Quiet dialogue may help solve Asia’s refugee crisis

Sholto Byrnes considers the fate of migrants stuck on boats in the Andaman Sea.

A Rohingya woman queues up to receive Muslim headscarfs donated by local residents in Langsa,  Indonesia. (Binsar Bakkara / AP)
Powered by automated translation

It is impossible not to be moved by their plight. When I heard about the 1,051 refugees who landed a week ago on a tourist beach on Langkawi – an island I know very well – I could all too easily picture the cruel incongruity of the starving and the sick staggering ashore in full view of five-star splendour and hotel staff in sharply pressed uniforms.

Now there may be thousands of refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh drifting south towards the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia. In rickety boats, abandoned by their people-smuggling crews, already the victims of extortion and violence, they find that nobody wants to take them in.

Not Thailand, whose crackdown on human trafficking may have led those desperate to find a better future to sail farther. Not Indonesia, which sent three warships and a plane to turn away a boat over the weekend. And not Malaysia, which has provided provisions and then sent boats on their way.

As chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for 2015, Malaysia is expected to take the lead in coordinating a response, and the foreign minister, Anifah Aman, is due to have talks with representatives from Indonesia and Thailand this week.

In the meantime, the fate of those still at sea has led human rights organisations to condemn the Asean countries for not doing more. This may be an entirely understandable perspective from outside the region. Inside, there has indeed been huge concern – and concern put into action in Malaysia after the prominent activist Marina Mahathir called for the public to provide food, water and medics; but there are almost no voices demanding that these unfortunate stateless people be taken in.

As Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, said: “We are very sympathetic towards those who were floating in the open seas. Many were killed, including children. Because of that we allowed some of them to land and provided humanitarian aid to them. But Malaysia must not be burdened with this problem as there are thousands more waiting to flee from their region.” He pointed out: “Malaysia already has 120,000 illegal people from Myanmar in the country.”

An open-door immigration policy may be considered admirable – and I’ve argued the benefits of immigration in these pages before – but it needs to be decided by the countries in question.

It cannot be forced upon them by the court of outraged international opinion. And while the Asean nations are developing fast, they still number plenty of poor people among their citizens. The idea that they could support thousands of extra refugees may have rather more currency with western urban liberals than with the masses in South East Asia who are more concerned with the cost of rice and the provision of basic amenities.

Mr Najib’s stance was echoed on Monday by Malaysia’s longest-serving premier (and Marina’s father), Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Speaking at the launch of the second volume of his Selected Letters to World Leaders, Dr Mahathir was clear about where lies the responsibility for the plight of the Rohingya – who have been deprived by Myanmar both of citizenship and their name (officials will only refer to them as “Bengalis”). “Why can’t Myanmar accept them?” he said. “Because they are Muslims? They have been in the country for centuries.”

Dr Mahathir also said that the issue of Bangladeshi migrants was a problem that should be dealt with at home. “We can help them in many ways,” he said, pointing out that a factory in Bangladesh is soon to assemble the Proton, Malaysia’s national car. “But for them to risk death at sea, it is something that should not have happened in this civilised world.”

These are surely the two key points. The only way to reach a sustainable solution to this particular problem is to help ensure there are enough jobs so that people don’t seek to leave for economic reasons; and equally to ensure that peoples with a long history of residency are not rendered stateless by their own government.

Very public berating of Myanmar’s government might be tempting – and would really be more appropriate than castigating other Asean nations – but harsh words and sanctions did little to persuade the previously-ruling military junta to change its ways. Quiet, behind-the-scenes dialogue and pressure will probably work better, combined with offers not necessarily of aid but of measures that will be of benefit to Myanmar in general, so that there are incentives to turn the ethnic heat down.

For persecution of the Rohingya has significantly escalated since Thein Sein became president in 2011 and, sad to say, it aids his popularity in a Buddhist-majority country where hostility to Muslims, and Rohingyas in particular, is entrenched. According to one estimate, up to 20 per cent of the Rohingya population may have fled Myanmar under his watch. But Thein Sein’s government will barely admit there is a problem, still less concede it is of their making.

Asean has leverage, and so does America, which has done much to remove the pariah status that clung to Myanmar for decades. Mr Obama and Mr Najib, as Asean chair, can and should try to persuade Myanmar’s government to act with greater responsibility to a people who were its citizens until a 1982 act deprived them of that dignity. However much we might long for them to use a stout stick, a bag full of juicy carrots will probably prove more effective.

Some might say that would be rewarding bad behaviour. I suspect those still clinging to near wrecks in the Andaman Sea would just like to see the persecution end, whatever it takes.

Sholto Byrnes is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia