‘Boat people’ crisis a test for Asean

‘Boat people’ crisis a test for Asean
A rescued migrant being carried to an ambulance after his arrival at Kuala Langsa in Aceh last Friday. With thousands of boat people from Myanmar having been stranded at sea in recent weeks, such images could well strain its relations with the West and curtail foreign investment.

BANGKOK - Endemic poverty in the Rakhine state - the Cox's Bazar region on either side of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border where it meets the Bay of Bengal - afflicts local people across the board.

But activists say it is Myanmar's "one step forward, two steps back" policy in dealing with the long-running Rohingya issue in Rakhine that is driving the near-destitute minority Muslim people to leave in increasing numbers.

A humanitarian crisis has escalated in recent weeks, in which at least 8,000 boat people have been left adrift at sea and in deep distress, after having been turned back by countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

This presents a test for ASEAN, and will also try the goodwill of the international community, which uncorked a flood of aid and investment in Myanmar when it made the calibrated transition to a quasi-civilian government four years ago, after decades of stifling military rule.

Today, as images of thousands of desperate boat people are being beamed around the world, the goodwill of the international community could be wearing thin.

"The regular stream of bad news stories out of Myanmar in recent years, such as violence and displacement in Rakhine and anti- Muslim violence across the country, will have a negative impact on Myanmar's relations with the West," independent Yangon- based analyst Richard Horsey told The Straits Times in an e-mail.

Relations between ASEAN member states are also coming under strain.

In an uncharacteristically blunt statement by one ASEAN state about another, Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said last week: "We need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity."

Former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said in an interview: "Yes, Thai people may be involved (in human trafficking), but the point of origin (of the boat people) is in another country."

A Bangladeshi analyst, who spoke to The Straits Times from Dhaka but declined to be named, said: "The Myanmar government is to blame for this."

An angry Myanmar denied responsibility last Friday, saying the boat people were not all Rohingya Muslims. The government insists on referring to them as "Bengalis", and local Rakhine Buddhists see them as Muslims out to grab their land and Islamise the state.

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