In the wake of the latest horrific reports of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, the United States government has called Southeast Asian nations to come together and adopt a region-wide strategy for addressing the refugee crisis. “This is a regional issue. It needs a regional solution in short order," State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters last week, according to the Associated Press. As of today, thousands of Rohingya reportedly remain at sea, off the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia, on rickety boats, after human smugglers abandoned them; Malaysia and Indonesia refuse to accept any more of the refugees stranded at sea. Last week, Malaysia turned away two boats of Rohingya migrants. Meanwhile, Thailand continues to investigate the story behind a mass grave, found earlier this month, at an abandoned camp in southern Thailand known to be used by Rohingya traffickers.
This regional solution is unlikely. The Rohingya crisis is, sadly, not new to Southeast Asian leaders, even though the discovery of the mass graves and the vivid reporting on the crisis by the New York Times has raised awareness of the problem in the United States and around the world. Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar en masse for at least three years now, as the country’s increasingly open politics have also fostered rising Burman nationalism and a wave of attacks on Rohingya shops and homes through western Myanmar. At least 100,000 Rohingya, and probably many more, have fled their homes in Myanmar since 2012. Governments in the region have had ample time to respond, and have demonstrated little interest in doing so. The Myanmar government has taken no concrete action to stem the tide of refugees or help them be resettled safely. Bangladesh takes the position that the Rohingya are Myanmar’s problem. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand have refused, over the past three years, to devise any comprehensive solution to the Rohingya problem; Reuters’ investigative reporting, which won the Pulitzer Prize last year, has revealed the cooperation of the Thai authorities in trafficking of Rohingya. (Indonesia, at least, has adopted a policy under which migrants who reach its shores are not sent back, a policy not unlike the United States’ longtime policy on Cuban migrants.)
Only since the discovery of the mass grave has the Thai government arrested police and other authorities for allegedly being involved in human trafficking. Whether any of these suspects will be tried and potentially penalized remains an open question.
In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has once again shown itself incapable of handling a real crisis. ASEAN’s Secretary-General has been all but mute. The ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, which has had three years to formulate a regional policy on Rohingya migrants in collaboration with Southeast Asian leaders, has declined to do so; Malaysia is the current chair of ASEAN, while Myanmar was the chair last year. Myanmar reportedly has blocked discussion of the Rohingya at ASEAN meetings for at least two years. Over the weekend, the Myanmar government blamed its neighbors for the migration crisis, with the office of President Thein Sein declaring that Myanmar’s leader will not even attend a proposed regional meeting to discuss the issue if the migrants are referred to as Rohingya. The Myanmar government prefers to call them “Bengalis,” a term that suggests they have no right to be in Myanmar.
Major Zaw Htay, director of the office of Myanmar’s president, told the Associated Press over the weekend: "We will not accept the allegations by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem.”
Given the lack of action by Southeast Asian (and South Asian) leaders, there is room for outsiders, like the United States, Australia, and Japan, to play a role. Other than calling for a regional solution, will the Obama administration do anything else about the Rohingya crisis? Will it provide naval ships for search and rescue missions, or increase aid to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, to help them take in Rohingya? Will the United States and Japan, which sees Myanmar as important strategically and is encouraging Japanese investment there, do more than express concern about the Myanmar government’s tolerance of Burman paramilitary groups that have stoked the violence against Rohingya?