ASEAN’s Rohingya Challenge: Can ASEAN fail to act and yet be a Community?

A human tragedy has been unfolding in the Bay of Bengal. Thousands of poor Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees and job seekers have been the victims of xenophobia, cynical smugglers and incapable governance.

Many of the perhaps 1.3 million Rohingya... have so poor living conditions, or are so badly treated, that tens of thousands place their fate in the hands of smugglers. As long as this tragedy is allowed to persist, it will lead to new acute crises. Photo: Joseph Allchin

Many of the perhaps 1.3 million Rohingya… have so poor living conditions, or are so badly treated, that tens of thousands place their fate in the hands of smugglers. As long as this tragedy is allowed to persist, it will lead to new acute crises. Photo: Joseph Allchin

What has ASEAN done? So far very little. Yet this crisis is exactly the kind of non-traditional trans-national security challenge that ASEAN must cope with if it means seriously its ambition to form a peaceful “ASEAN Community” by December 2015.

  • The exodus of refugees and job seekers from Myanmar and Bangladesh presents an acute challenge for ASEAN
  • Four member countries are directly involved: Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia
  • ASEAN lacks a capacity for handling trans-national security challenges
  • A minister-level working group should be established

A double tragedy

In May 2015, a double tragedy unfolded in the Bay of Bengal when Thai authorities discovered camps where refugees and migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar had been held in transit, and been so badly treated that many had died. The disclosure led to a crisis when the smugglers absconded. Their clients had nowhere to go but sailed around without enough food or water, until they were allowed to land in Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand. Meanwhile many died. This was the first – acute – tragedy.

The other is permanent. Many of the perhaps 1.3 million Rohingya, the majority of whom live in Myanmar without citizenship rights, while the remaining reside in Bangladesh or other countries, have so poor living conditions, or are so badly treated, that tens of thousands place their fate in the hands of smugglers. As long as this tragedy is allowed to persist, it will lead to new acute crises.

Read more in a recent PRIO Policy Brief: ‘ASEAN’s Rohingya Challenge

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