The appalling spectacle of thousands of desperate Rohingya refugees drifting in the Andaman Sea, denied succour and refused safe landing, should be a moment of deep shame for Southeast Asia. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia — the countries to whose shores the Rohingyas are fleeing — are increasingly hostile, pushing the migrants back to sea when they do manage to make landfall in their rickety, overcrowded boats. They must be made to do their humanitarian duty and, at the very least, provide food and water to refugees in their territorial waters. But these governments are also correct in protesting that they cannot be expected to bear this burden alone, particularly if the problem worsens — as it is bound to do if the Rohingyas’ shameful treatment at the hands of the Myanmar government does not end.
The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group stripped of citizenship in their native land of Myanmar, have been persecuted for decades and branded Bengalis, vestiges of Myanmar’s troubled colonial past. They are accused of having invented the Rohingya identity and bearing no particular loyalty to Myanmar. As a result, even as Yangon has opened up to the world, the oppression faced by the Rohingyas has intensified since 2011, with anti-Rohingya violence breaking out in June and October 2012. They have no land rights, cannot vote and are subjected to forced labour. If this discrimination continues unchecked, many more of the 1.3 million-strong community will have no choice but to risk putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers and human traffickers.
More immediately, neighbouring countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia must be made to recognise their moral responsibility towards these people. So far, for all the talk of Southeast Asian cooperation, the region has done little more than dither and bicker as the crisis deepens. Ultimately, only Myanmar can provide a lasting solution to this mess. But until then, these countries must take emergency action to prevent a catastrophic and tragic loss of life.