Asia Giants Are Quiet as a Crisis Worsens

Asia Giants Are Quiet as a Crisis Worsens

File photo: Rohingya migrants.(Reuters)

Hong Kong:  When a deadly earthquake rocked Nepal in April, China and India rushed to send relief supplies and search-and-rescue teams. But when another humanitarian crisis - boats bearing thousands of migrants - appeared off Southeast Asian shores a month later, Asia's two most populous countries said and did little. Instead, offers to resettle the migrants came from Gambia and the United States.

The wealthiest nations in the Asia-Pacific region stood back as well. Australia declared it would not resettle the migrants, mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar or poor Bangladeshis seeking jobs. Japan pledged $3.5 million in emergency assistance but also refrained from offering to take in any displaced people.

More than a month after Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to provide temporary shelter for up to 7,000 of the migrants stranded at sea, there has been no sign of progress in finding them a permanent home, nor any hint that Myanmar would address the conditions driving the Rohingya exodus. And Asia's most powerful nations are essentially sitting out the crisis.

Their passivity is all the more striking because, halfway around the world, European leaders have been actively debating a response to their own migrant crisis, in which more than 1,700 people from Africa and the Middle East have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.

President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India often present their nations as emerging global powers, promoting regional cooperation. Both countries also share a border with Myanmar and enjoy economic leverage as major trading partners, and in China's case, as a top source of foreign investment.

But neither has pressured the government on its treatment of the Rohingya or played a significant role in efforts to resettle them. During a meeting of the U.N. Security Council last month, China insisted that the matter was an internal one for Myanmar to resolve.

"The Rohingya issue is a complex multilateral issue," said Zachary Abuza, an analyst with the consultancy firm Southeast Asia Analytics. The governments in Southeast Asia "want it to go away, but they are unwilling to solve it. China and India could play leadership roles but see it as a losing issue that would diminish their clout and bilateral interests.

"No country has more leverage over Myanmar than China, even if it's diminished in the past four years," he added. But China sees the Rohingya problem "as such a toxic one in Southeast Asia that it is unwilling to make a deal of the issue. There is no political upside."

India has helped absorb past waves of refugees fleeing border wars and political repression in Myanmar, providing sanctuary to Burmese pro-democracy activists through decades of military rule, for example. It also hosts more than 10,000 Rohingya who fled earlier spates of violence against them.

But India has refrained from criticizing Myanmar and adopted a policy of grudging tolerance toward Rohingya arrivals rather than engagement, analysts and refugee advocates said. Some government officials have expressed fear that Rohingya Muslims in India might be infiltrated by jihadists.

"India sort of stayed away from this whole thing, and that is disappointing," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the most recent crisis. "India wants to be more careful in maintaining its strategic and economic influence" over neighbors rather than criticize them over human rights issues, she said.

Michel Gabaudan, president of the advocacy group Refugees International, based in Washington, said India was distrustful of the international refugee process in part because it had received little recognition for taking in refugees, including more than 100,000 Tibetans from China and another 100,000 Tamils from Sri Lanka. "India has taken refugees when it made political sense, but not out of a sense of international obligation," he said.

Many in India and elsewhere in the region consider the problem of refugees to be a legacy of Western imperialism and colonial-era borders. The origins of the current crisis, for example, can be traced to 1974, when the Burmese military government asserted that the Rohingya were economic migrants who had traveled to Myanmar during British rule and stripped them of citizenship.

As a result, Gabaudan said, there is a sense that responsibility for refugees rests with the West and institutions such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Only a handful of nations in Asia are among the 148 countries that are parties to the main international conventions that protect refugees.

"Generally speaking, there is a lack of state responsibility for refugee protection in Asia," said Brian Barbour, director of external relations at the Japan Association for Refugees. "Most countries in the region believe that they should be praised for hosting such large numbers of refugees, not criticized for refusing to grant asylum or allow refugees to locally integrate."

While countries such as Thailand and the Philippines provide temporary sanctuary for migrants fleeing persecution, Japan is the only nation in Asia that has accepted refugees for resettlement through the United Nations' refugee agency. Since beginning the program in 2010, though, Japan has resettled only 18 refugee families, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

© 2015, The New York Times News Service

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