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Asean must act now on Rohingya crisis

By Surin Pitsuwan
May 23, 2015

Thailand must turn the Rohingya crisis into an opportunity to rid itself of the human trafficking stigma. So much is at stake if it fails to grasp this moment.

The Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) is hovering precariously in Washington and the European union's (EU) accusation of illegal fishing and human rights violation and threatens Thai fishery exports to Europe further. The damage to the country’s reputation and profile is becoming more difficult to repair.

Thailand should take the lead in galvanising international attention to focus on the countries of origin of this crisis, while leaving no stone unturned in its own war against human trafficking where its own citizens and officials have been involved. A zero tolerance for such a heinous crime and no impunity for any black sheep in the racket of a modern day slave trade must be adopted.

The world and the Thai people know too much for any thought to be given to whitewashing the shameful crimes.

The highest level of the United Nations must be engaged. The UN secretary-general has already made his opening gestures of concern; it is for the Thai leaders to return the favour by inviting the UN secretary general's highest representative on the issue, the highly charismatic and extremely effective UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres to join those who have already called for the high-level meeting.

All the countries involved in the region should be persuaded to show up to share the burden equally. Only those immediately concerned, affected and involved should attend such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Apart from a personal plea to the Thai leaders by Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry called his Thai counterpart to convey the same passionate message. The collective will of the world to address this tragedy is behind Thailand and the region. Empty chairs at the meeting will not embarrass Thailand, but it will instead glaringly show where the larger proportion of responsibility and blame should rightly be placed in this painful humanitarian crisis.

It is a strategic game that would require Thailand’s stable diplomatic finesse. If we do it right, and conduct it well, we have nothing to fear, but we would have a lot more to gain. As Asean proclaims itself as a community of caring and sharing societies at the end of this year, all 10 Asean member states must collectively demonstrate to the international community that they indeed will abide by their own credo of collective human responsibility. Malaysia, as chair, must be consulted, and should provide much-needed leadership in our united response to this man-made crisis.

Thailand as the main country of transit and host to criminal networks preying on these unfortunate and “most persecuted people in the world” must not waste time in drumming up global support for short-term relief and for long-term solutions to this legacy of exploitation and oppression.

While the region is engaged in apportioning blame upon each other for this shocking crime, it takes our collective will to help us navigate the troubled water of the Andaman Sea, where hundreds of thousands more Rohingya will risk their lives on a precarious journey for a more secure livelihood in a more caring world.

Thailand and Asean must act now to avoid the judgement of future generations that, instead of acting nobly and decisively in the face of this conscience-shocking crisis, we would be perceived to be complacent and reluctant to save even the lives of our own fellow Asean citizens. The verdict of history will be harsh on us indeed.

Surin Pitsuwan is a former secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and a former foreign minister of Thailand.

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