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On the Rohingya and ASEAN

By Nattavud Pimpa - posted Friday, 12 June 2015

The plight of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar has been highlighted in recent weeks after thousands of people fled ASEAN countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, asking for asylum. Myanmar does not recognise its 1.1 million Rohingya as citizens, rendering them effectively stateless. This is also related to human trafficking, human rights and slavery in Southeast Asia and the issue has become an ASEAN issue.  

Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with Buddhists in the country’s Western Rakhine state in 2012. Hence, the 1.3 million Rohingya in Myanmar are regarded as stateless people and unwelcome migrants from Bangladesh and live in segregated conditions in the Western Rakhine state. In fact, since 1962 when there was a military coup in Myanmar, the people of Rohingya ethnic have faced increasing suppression and restrictions on travel, access to basic education and health service, and marriage. Why? Because they are denied citizenship. Hence, they need to seek asylum from the international community.

A number of Rohingya asylum seekers end up in the India Ocean and have been rejected by many countries in the region. Most of them end up in the vicious human trafficking and modern human slavery in fishing industry of Southeast Asia.   


The situation has caused concerns in the international community which finds Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia should do better to provide assistance to the boat people who have entered into their borders. As a result of the crisis, Thailand convened the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean on 29 May 2015 in Bangkok with delegations from 15 concerned countries and representatives from international organizations. Interestingly, the outcomes of the meeting since all the regional parties attending are below minister level, apart from Thailand’s Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn. The US, Switzerland, the UN and the International Organization for Migration also sent observers.

 One important point is, while Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to temporarily house migrants that have been rescued, Thailand has so far said it will only assist by offering medical aid at sea.

Some of these suggestions can be useful for ASEAN to work together on this sensitive issue.

  • ASEAN and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should immediately develop measures to manage the migration of the Rohingya based on the approach to solve the issue in a long run. Basic assistance should be given including immediate care, determination of their refugee status, individual profiling, screening for national verification, coordination with the countries of origin and third countries for resettlement depending on each individual case.
  • Regarding short-term strategy to help Rohingya asylum seekers, it is important for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to provide immediate assistance to the boat people. The governments from ASEAN members should keep lives and safety of the migrants as its first priority. The provision of food, water, basic medical supports, and fixing the boat to make it seaworthy is inadequate since it was found that a number of people on the boats are women and children who are in frail health and could die without medical attention.
  • Measures should be implemented with participation from civil society organizations in the region to support the work of state agencies in terms of the determination of status and coordination with relatives of the deceased after the bodies can be identified and members of their families can be located.
  • Support should be given to help officers from the UNHCR, NGOs and international humanitarian organizations to perform their duties and to visit and provide humanitarian assistance to the migrants. The government and private agencies should develop an action plan to immediately address the needs of vulnerable populations including children who are separated from their parents and utmost importance should be placed on safety and interest of the child.
  • All ASEAN members, including Myanmar, need to urgently unfold this problem before the advent of Asean economic community. This issue can negatively affect long-term prospect of AEC as well as potential unresolved puzzles on transnational migrant workers and human trafficking in Southeast Asia.

At least, we need to show support for human rights.

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About the Author

Dr Nattavud Pimoa is an Associate Professor in international business at the School of Management, RMIT University.

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