietnamese refugee crisis was drawn up and implemented by governments and international organizations, with UNHCR in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as overall coordinator and a driving force.

     Valuable lessons therefore can be drawn from that action plan and applied to the new wave of boat people -- specifically to the plight of the Rohingya, stateless Muslims who reside mainly in Myanmar. In addition, institutional memories shared by the concerned parties are very much still alive, as are experienced personnel who can give expert advice.

     In dealing with the Vietnamese exodus, the comprehensive plan was drafted and implemented based on several principles, including "non-refoulement" or no forced returning of people who have the right to be refugees, and the collective responsibility of all parties concerned -- namely the country of origin, the country of transit, the country of intake or resettlement. It was recognized that the root causes driving people to make the dangerous and uncertain journeys are a combination of fear, suppression and despair, and the United Nations, especially the UNHCR, acted as coordinator and fundraiser.

     In the case of the Rohingya, the country of origin is primarily Myanmar (and to a lesser extent, Bangladesh), which has a duty to take care of its own people, as any civilized country would. Myanmar does not recognize most Rohingya as citizens, but the country's government and parliament, in particular, cannot continue to deny citizenship rights to them.

History lessons

Myanmar is the successor state to Burma, its name until the end of British rule in the mid-20th century, and there are rights and duties, obligations and commitments that come with being a nation state and a successor state.

     Myanmar subsequently negotiated border demarcations and limitations with adjacent states on its western border with India, and with Bangladesh. The government made no demands to push out the Rohingya from Myanmar, and Myanmar did not ask its neighbors India, Pakistan or Bangladesh to receive the Rohingya.

     It can only be concluded that Myanmar therefore accepted the existence and presence of the Rohingya on its soil and on its side of the border.

     Subsequently, Myanmar's then-military government under General Ne Win deliberately and unilaterally excluded the Rohingya from the list of ethnic minorities accepted to be citizens of Myanmar. It was a political decision. Historical interpretations of the origins and movements of the Rohingya supported that political decision of denial and exclusion.

     It is quite heartening to hear that a senior member of the National League for Democracy under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, the torchbearer for human rights and democracy and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has come out to say that the Rohingya must be given Myanmar citizenship.

     It only remains for the international community and Association of Southeast Asian Nations in particular to press the Myanmar authorities to hasten the process of granting citizenship to the Rohingya. Once the Rohingya have their rights and are reassured of where they belong legally, the urge to flee would be not as strong and not therefore warranted.

     Coupled with the granting of citizenship, the Myanmar government should set up a special socio-economic development program for Arakan, the early name for Rakhine state, from where most of today's Rohingya originated. The international community, through the coordination of the U.N. and World Bank, should set up special development funds and work with the Myanmar government and Rakhine authorities on development programs and projects in the state.

     The UNHCR could in the meantime start discussions with the Myanmar authorities on the question of repatriation in combination with the provision of development assistance.

     The international community, with Thailand in particular, could work quickly to suppress and prevent human trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. The national intelligence and police agencies together with Interpol, the international police agency, must work together to find the ringleaders, the racketeers, the sources of the boats and the loading locations in the Andaman Sea and the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal.

     International air, sea and land patrols could be enhanced and expanded from the anti-piracy work already taking place in and around the Strait of Malacca to the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Anti-money laundering agencies could also assist in tracing the flow of illegal funds.

     Thailand, while working on anti-trafficking, must be able to lead by example on the provision of temporary shelters for the Rohingya or what they are now calling "irregular migrants," in tandem with the UNHCR, IOM and non-governmental organizations. Thai-Muslim authorities and communities should also be involved in taking care of Rohingya who land in Thailand and are fellow Muslims. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) could also play a part here in raising awareness and helping.

     Thailand could also be a country of resettlement by adding some Rohingya to the several million Myanmar migrant workers who are already in the country.

     The UNHCR and IOM should contact countries around the world, especially in the Middle East, to take in Rohingya for residency or to join their migrant work force. Brunei and Singapore, as the richest ASEAN members, could contribute financially. 

     The Vietnamese boat people numbered in the millions. The number of Rohingya and other boat people caught up in today's exodus does not compare. Vietnam was at war, and yet repatriation combined with development assistance was possible. The situation in Rakhine state is relatively peaceful and the Myanmar authorities appear to be in a position to suppress and prevent uncalled-for and unnecessary anti-Rohingya movements.

Exemplary official

One exemplary UNHCR senior official was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the late Brazilian diplomat. He was cosmopolitan, hard-working, intelligent and a team player in his dedication to helping the plight of refugees. UNHCR was at the forefront of the Vietnam boat people crisis, and today it should be able to step up again. 

     ASEAN leaders need to have bigger hearts and inform themselves fully of the issues.

     Myanmar has to stop being the source of international concern, and it surely capable.

     The meeting on Friday is a rare chance for governments in the region to take the lead in solving the Rohingya issue. If they can rise to the occasion, it will enhance ASEAN's standing in the eyes of the international community, while reassuring the region's own citizens that ASEAN is a pragmatic and moral force.

Kasit Piromya is a former foreign minister of Thailand, and a member of the policy committee of the Democrat Party of Thailand. 

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