The Rohingya crisis: a regional perspective
27 May 2015|

When Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi used the term ‘pull factor’ in a recent interview, she was reprising an expression coined four decades ago to describe how the promise of resettlement was the reason for the continuing exodus of Indochinese refugees.

Marsudi is well aware, however, that resettlement isn’t why an ever-growing wave of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are turning up on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s simply to get out of Myanmar and find sanctuary—anywhere.

The dilemma isn’t the same, but in the early 1980s the Americans were arguing among themselves whether the later Vietnamese boat people were refugees, or what one controversial report called ‘economic migrants’: another catch-phrase now back in vogue.

While many may have been, refugee workers found it hard to make the distinction when the escaping families were braving storms and a brutal cordon of fishermen-turned-pirates in a desperate voyage across the Gulf of Thailand to find a new life abroad.

Little could be done to prevent that exodus at its source, but Myanmar’s membership of the Association of Southeast Asians Nations (ASEAN) should give Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia some political leverage to eliminate the ‘push factor’—even if that does look unlikely right now.

If they can stop squabbling among themselves and dispose of the mantra that member states should not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, they’d have every right to press Myanmar to repeal the 1982 law which rescinded Rohingya citizenship after centuries of residence in western Rakhine.

While the three governments have been rightfully criticized for keeping thousands of ‘migrants’ floating offshore in dire conditions, mounting a humanitarian operation shouldn’t obscure the fact that Naypyidaw is allowing the burden of an uncompromising policy to land squarely on its neighbours.

Thailand has good reason to worry. It was only the promise of resettlement that persuaded it to take in the Indochinese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s. But that hasn’t always applied to the Karen, 120,000 of whom are still living in nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Overseen by the military, Myanmar’s civilian administration may have reluctantly agreed to attend Friday’s summit in Bangkok. But in refusing to even acknowledge the word ‘Rohingya,’ it seems to be saying that finding a permanent solution isn’t their problem.

If ASEAN officials expected moral support from Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Su Kyi, they have been sadly mistaken. As an ethnic Burman nationalist, she hasn’t shown herself to be sympathetic to the Rohingya or any other minority cause.

In a BBC interview in 2013, when 144,000 of the 735,000 Rohingya had already been displaced by ongoing violence, she denied they were targets of ethnic cleansing and claimed that fear among majority Buddhists had fuelled religious tensions.

Ethnic Burmans comprise two-thirds of Myanmar’s population of 50 million, with the rest made up of six main minority groups, including the Shan and Karen in the rebellious northeast who have fought against the central government since independence.

The Bengali-speaking Rohingya are already widely scattered. More than 200,000 live across the border in Bangladesh, as many as 500,000 in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and another 30,000 in Malaysia.

Malaysia is now the final destination for most of the Rohingya. But even if it does deny them official status, by allowing them to work in menial jobs over the years, Kuala Lumpur has inadvertently created a pull factor that is now also impacting on Thailand and Indonesia.

The United States says it’s ready to take the lead role in a multi-country effort, organized by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), to take in the ‘most vulnerable’ of the latest wave of refugees, to call them by their real name.

The US has already quietly resettled 1,000 Rohingya people, despite a UNHCR pronouncement three years ago that they weren’t eligible for resettlement, even if they do fit the definition of a refugee: people with a well-founded fear of persecution.

At the height of the violence in 2012, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres claimed the UN’s resettlement programme—and its method of referrals—was only for those fleeing ‘one country to another under very specific circumstances. Obviously, it’s not related to this situation.’

Other refugee officials insist that religion and/or post 9/11 security concerns aren’t the issue. While no-one will publicly admit it, the stateless Rohingya are considered poor resettlement prospects in the Western countries because they lack any formal education and are prone to domestic violence.

Retired refugee workers recall the UNHCR having similar reservations about resettling Hmong hilltribe refugees from the war-torn mountains of northern Laos, who then proceeded to amaze everyone with their ability to adapt to a life they’d never prepared for.

Then there are the Karen on the opposite side of Myanmar; all of them better educated and, without putting too fine a point on it, either Buddhists or Christian Baptists. While many remain in limbo along the border, a surprising 80,000 have quietly been accepted for third-country resettlement over the past decade. That, of course, is not the aim of the hastily-called Bangkok meeting, which is expected to consider a regional action plan addressing the more immediate issue of people traffickers and the idea of an international development fund for Rakhine state.

At this early point, it’s the most that can be expected.