Thailand Has a Chance to Lead on Rohingya Boatpeople Crisis

By John Ziegler

Boatpeople arriving ashore in Malaysia in 1978 as migrants. Thailand has the opportunity to help prevent a similar tragedy today. Source: UNHCR Photo Download, used under a creative commons license.

Boatpeople arriving ashore in Malaysia during 1978 as migrants from Vietnam. Thailand has the opportunity to help prevent a similar tragedy today. Source: UNHCR Photo Download, used under a creative commons license.

The discovery of human trafficking camps in southern Thailand in early May, where at least 30 victims of human smugglers were found buried, once again put Thailand’s role in regional trafficking networks in the spotlight. These victims, believed to be Muslim Rohingya from western Myanmar’s Rakhine State, appeared to have died from starvation or disease. Roughly 300 trafficking victims were also found and brought into Thai custody for protection.

Thai authorities have stepped up arrests and prosecutions of human traffickers. As a result, many traffickers have abandoned their camps inside Thailand, where victims were held until they paid a ransom to be transported on to Malaysia. As Thailand cracks down on human trafficking routes on its land and sea borders, approximately 7,000 refugees from Bangladesh and Rakhine State have been abandoned on the high seas in the Bay of Bengal by human traffickers en route to Malaysia or Indonesia to find safety and work.

Against this backdrop, the risk of a regional humanitarian crisis has become more pressing than ever. Many Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers have lived at sea without food and water for days before being rescued or provided aid. Many others remain at sea. Following repeated calls by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to stop preventing stranded asylum seekers from reaching their shores, Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to assist and temporarily take in some boatpeople.

Thailand will hold a one-day summit on May 21 with officials from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, the United States, and more than a dozen other countries and international organizations to address the unfolding crisis. But it has not committed to give refuge to these asylum seekers. Thailand’s role will be critical since it has long served as the transit route for human smuggling networks across Southeast Asia.

Muslim Rohingya have been fleeing ethnic violence and poverty in Rakhine State for years. They are not recognized as citizens and have been subject to discrimination by the majority Rakhine Buddhists. Thailand has served as both a transit and destination country for a large number of these Rohingya.

The Myanmar government has not taken steps to address the roots of communal violence in Rakhine State, and local authorities have either stood by or actively engaged in discrimination against Rohingya. The Rohingya issue is such a volatile one that even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been unwilling to condemn the treatment of the stateless group, although a spokesperson for her National League for Democracy recently said Rohingya are entitled to human rights.

Ultimately, the severe economic hardship in Bangladesh and abuses in Rakhine State must be addressed in order to stem the outflow of asylum seekers. Myanmar will need to come up with solutions to improve the living conditions of Muslims Rohingya, end institutionalized discrimination, and ensure their political and civil rights. The international community should also support Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand as they respond to this ongoing crisis.

Thailand, in particular, has an opportunity to play a more prominent role in responding to the situation. It was ranked as a Tier 3 country in the 2014 U.S. Trafficking in Persons report, the lowest category possible, and will need to show the world that it is serious about combating human trafficking in an effective and humane way. Doing so can also help improve current Thai-U.S. relations, which have been extremely rocky since the May 2014 military coup.

Mr. John Ziegler is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.


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