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Asia

Media critical of Southeast Asian nations' handling of refugee crisis

The Southeast Asian media have slammed the region's governments over their refusal to share responsibility for the refugee crisis. Scores of people are adrift at sea in the aftermath of a Thai crackdown on traffickers.

A number of Southeast Asian newspapers have criticized the non-partisan approach of the region's governments towards the Rohingya refugee crisis, which has flared over the past few days following a crackdown on human traffickers by Thai authorities.

Earlier this month, three boats carrying more than 1,000 people landed on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, near Thailand. There are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people being held in ships in international waters, according to the monitoring organization Arakan Project, as crackdowns on trafficking syndicates in Thailand and Malaysia have prevented smugglers from bringing people ashore.

With a Thai-proposed international conference on the crisis around the corner, the Southeast Asian nations are attempting to put the blame on each other for the dire refugee situation.

Rohingya migrants pass food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter to others aboard a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015 (Photo: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)

Rights campaigners fear that many more migrants are being held at sea with dwindling supplies

"An international conference has been called in Bangkok by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha on May 29. It probably will feature plenty of finger-pointing. Some of the blame game will be true and pertinent," Bangkok Post writes in its May 18 op-ed.

The paper also criticizes Myanmar for not sending its envoy to the meeting: "No representative of President Thein Sein and his Nay Pyi Taw government will sign in for the Bangkok conference. Once again, Myanmar is not just trying to wave away problems of its own making. Rather, it has gone on the offensive, attacking those who suggest it shares a large part of the blame for putting tens of thousands of boat people at risk."

The Bangkok Post opinion piece expresses its cynicism about the May 29 conference explicitly: "Even worse, Myanmar is claiming it is the victim, and as long as it adopts this position, the 29 May meeting cannot end well."

Persistent conflict

Myanmar's Rohingyas live predominantly in the western state of Rakhine. They are not officially recognized by the government as an ethnic minority group, and for decades they have been subjected to discrimination and violence by the Buddhist majority.

Viewed by the United Nations and the US as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh flee their countries every year in a desperate attempt to reach Malaysia and Indonesia. The UN refugee agency estimated that 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants boarded smugglers' boats in the first three months of 2015, double the amount for the same time period in 2014.

The regional media has slammed the governments for ignoring the Rohingya issue for a long time.

"Rohingya have no rights as citizens, (they) are mocked, and worse, because of their religion, and are subject to vicious attacks over virtually any slight. These conditions are why the Rohingya flee," underlines Bangkok Post.

Where is ASEAN?

"The past week has been a shameful one for anyone who considers themselves a denizen of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional grouping that governments, the private sector and the public alike are fond of crowing about," writes Jakarta Globe newspaper.

ASEAN's policy of non-interference has also come under sharp criticism in the wake of the refugee crisis as a number of analysts urge the regional bloc to fulfill its responsibilities.

"The humanitarian crisis casts the ASEAN in a negative light," writes Khoo Ying Hooi for The Malaysian Insider news portal. "The incident has also revealed the core of many problems in ASEAN itself that is the immense pressure on the regional bloc to rethink its principle of non-interference in internal affairs of neighboring states," she adds.

"The Rohingya crisis is not a new problem in ASEAN. For decades, ASEAN has turned a blind eye to the fate of the Rohingya, one of the world's most vulnerable minorities."

The Jakarta Post has similar demands from the regional grouping: "ASEAN should immediately pool its resources for adequate shelters — with the support of the international community — given its experience in handling disasters."

Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia's Aceh Province May 11, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Roni Bintang TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

UNHCR warns pushback of boats could trigger humanitarian crisis

The core issue

The Southeast Asian media hopes that the ASEAN and the governments in the region would press Myanmar's authorities to address the Rohingya plight. Although, Naypyidaw believes the recent crisis has been caused by Thailand, observers say it is primarily the responsibility of the Southeast Asian country's government to deal with the issue.

Jakarta Globe comments: "Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia can argue that the refugee crisis unfolding today is not of their doing. But as long as they continue to remain silent on the Myanmar government's systematic discrimination against the Rohingya - a word authorities there refuse to recognize - then ASEAN must shoulder a portion of the blame for the suffering that these people continue to experience."

The Malaysian Insider's Khoo Ying Hooi concludes that "the reluctance of Myanmar to openly discuss the issue is a clear obstacle for ASEAN to further develop a joint position," adding that "it is a moral obligation of ASEAN member states to find ways for a sustainable solution to the long-standing Rohingya issue by ensuring it is on the agenda of ASEAN meetings."