Does ASEAN know the meaning of 'emergency'?

Does ASEAN know the meaning of 'emergency'?
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Malaysia, as current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has done the right thing in calling for an urgent meeting over the plight of thousands of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh left adrift in the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca.

Though that call should have come earlier - the mainly stateless Muslim migrants have been boarding boats in the thousands since October for the dangerous journey down the coasts of Myanmar and Thailand - at least ASEAN is now acting.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said he would seek separate meetings with his Thai and Indonesian counterparts to discuss the problem, adding that Myanmar should summon a meeting of its own, an emergency one if necessary, to discuss and seek solutions.

But what is not yet clear is whether Malaysia has any clear proposals on how ASEAN can handle this humanitarian crisis.

Members of the regional bloc have long known about the plight of the stateless Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, those who continue arguing over the ethnic group's geographical origins and blaming two centuries of British colonialism for the refugees' "pariah" status miss the point.

The pressing issue is that the Rohingya are facing intolerable conditions where they live. Authorities in Myanmar and Bangladesh refuse them citizenship and regard them as illegal settlers. Buddhist-majority Myanmar even refuses to acknowledge their existence, misidentifying them as Bengalis.

At the end of the monsoon season every year, thousands of Rohingya board boats in the Bay of Bengal in search of a better life elsewhere. The desperate trek is managed by people-trafficking syndicates. Malaysia is the favoured destination, though not the only one.

Most Rohingya migrants are willing to go anywhere they might make a comfortable living. Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are preferred, but neighbouring Thailand has

also been a convenient haven, despite the risks of falling foul of traffickers. An estimated 100,000 Rohingya have settled elsewhere in Southeast Asia since they began fleeing Myanmar nearly half a century ago.

ASEAN member-countries have experience in dealing with crises resulting from this mass migration. Last week the Indonesian navy followed the example set six years ago when the Royal Thai Navy towed out to sea a boat containing 300 Rohingya seeking to land on our shores.

That action in 2009 made international headlines and became an embarrassment for Thailand. It was also the focus of ASEAN attention, since Thailand was at that time chairing the association.

Unfortunately the regional bloc has never properly addressed the issue of Rohingya migration, no matter which country has been at the helm.

When the ASEAN chair passed to Myanmar last year, the government in Nay Pyi Taw consistently barred the subject at regional meetings, resulting in media at home proudly announcing that the government had succeeded in keeping the Rohingya off ASEAN summit agendas. Last month saw that silence maintained at the latest summit, despite pressure for a debate from host Malaysia.

With Malaysia now pushing to bring the issue to the table again, member-countries should resist the temptation to play the blame game. Instead they must focus on forging the strategies and putting in place the measures that are urgently needed for both the short and the long term.

The priority is to save the lives of the Rohingya already on the move and find them safe havens. The United Nations and other international organisations that can render aid should be urged to join the effort.

With the safety of the migrants secured, ASEAN can then agree on their origin-identity and decide where they should live. Much of the current talk can be postponed. Right now only action will save the thousands of lives at risk.

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