BANGKOK – The Southeast Asian grouping known as ASEAN has made a point of not pressuring member nations over internal issues such as rights abuses, and in the case of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya minority, the policy has come back to haunt it.
Three other ASEAN nations — Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand — now must contend with a humanitarian crisis involving thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded off their shores. After years of ignoring the issue, their chances of using diplomacy to achieve any change in Myanmar's behavior appear bleak.
The crisis is among the 10-nation group's biggest tests since the Vietnam War, both in whether it can protect migrants' lives and to what extent the group can confront one its members — in this case Myanmar. The stakes for ASEAN are high, given the global attention the crisis is getting and the possibility that many migrants could die if no country takes them in.
"This is a test for ASEAN, for ASEAN's sustainability. Its legitimacy will depend on this, and how it is resolved," said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian parliamentarian who is chairman of a regional lawmakers' group pressing for human rights and has spoken out about the need to rescue the refugees and migrants floating in Malacca Strait waters.
Some cracks in the group's bedrock principle of non-interference have appeared.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said over the weekend that Myanmar should take responsibility for resolving ethnic tensions with the Rohingya to prevent other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from being burdened, according to national news agency Bernama.
Rohingya in Myanmar have been persecuted for years, and only more so since 2011, when a long-ruling junta gave way to a nominally elected government. More than 120,000 Rohingya have fled the country since 2012, as Buddhist mobs killed up to 280 of them and drove tens of thousands from their homes. Those displaced are forced to live in camps where they can't work, get an adequate education or receive medical care.
In Thailand, leaders have said the migrant crisis isn't their problem but needs to be addressed by the "origin country" — without being more specific. Myanmar refuses to even use the word "Rohingya," saying the group illegally immigrated from Bangladesh, though Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Myanmar denies it is the source of the crisis and appears unwilling to join in regional talks to address it. Its government has cast doubt on whether it will attend a conference to be hosted by Thailand on May 29 that is to include 15 Asian nations affected by the emergency.
Foreign ministers from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand — countries where about 3,000 migrants washed ashore in crowded boats in recent weeks but have turned away other vessels — are scheduled to hold a meeting Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur.
But experts are doubtful the ministers will be too critical of Myanmar, which could serve to only underline ASEAN's toothless reputation. Most likely, the immediate focus will be on managing the crisis and not getting to the root causes.
"This is going to put on display ASEAN's impotence," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "This is another reflection of ASEAN's ineffectual cohesion."
Founded in 1967 as an anti-communist bloc in the Cold War era, ASEAN has taken few steps to address human rights concerns in the vast region of 600 million people. In a charter adopted in 2007, ASEAN countries committed to uphold international law and human rights but insisted they would not interfere in each other's internal affairs — a loophole that critics say helps member states commit abuses without consequence. In 2009, the group unveiled a commission that was tasked to promote human rights but deprived of power to investigate violations or go after abusers.
At times, ASEAN members have been critical of Myanmar, particularly during the years it was ruled by a military junta.
Though Rohingya asylum-seekers generally go to other ASEAN countries — particularly Malaysia — Myanmar's neighbors have long tolerated the exodus. Ironically, a crackdown by Thai authorities on human smugglers contributed to the crisis, prompting many boat captains and traffickers to abandon their vessels and leave migrants crammed on board with little food, water or fuel, drifting along in the ocean currents.
Thailand and Malaysia have stressed that while they recognize the plight of the refugees, they cannot absorb thousands of them for fear that they would encourage more to flood in.
Malaysia, the current chair of ASEAN, has been criticized for turning away two boats packed with hungry people. The nation of about 30 million already has 150,000 asylum-seekers and refugees, including 45,000 Rohingya, most of whom barely scrape by because they have no legal status and cannot legally work. Many have filed for refugee status with the U.N. refugee agency and hope to be resettled in a third country such as the U.S. — a dream that few actually realize.
"What do you expect us to do? We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border," Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar said last Friday. "We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.... They are not welcome here."
While there is a strong emotional argument that the people on the boats need to be saved, any country that does so will have to deal with difficult issues such as their legal standing and dependence on government support. Thitinan said setting up a coordinated regional framework to cope with the problem will take time, and predicted that it would succeed only with international financial support.
Myanmar is particularly unlikely to respond to any ASEAN pressure at the moment because it is focused on November elections, said Bridget Welsh, a senior research associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University.
"Right now, the politics of Myanmar are domestic, not international," she said. "They're in a holding pattern until elections happen."
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, the group chaired by Santiago, the Malaysian lawmaker, has demanded that ASEAN abandon its non-interference policy, and last week released a statement saying Myanmar's government must be held accountable for the persecution of the Rohingya.
Santiago believes that Myanmar would be more responsive to pressure from China, the U.S. and other major investors in the country regarding its policies toward the Rohingya.
"It appears that so far, ASEAN is unable to respond to a humanitarian crisis involving its own people," he said. "But to be fair, let's see what happens over the next two or three days. My only fear is that before a decision can be made, more people will die."
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.