Asean's litmus test: The migrant crisis
FOR years, before the monsoon season begins in July, boatloads of refugees from the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Bengal have sailed south to the seas off Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. They come from the Muslim communities in Bangladesh and Rakhine State in Myanmar.
Whatever names they are called, apart from the much-debated Rohingya, the challenge has always been there.
But the latest atrocities inflicted on the boat people have reached an intolerable level where all concerned parties, their eyes long turned elsewhere, could no longer stay idle. Now all want to be good Samaritans.
Other similar situations elsewhere, such as asylum seekers in North Africa, share this pattern of engagement starting with disclaiming, blaming and shaming.
Eventually, given the scale of the problems, collective efforts including burden-sharing are unavoidable because no country can do it alone. The approach taken by the European Union is a good case in point.
Thanks to the global outcry manifested through news headlines calling for concerted assistance, there is a sudden new willingness, along with accommodating policies.
That kind of expediency does come with the desire to turn "crisis into opportunity" and preserve national interest at all costs.
Thailand, the front-line state for asylum seekers in mainland South-east Asia, was naturally the first target for criticism and condemnation - as always - at the outbreak of crises. It has been in this catch-22 situation since the 1970s, when the region was plagued with conflicts that drove people away from their homes, by both land and sea.
At the recent Kuala Lumpur meeting on irregular migrants, Thailand's recalcitrance was due to a longstanding lack of confidence in international bodies, especially the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UN body often came with a long list of demands and humanitarian reasons, but then failed to live up to its commitment and local criteria, causing further misgivings in the host country.
Such give-and-take collaboration should have been more effective and amicable given more than four decades of engagement - if sensitive and caring officials were assigned on both sides.
In retrospect, both Malaysia and Indonesia were smarter as they responded to international pressure in a timely manner and offered prompt humanitarian assistance and temporary shelter, which were absent previously. They were immediately praised - while Thailand was left black-eyed for its demeanour in thinking of a long-term solution.
TURNING UP THE HEAT
The meeting in Bangkok on Friday was truly the first international attempt to find a collective and durable solution for one of the world's most persecuted people.
Previous efforts were ineffective because Myanmar was not involved. Thanks to more relaxed Thai-Myanmar relations and the latter's desire to preserve its hard-earned regional and international reputation since its military dictatorship ended in 2011, Naypyitaw took part in the meeting - albeit with little change in its traditional approach. Therefore, this is an opportune time for Asean to step in and turn up the pressure.
In October 2012, Asean tried but failed to respond to an earlier exodus. Following hot on the heels of a blunder to issue a joint communique by the grouping, the Asean chair at that time, Cambodia, called for a special foreign ministers meeting on the Rohingya in Phnom Penh. This went unheeded.
Myanmar immediately rebuked and condemned the meeting as a violation of the non-interference principle.
Fortunately, this time, the Bangkok meeting was different - driven by a sense of urgency and common guilt as last week's meeting revealed. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar could no longer act as bystanders and agreed to tackle the root causes.
In the months and years to come, the migrant issue will further test the Asean spirit - pushing or delaying the integration process of the Asean Community.
Asean will need extraordinary goodwill to engage all members and interpret the non-interference principle in ways that facilitate and ensure a sustainable regional solution without creating barriers.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is the current Asean chair, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo helm the two leading moderate Muslim countries. They must take the lead together and add this challenge to the Asean agenda. The Asean chair is planning to host a ministerial conference on transnational crime that will include human trafficking.
Asean has to be the champion, as this is a litmus test of Asean centrality.
The 48-year-old body must act as a group with one voice, otherwise it will send the wrong signal to dialogue partners on other critical issues such as climate change and the South China Sea dispute.
Thailand was quite happy with the meeting, even though the three outlined objectives have been only partially met. Already, global awareness has increased greatly.
Most importantly, surveillance plus search-and-rescue efforts were under way well before the meeting to help those stranded at sea.
The Thai and United States joint naval and air force teams have cooperated closely, ignoring their current political bickering, for common causes.
The Thai navy, often demonised in the past for its stringent patrols, is suddenly being treated as the good guys.
Recently, Thailand also launched an integrated special task force, known as the Operation Centre for Patrol and Human Assistance for Irregular Migrants in the Indian Ocean, to help with search-and-rescue efforts.
The second objective, which is more problematic, is to combat the long-term problem of people smuggling and trafficking. Additional assistance from the international community is urgently needed.
If history is any judge, such longstanding commitments, especially on the financial side, often get stuck in mid-term when media exposure is not there, coupled with domestic dynamics. The funds pledged by donors at the Bangkok meeting were minute; more will be needed in the future.
The last objective is to eradicate the root cause of the migrants' woes. This is difficult as it depends on the attitude and policies of the countries involved, most notably Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Moreover, measures have to be taken to improve the lives of these people to stop them from wanting to leave for other countries. Otherwise, these desperate groups could be targeted as recruits for violent extremists.
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK