"ASEAN" was hardly mentioned at last Friday's meeting held in Bangkok to discuss the region's boat-people crisis. But the ASEAN imprint was apparent.
Key participants tried to avoid using the term "Rohingya" - the stateless people who comprise the bulk of migrants abandoned at sea recently after a Thai crackdown on the human trafficking trade.
This is because Myanmar, from where many leave for journeys on less-than-seaworthy boats, does not recognise them as citizens, referring to them as illegal "Bengali" immigrants instead.
Thailand's neighbours were understandably rattled when its sudden crackdown on human traffickers last month sent boatloads of abandoned migrants headed their way. But Mr Dicky Komar, head of the Indonesian delegation, limited himself to asking "countries" to be "more coordinated" in law enforcement last Friday.
There was one testy moment when Myanmar's representative warned the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) against singling out his country as the source of the problem. Otherwise, the atmosphere was "fairly harmonious", said United States Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard.
"Today we will not comment, we will only commend," quipped Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn after opening the event. It summed up the mood of the meeting, which bore all the hallmarks of the non-confrontational, consensus-building and compromise-friendly approach typical of ASEAN.
This is a style of diplomacy often criticised for being slow and ambiguous, and for watering down key statements for the sake of a united front. Hence the disbelief among the journalists present when Thailand, as the chair of the meeting, circulated copies listing carefully worded "proposals and recommendations" which it said had been agreed upon by all, including Myanmar. These were not binding.
Yet one key paragraph stood out, for proposing that "root causes" in areas of origin be addressed by, among other ways, "enhancing a sense of security and belonging, promoting full respect for human rights and adequate access of people to basic rights and services such as housing, education and healthcare, with involvement of the private sector and relevant stakeholders".
Taken at face value, they were solutions to tackle the woes faced by Muslim Rohingya, who fled sectarian violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state only to be shunted into camps where proper healthcare and jobs are scarce, and their movements, restricted.
Out of desperation, thousands board smugglers' boats alongside Bangladeshi economic migrants to sneak into Malaysia, putting them in the way of human traffickers who torture them for ransom.
According to the UNHCR, more than 88,000 people have set off from the Bay of Bengal since last year, while more than 1,000 are believed to have perished along the way.
This recommendation to address root causes is interpreted very differently in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. "There is no mention of Rohingya in the statement," presidential office director Zaw Htay told The Straits Times on Monday. "We recognise the need to improve the situation in Rakhine… for everybody who lives in the area."
This ambiguity would likely remain in the near term, until the fog of Myanmar's year-end general election lifts. Sectarian tensions are already simmering over the revocation of "white cards", which serve as temporary identification for those people whose nationality has not been verified. Many are Muslim Rohingya.
White-card holders were able to vote in the 2010 general election and the 2012 by-elections. But following protests from Buddhist nationalists this year, they are barred from the upcoming election. The government had given these holders till May 31 to turn in their cards, as part of a citizenship-verification process. Many are reluctant to do so for fear of losing the only document proving their link to Myanmar.
While it remains possible on paper for Myanmar to improve conditions for Rohingya under the banner of general development, chances are dim as electioneering gains pace.
To prod the region into taking more concrete action, the boat-people issue needs an advocate. For a while, that role was taken by Malaysia, which called for and hosted three-way talks with Thailand and Indonesia on May 20 as their navies took turns repelling migrant ships from their coasts. Those talks ended in an agreement allowing seaborne migrants to land in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Then the spotlight fell on Thailand, which is eager to be upgraded from the bottom tier of the United States' annual Trafficking in Persons report, due normally in June. Over the past month, more than 50 people have been arrested. In an unprecedented move, the police also issued a warrant of arrest for a lieutenant-general in the Thai army.
The question is whether last Friday's 17-nation meeting was merely a one-off affair to showcase its anti-human trafficking efforts. If so, it would be a pity, given how the crackdown kickstarted a long-overdue conversation on the exploitation of these people.
With the global attention this has generated, there's enough wind in the sails to take the debate further.
This article was first published on June 4, 2015.
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