Exodus reveals flaws in Asean

Exodus reveals flaws in Asean

The deaths and mass exodus of the Rohingya boat people have shaken the principle of non-interference in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), according to humanitarian experts.

They said the situation also challenges the business-as-usual working culture among humanitarian agencies.

Lillian Fan, a research associate at Humanitarian Policy Group, said the exposure of the Rohingya tragedy showed that Asean, which has invested a lot in disaster relief and humanitarian response management for decades, has failed to deal with the new breed of migrants.

"It turned out that local fishermen from North Sumatra, who themselves have been living in conflict for decades, ended up carrying out successful search and rescue operations for ethnic Rohingya," Ms Fan said.

The appalling situation was now shaking the non-interference mantra among the Asean nations as countries have to bear responsibility for the Rohingya fleeing persecution at the hands of smugglers, she said.

The current tragedy of the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants at sea was due to the fragile and fragmented situations in their countries of origin, she said.

"It's a complex crisis that partly stems from the [domestic] politics in the country of origin but it's also related to the dilemma in interpretations of ethics and humanitarian principles," said Ms Fan, who has decades of humanitarian experience in Asia including in Rakhine state from where the Rohingya have fled in recent years.

She said differing norms and etiquette have led to unilateral, non-sharing, non-coordinating humanitarian operations among participating agencies.

Ms Fan was one of the panellists on the "Boatloads of Misery: Southeast Asia and the Rohingya Pushback" discussion organised at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) on Wednesday night.

Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, said the root causes of the Rohingya exodus were the genocide campaigns that have aggravated tit-for-tat violence and massacres between the Arakanese and Rohingya people in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

"They have been whispering in the ears of average villagers for years that the Rohingya people will take their lands away. These involve state and national security officials, political parties and officials in Rakhine state — like a townhall meeting that spread over," said Mr Smith, who has documented the persecution of the Rohingya for Human Rights Watch.

"Everybody knows about abuses and restrictions and crimes against humanity but the international players are afraid of discussing and pressuring the officials in Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon.

"They don't want to be the next Medecins Sans Frontieres which was kicked out of the country for exposing the human rights situations in Rakhine," Mr Smith said.

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