NEWS ANALYSIS

'Boat people' crisis a test for Asean

A rescued migrant being carried to an ambulance after his arrival at Kuala Langsa in Aceh last Friday. With thousands of boat people from Myanmar having been stranded at sea in recent weeks, such images could well strain its relations with the West a
A rescued migrant being carried to an ambulance after his arrival at Kuala Langsa in Aceh last Friday. With thousands of boat people from Myanmar having been stranded at sea in recent weeks, such images could well strain its relations with the West and curtail foreign investment.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Relations between Asean member states coming under strain

Endemic poverty in Myanmar's Rakhine state, and across the border in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, afflicts local people across the board

But activists say it is Myanmar's "one step forward, two steps back" policy in dealing with the long-running Rohingya issue in Rakhine that is driving the near-destitute minority Muslim people to leave in increasing numbers.

A humanitarian crisis has escalated in recent weeks, in which at least 8,000 boat people have been left adrift at sea and in deep distress, after having been turned back by countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

This presents a test for Asean, and will also try the goodwill of the international community, which uncorked a flood of aid and investment in Myanmar when it made the calibrated transition to a quasi-civilian government four years ago, after decades of stifling military rule.

Today, as images of thousands of desperate boat people are being beamed around the world, the goodwill of the international community could be wearing thin.

"The regular stream of bad news stories out of Myanmar in recent years, such as violence and displacement in Rakhine and anti-Muslim violence across the country, will have a negative impact on Myanmar's relations with the West," independent Yangon- based analyst Richard Horsey told The Straits Times in an e-mail.

Relations between Asean member states are also coming under strain.

In an uncharacteristically blunt statement by one Asean state about another, Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said last week: "We need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity."

Former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said in an interview: "Yes, Thai people may be involved (in human trafficking), but the point of origin (of the boat people) is in another country."

A Bangladeshi analyst, who spoke to The Straits Times from Dhaka but declined to be named, said: "The Myanmar government is to blame for this."

An angry Myanmar denied responsibility last Friday, saying the boat people were not all Rohingya Muslims. The government insists on referring to them as "Bengalis", and local Rakhine Buddhists see them as Muslims out to grab their land and Islamise the state.

Denials aside, the Rohingya issue lies at the core of the problem. More than 100,000 of them live in camps for the internally displaced in Rakhine state, and roughly twice that number in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district just across the border, where they are being put up in two official camps, with the rest living essentially in slums.

There, some have integrated into the community. But the area is impoverished, so locals are resentful as the Rohingyas compete with them for jobs and resources.

"Some of those (boat people) who get apprehended are Bangladeshi people who have had no choice but to take to the seas in the hope of a better life," the Bangladeshi analyst conceded.

"But for sure the huge majority is Rohingya. Sometimes when they get caught, they say they are Bangladeshi."

With Myanmar  edging towards its first real general election in decades this year, Naypyitaw's angry response was a signal that hard political calculations come before the Rohingyas.

Last year, a pilot programme to verify the Rohingyas' status was conducted at a camp at Myebon in Rakhine state. But only 7 per cent of those screened were deemed citizens, naturalised or otherwise, said Ms Debbie Stothard, the coordinator of the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, a pressure group focusing on human rights.

Then, earlier this year, the government said all "white cards" would become invalid from March - in one stroke, it took away the rights of those Rohingyas for whom the sought-after white identity cards mean they are naturalised citizens and can vote. "Now they have no citizenship and no ID, and are on the verge of not existing at all. This is a push factor," Ms Stothard said in an interview.

The international community could reconsider its soft approach to the quasi-military regime.

Still, analysts say, Western powers in particular might not be willing to go so far as to alienate Myanmar and have it turn to China for support.

There are economic stakes as well. Foreign powers "don't want to lose a slice of the (Myanmar) pie", the Bangladeshi analyst said.

No single issue defines Myanmar's relationship with Western countries, Mr Horsey said. But it is essential that the economic plight of Muslims in Rakhine be alleviated, and that the people should be given some hope of a better future, including proper identification documents.

But few are optimistic on that front. "Not only will the crisis not go away, it shows every sign of growing," Yangon-based Dr Khin Zaw Win said in an e-mail. A former political prisoner, he now runs the Tampadipa Institute, a civil society organisation.

"The Rohingya issue presents a test for Myanmar as a democratic society, a Buddhist society and a humane society," he noted.

"As things stand, Myanmar is failing on all three counts."

nirmal@sph.com.sg