This year, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is expected to make the ASEAN Economic Community a reality. It is envisioned as a single common market and production base that leads to the freer flow of goods, services, investment capital and skilled labor in the region, tying the member countries into a closely shared destiny.
But what is going on in the Bay of Bengal right now makes that vision a mockery. Arguably the worst refugee crisis since the exodus of boat people from Vietnam in the 1970s is exploding on the shores of ASEAN members while they largely ignore it. The events have highlighted what has been described as “the alarmingly inept regional response to the longstanding refugee problem.” ASEAN still lacks a regional framework on refugees, and only two ASEAN member states have signed onto the UN Refugee Convention.
Rohingya Muslims are driven into the sea by fired-up Myanmar ultra-nationalists feeling their murderous Buddhist oats, and by Bangladeshis who do not regard them as natives. There are believed to be as many as 8,000 people on the boats.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have vowed to push the boats back out to sea even as starving refugees reportedly resort to cannibalism on the high seas. Indonesia has already done so, pushing a boat with 400 aboard back out from Aceh Province.
The Philippines refused to allow any visitors at first, saying the country’s navy would push them back out to sea, but then relented under fiery criticism and said it would take 3,000 refugees.
It would seem a time for ASEAN to step forward.