US must do something to save lives

Migrants are seen aboard a boat tethered to a Thai navy vessel, in waters near Koh Lipe island, on May 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Migrants are seen aboard a boat tethered to a Thai navy vessel, in waters near Koh Lipe island, on May 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

ONE of the world's most beautiful regions, the seas of South-east Asia - home to sparkling white beaches and US$7,000 (S$9,245) a night beach villas - is becoming the scene of a mass atrocity.

Thousands of refugees from the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar, fleeing modern concentration camps at home, have fled to sea in boats, and many have drowned. Fearing a crackdown, smugglers have abandoned some of those boats at sea, and neighbouring countries are pushing the boats back to sea when they try to land.

The Obama administration, which has regarded Myanmar as one of its diplomatic successes, is largely unhelpful as this calamity unfolds.

"The Andaman Sea is about to become a floating mass grave, and it's because of the failure of governments, including our own, to do what is necessary," says Mr Tom Andrews, a former member of Congress who is president of United to End Genocide.

"Not only is there not a search-and-rescue operation going on right now - with thousands out to sea - but governments are towing these people out from their shores back to open sea, which is tantamount to mass murder."

One appalling chapter of World War II came when the SS St Louis left Germany in 1939 full of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Cuba and the United States barred them from disembarking, and - after passing so close to Miami that passengers could see the lights on shore - the ship returned to Europe, where many died in the Holocaust.

Now refugees fleeing concentration camps are again denied landfall.

"We're talking about a flotilla of St Louises, and people are going to die," Mr Andrews told me.

Rohingyas are a Muslim minority reviled by the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar. The government has confined some 150,000 of them to 21st-century concentration camps: I visited these camps last year and wrote about starving children and camp inmates dying for lack of medical care.

On Wednesday, there were unconfirmed reports of 20 Rohingya-owned shops being burned in Maungdaw in western Myanmar, near the border with Bangladesh.

The United Nations says more than 130,000 Rohingyas have fled by sea since 2012. Many fall prey to human smugglers who torture, rape and starve them in Thai camps until relatives pay ransom. The discovery of a mass grave this month at one such camp embarrassed the Thai authorities into cracking down on human smugglers, leading the crews to abandon the ships, with their human cargo adrift at sea.

Ms Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project, a human rights group, said she has been in cellphone contact with two boats full of refugees, and she suspects there are more farther from land and thus out of cellphone range. One is drifting without engines or adequate food, and she, as a private citizen, has been frantically trying to organise a search-and-rescue effort to save the passengers - so far, unsuccessfully.

Come on! If a suspected terrorist were on board, intelligence agencies would use that cellphone number to locate that boat. But 350 desperate refugees adrift at sea, and we're going to shrug and let them drown?

Governments are probably uninterested in rescuing refugees for fear they would then have to take them in. Thailand has long had a policy of sending refugee boats on their way, and Indonesia this week pushed two vessels carrying hundreds of Rohingya back to sea. As for Malaysia, "we won't let any foreign boats come in", an admiral said.

Europe also has a refugee crisis, but at least European countries are mounting search- and-rescue operations to try to save lives. What South- east Asian governments are doing is the opposite.

As a first step, President Barack Obama should call the leaders of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, urging them to rescue and shelter refugees. The US can also use military and intelligence assets to locate drifting refugee boats and assist with search and rescue.

Mr Obama must also make clear Myanmar cannot have a normal relationship with the US as long as it engages in crimes against humanity. Just this month, the administration welcomed to the White House a senior official of the Myanmar government, Thura Shwe Mann, who has allied himself with extremist anti- Rohingya positions. In its statement afterwards, the White House's press office even avoided using the word "Rohingya", apparently so as not to offend Myanmar.

That's craven, but what's worse is the way American and Asian officials alike seem determined to avert their eyes from atrocities in one of the world's most beautiful regions.

"People are dying at sea," said Mr Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, a human rights group that has done excellent work monitoring the Rohingyas. "We know that, right now. And it could worsen considerably in the coming weeks."