The 29 May Bangkok Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean was widely seen as a failure. This is because it did not produce a substantial set of agreed upon actions for coordinated ongoing implementation by attending countries, and by the Rohingya ‘frontline states’ in particular.
Yet the special meeting was not a complete failure; it was seen by some of those attending, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as a worthwhile ‘first step’. Seventeen regional governments and relevant international agencies attended the meeting, clearly signaling the level of regional interest and concern. All ASEAN members except the small peripheral countries, Brunei and Timor Leste, were present, but the ASEAN Secretariat was apparently not in attendance. All major South Asian countries attended. China was the notable absentee, no coincidence given the ‘Indian Ocean’ headline title of the Special Meeting. Whether China’s absence made a difference to the outcome is not clear. Australia was not the only country not represented at ministerial level, but was the only regional country to not send a minister.
Despite the self-satisfied tone of their joint media release, written and apparently issued before the meeting concluded, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton provided some hope that further engagement by Australia could be expected. They committed a very modest additional AU$5 million (approximately US$3.8 million) to support regional efforts to ‘address this regional challenge’.
Unfortunately, the Australian government’s subsequent public silence on the Special Meeting might indicate that the Liberal–National Coalition government has little confidence in concrete, if imperfect, attempts to find a regional solution to the ‘crisis’. This suggests that no amount of desperate deliberations on possible ‘solutions’ by the 17 countries plus the relevant international agencies could change Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ‘nope, nope, nope’ rebuff to resettling Rohingya in Australia.
A sobering note, in terms of possible future actions, was the first-ever formal statement by Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) after the meeting on 2 June 2015 that ‘resolution of the communal conflict in Rakhine State should be founded on the principles of human rights, democracy and rule of law’, but expeditiously and transparently. While consistent with the position long adopted by Aung San Suu Kyi, this statement is out of touch with the expectations of the activist community and international media.
While the NLD statement — like statements by the Myanmar Government — still glaringly avoids using the term ‘Rohingya’, and merely calls for the citizenship issue to be addressed ‘fairly, transparently, and as quickly as possible’, it at least highlights correctly that further action by Myanmar in this area is essential and urgent. There is much that Myanmar can and should do to facilitate legitimate citizenship claims by Rohingya, and restore any rights removed (either deliberately or inadvertently) in recent Myanmar government policy reversals.
Not all international media accounts suggest the Special Meeting was a failure, or that it failed to address the issue. Statements issued after the meeting by the key international agencies, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and IOM, were not nearly so negative. Certainly no agreement was achieved on urgently needed practical steps, and delicate trade-offs on improved handling of the regional boat people crisis were apparently not struck.
But the Thai government’s ‘summary’ of the meeting covers many sensitive issues, including encouraging ‘safe and legal migration for work’, where participating counties — such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia — must lift their performance and their observance of international and domestic laws. The summary also includes many administrative and procedural measures necessary for improving practical humanitarian responses to the crisis.
Ultimately, it is not up to the international community to impose solutions on any of the countries on the Rohingya ‘frontline’: Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. But existing international norms have a legitimate place in progressing towards better arrangements that are in the interests of all — including the wider international community, which is naturally concerned about the situation of the Rohingya.
The frontline states should, for example, observe the relevant international norms if they expect ‘outside’ assistance in meeting the basic needs of people flows of all kinds. This includes taking effective action against any internal criminal activity or breaches of domestic or international laws. But it also involves frontline states doing much more to protect the normal rights of peoples like the Rohingya, including equitable and expeditious access to citizenship, health and education, and where relevant, employment. If practical steps — such as improved sharing of intelligence — could be agreed on through further negotiations, the more egregious incidents of death, cruelty, mistreatment and abuse that we have seen recently might be avoided.
But if this is to be achieved, greater respect for international norms relevant to these problems is sorely needed. Inputs of financial, technical and humanitarian support from other members of the international community, such as Australia, would help build the necessary enabling environment, and ensure more effective specialist involvement of agencies such as the UNHCR and the IOM in holding and screening boat people. This has been done in Southeast Asia before when it was possible to build a relatively orderly and humane program of movement. Reasonable access to resettlement or properly structured employment in neighbouring countries should also form an integral part of this regional package.
With a sizeable and well-behaved Rohingya population of its own already, Australia cannot stand aside from these efforts. An arms-length attitude will not be sufficient. Rather, greater engagement by Australia and others could help the region move forward through more effective and humane collective collaboration.
Trevor Wilson is a visiting fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, the Australian National University and former ambassador to Myanmar.
A version of this article first appeared here on New Mandala.