Today the ASEAN region is confronted with the challenge of coping with Rohingya who have taken to the seas to seek a safer life elsewhere. At the same time, the European Union is forced to deal with the phenomenon of Africans fleeing their continent to seek a better life in Europe.
In both these cases, the refugees concerned have been portrayed as vulnerable, homeless people who present a challenge to other countries that have become the destinations for them.
For reasons that I will elaborate on, I find this depiction of the Other as the "vulnerable victim" problematic; and I would argue that at this critical juncture we need to seriously interrogate the very language that we use to describe and understand such crises.
Let us be honest from the start and call a spade a spade: The crises in North Africa and Myanmar are not natural disasters to begin with.
Even in cases where natural disasters have struck, I have been amazed by the resilience and fortitude shown by ordinary human beings who demonstrate the capacity to cope under extraordinary circumstances.
I recall, while working in Kashmir as part of the post-earthquake relief operation there in 2005, how a young couple in the devastated town of Muzaffarabad managed to hold their wedding ceremony in the midst of carnage and destruction.
Practically every family I met had lost at least one relative, and in one village every woman and child had been killed, leaving the men alone and destitute.
Yet in the midst of this loss and pain, a young couple could still proceed with their wedding - proof of the incredible strength of the human will and humankind's capacity to rise above disasters.
Upon my return to Europe, I was asked by my colleagues and students about what I saw and what I had learnt in Kashmir, and my reply was simply this: I learnt that human beings, in times of crisis, can rise to the level of the superhuman. The crisis in Kashmir was, however, a natural disaster, on a par with the tsunami of 2004. There was no one to blame for these disasters, as no agency was involved.
A natural or man-made disaster?
What is happening now in South-east Asia and the Mediterranean is not a natural disaster though, but rather the result of political will and contestation that necessarily involve human agency, and thus entails the element of moral-political responsibility as well.
To describe the phenomenon of boat people - be they drifting across the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea - as a "disaster" suggests an inevitability to the situation that begs the question: Surely, thousands of people would not rush out to sea, braving hazardous conditions that imperil their lives, for the sheer sake of it?
But this is where a disconnect seems to have appeared: The developed countries in the West bemoan the fact that refugees from Africa are running to them, but have not asked why these people are running in the first place.
For the deteriorating security conditions in countries like Libya today are not the result of some natural disaster but rather the outcome of political intervention gone wrong, leading to crises that are political in nature.
The answer to the problem seems simple enough: If you do not want to have economic or political refugees rushing in your direction, perhaps it would be wise not to stir economic or political problems abroad in the first place.
Likewise, the phenomenon of Rohingya taking to the seas today is not the result of an earthquake or a tsunami, but rather the outcome of a political crisis that has been brewing for years now.
To describe the Rohingya as "homeless" obfuscates the fact that they have a home, or rather had a home, and that they have been forced to leave as a result of a domestic political crisis that likewise involves actors and agents who are local.
As long as we refer to such people as "homeless", we will perpetuate the notion that the Rohingya are a stateless community with no homeland of their own, and thus deny them their history, culture and identity as well.
Not an ASEAN problem
Compounding matters is the tendency to label this as an "ASEAN problem", as if all of South-east Asia was implicated in the humanitarian crisis that led to this situation, when the honest approach would be to identify the actors and agents who have been responsible for this state in the first place.
Some reports have bemoaned the fact that the ASEAN region has been slow to act, or suggested that ASEAN has proven itself powerless in the face of crisis.
Yet again this blurs the distinction between those who are primarily responsible for the flight of the Rohingya and those who are now faced with the challenge of coping with this human exodus.
The former are those who caused the crisis in the first place, and they include the right-wing ethno-nationalists and sectarian groups in Myanmar who have demonised the Rohingya, and in our analysis of the current situation we need to be clear on where the responsibility for this crisis lies, and who ought to take primary responsibility.
The other countries of ASEAN may have been slow in their response to the flight of the Rohingya, but none of the other countries of ASEAN is directly responsible for their flight.
The real test for ASEAN at the moment is thus two-fold: On the one hand, there is the growing need to find some means to deal with a crisis that can be compared with the flight of the Vietnamese boat people in the past, which requires ASEAN to get its act together and emphasise, yet again, the spirit of ASEAN co-operation on the basis of a common ASEAN history and shared destiny.
ASEAN needs to speak up
But ASEAN also has to be aware that its policy of non-intervention in the affairs of member-states has been problematic for some, and during times of crisis such as these the norm of non-intervention has been used to discredit ASEAN as a whole and paint a disparaging picture of the grouping as little more than a talk shop.
In the way that ASEAN states today have become more assertive when dealing with non-conventional security issues such as cross-border pollution, and more willing to speak up when one country's environmental problems become the problems of other countries, so should ASEAN states recognise that political crisis in one state may well become a shared crisis for the region as a whole. This can happen, however, only when we accept that some crises - such as the flight of the Rohingya - are not disasters that happen "naturally".
The Rohingya issue is also an occasion for the communities of ASEAN to reflect upon themselves and how they view the world around them.
On a positive note, it should be recognised that in many countries across ASEAN at the moment, there has been an outpouring of concern and sympathy, which affirms a commitment to a sense of common humanity that we all share, regardless of differences in culture or nationality. We are not, after all, heartless and indifferent to the plight of others.
But we should also be wary of over-emphasising the victimhood of the Rohingya, or casting them permanently in the role of the unfortunate and vulnerable, for such discourses of victimhood - when overplayed - can also hobble the Other and reduce others to the status of the perpetual victim.
The Rohingya crisis is a man-made problem, with human actors and agents responsible. Concerted effort by nations and national actors is needed to resolve the crisis at that level.
But the victims happen to be human too, and we should never forget that. Consider the fact that many of these refugees - be they the ones from Africa or from Myanmar - have spent weeks, perhaps even months, at sea; and have been forced to survive on sea water or even urine.
What is that, if not a testimony to their strength and their enduring will to survive at all costs?
Do not brand them homeless illegal immigrants. Do not dismiss them as boat people, as though their desperate bid for a better life in a vessel defines their identity and their existence.
The very least that we need to do for these people is to recognise them for what they are: human beings with a cultural identity and history, endowed with dignity and who deserve a modicum of respect rather than condescension.
This article was first published on May 23, 2015.
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