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Human tragedy of Rohingya in Myanmar has opened our eyes

A Rohingya Muslim woman in Myanmar with a picture of her daughter, who she says is being held by a human trafficker. Photo: Reuters

By Editorial Board
May 23, 2015

The world has closed its eyes to the agony of Myanmar's Rohingya for too long. Despised, impoverished and facing what some call slow genocide, life for the Muslim Rohingya in their home state of Rakhine is dire. Buddhist-majority Myanmar refuses to recognise its 1.3 million Rohingya as citizens, and the threat of state-sanctioned sectarian violence is constant. From such misery comes a desperate stream of human cargo for traffickers, whose trade in the Bay of Bengal is estimated to bring in $250 million a year.

And so it would have continued, if not for the discovery of mass graves near holding camps in southern Thailand earlier this month. Probably the remains of those who died or were killed while held captive, waiting for their families to pay smugglers more money to take them to Malaysia, the gruesome finds made it impossible for Thai authorities to ignore the business – and the involvement of their own corrupt officials in it. They cracked down.

Unable to land their passengers, smugglers abandoned rickety boats loaded with thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis – but little food or water – to the ocean. And so we witnessed the unedifying game of "human ping pong" as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand pushed the boats back towards each other.

It is a relief that action is finally being taken to tackle the immediate humanitarian crisis, with Indonesia and Malaysia agreeing to take survivors, as long as they can be resettled elsewhere in a year, and Malaysia establishing a search and rescue operation, which the US looks set to aid.

But it is an indictment on the region, including Australia, that it has taken so long, and that a regional framework for dealing with irregular migration is not already in place. It worked with the Vietnam refugee crisis and it can work again.

Asian nations did not need the Abbott turn-back policy as a blueprint for their actions this month (Thailand has pushed back Rohingya vessels before), but the exercise has illustrated the cul-de-sac into which it drives us. If everyone is turning back boats, desperate people will die. While the Abbott policy has stemmed the tide of boats to Australia, what will be Indonesia's attitude if they restart, especially if we persist in refusing to take survivors of this emergency?

Australia's blunt language and refusal to more actively involve itself in solving the crisis is further straining our relationship with our important neighbour. Is mercy only for Australian drug smugglers and not for boat people? Will our requests for future cooperation be met with "nope, nope, nope" in Bahasa?

But the Abbott government is right that Myanmar is the key to a long-term solution to the Rohingya exodus. The Association of South-East Asian Nations should use the carrot rather than the stick: offer to partner with Myanmar and Bangladesh, where many Rohingya refugees live in squalor, to build and fund an international investment zone in Rakhine state in return for both countries improving the Rohingyas' human rights.

If it won't offer hope of resettlement to Rohingyas here, Australia should offer hope of a better future at home, by putting bold proposals to the crisis meeting in Thailand this week and to ASEAN in future. We cannot turn a blind eye again.

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Rohingya Exodus