ASEAN leaders stumble over humanitarian crises 

Catholics, Muslims and ethnic Chinese have borne the brunt of the bloc’s failure to act


Myanmar navy personnel escort Rohingya Muslims back to their camp in Sittwe, Myanmar, on Nov. 30, 2018, after they were detained at sea en route to Malaysia, stirring fears of a fresh refugee boat crisis. (Photo by AFP)

Luke Hunt, Hong Kong
Asia
March 14, 2019

Five great refugee floods have blighted Southeast Asia over the last half-century — sparked by conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, East Timor (also known as Timor Leste) and Myanmar — in tragedies with far-reaching consequences that should have been averted.

As each refugee crisis emerged, a genocide was alleged and internally displaced persons or IDPs — an acronym and euphemism for people who couldn’t make it across a border and qualify as refugees — became an even bigger issue because they were trapped.

Throughout, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) refused to get involved, excusing themselves under the bloc’s policy that members don’t interfere in their neighbors’ affairs, even in heartbreaking catastrophes.

Often those tragedies, accounting for perhaps four million people, are forgotten, such as the waves of refugees who fled what was once South Vietnam in the aftermath of communist annexation in 1975. More than 1.6 million were resettled over the next 22 years.

They were justifiably upset with Hanoi’s invasion and no stranger to flight. About 850,000 people — 70 percent Catholic — were forced to relocate south after the 1954 Geneva Accords that divided Vietnam into north and south at the 17th Parallel.

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Fearing the harsh hand and broken promises of the politburo again, Vietnamese risked all and took to the high seas two decades later.

Another wave followed in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, ending a genocide that had taken hold under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, which had enjoyed the support of China.

This had set off a train of nasty events. In support of the Khmer Rouge, Beijing opened a second front and invaded Vietnam from the north, hoping to undermine Hanoi’s strength. It failed.

Vietnam’s resolve and military response was exemplary, but its next move was a dreadful blight. As paranoid over ethnic allegiances as it is with religion, Hanoi rounded up ethnic Chinese, especially those living in the Saigon suburb of Cholon, and evicted them at gunpoint in a fit of ethnic cleansing.

Their plight was captured by journalist Barry Wain in his book The Refused: The Agony of Indochina Refugees, but it was a subject noticeably absent from recent commemorations marking the 40th anniversary of the Chinese incursion that played up Vietnam’s victory.

Pol Pot’s handiwork was far from complete. About 250,000 Cambodians were living as IDPs in camps along the Thai border as China maintained its support for the Khmer Rouge in an alliance with Western-backed proxies, ensuring conflict. The Vietnamese occupation continued for a decade.

The end of the Cold War, a Vietnamese withdrawal and the arrival of United Nations troops in the early 1990s laid the spadework, enabling Cambodians to return home.

Brutal occupation and suppression in East Timor

A similar story unfolded in East Timor after Muslim-dominated Indonesia annexed the former Portuguese colony in 1975. Its brutal occupation and suppression of a predominantly Catholic population, and an independence insurgency, led to a steady flow of refugees.

That escalated in September 1999 when then U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan announced the results of a referendum that favored independence. Jakarta was angry and about 250,000 people fled into West Timor and neighboring East Nusa Tenggara province as the military responded.

Today, about 400,000 refugees who fled the myriad of conflicts in the southern Philippines are living in camps around the northern tip of Borneo in East Malaysia.

That’s a conservative figure for a crisis that can be traced back to 1969, with the actual number of refugees — who fled an indigenous Moro rebellion, a communist insurgency and terrorist outfits Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah — probably on a par with the exodus out of Vietnam.

A generation of stateless children has grown up in the camps and water villages along the coastline, alienated from their extended families, traditions and basic needs like schooling.

Nearly all are Muslim and have been welcomed, to a point, in Islamic-dominated Malaysia, but like the Rohingya IDPs and refugees in Myanmar and Bangladesh, their plight is as intractable now as it was four decades ago.

The Rohingya crisis can be traced to the 1990s, gathering pace amid an eruption of violence in 2012 that escalated four years later.

More than 1.3 million Rohingya have become refugees, mostly in the last year, fleeing across Myanmar’s northern border to Bangladesh, while some eventually found shelter in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, The Gambia and in the West. Other nations simply ignored their plight.

Refugees tell an all too familiar tale of homes razed, rape, torture and murder. Camps are rife with disease and soaring infant mortality as people smugglers and loan sharks offer false hopes at prices a refugee can ill-afford.

Those that do voyage across oceans are cramped into rickety boats and risk pirates, extortion and being abandoned at sea. Countries like Australia deny entry to asylum seekers arriving by boat.

But under international law a person fleeing conflict must apply for refugee status in the first appropriate country, a norm often ignored by Southeast Asian countries and a disturbing pattern in light of ASEAN’s policy of non-interference.

An end to the refugee crises in Vietnam, Cambodia and East Timor was only made possible by an end to the conflicts from which they emerged.

Violent conflicts in Myanmar and the southern Philippines are far from resolved. In both countries, an Islamic minority remains culturally isolated from a faraway central government.

There is no shortage of these types of conflicts in Southeast Asia. Not all result in a flood of refugees but rebellions in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand and Papua province of Indonesia could provide the next test for leaders who would prefer to wish the problem away.

Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer with ucanews.com. Twitter: @lukeanthonyhunt

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