'Boat people' crisis a test for ASEAN's humanitarian resolve

Mon May 18, 2015 10:46am EDT
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By Astrid Zweynert

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Just days after Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar in 2008, Surin Pitsuwan, then secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), swiftly called on its member states to provide urgent humanitarian aid to the survivors.

With thousands of lives at risk because of the military government's resistance to letting foreign aid workers into the country, ASEAN stepped in to lead an emergency relief operation for the more than two million people affected by the disaster.

Humanitarian agencies praised ASEAN for leading an effective response by acting as a bridge between the junta and the international aid community.

Seven years later, the picture could not be more different.

Southeast Asia is gripped by a looming humanitarian crisis as boatloads of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis escaping poverty at home face sickness and starvation at sea.

But ASEAN has been silent, despite international calls for a regional response and the United Nations expressing alarm over a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

"It wasn't easy to deliver aid to Myanmar in 2008," Surin, a former Thai foreign minister, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"But the situation was a bit less complicated than today because it was a natural disaster not a crisis with very deep political complexities," he said.   Continued...

Rohingya migrants, who arrived in Indonesia by boat, queue up for their breakfast inside a temporary compound for refugees in Kuala Cangkoi village in Lhoksukon, Indonesia's Aceh Province May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Beawiharta