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.
At the core of ASEAN’s inaction is its principle of non-interference in internal political affairs of its member states, observers said.
“There is a lot of sensitivity, a lot of prejudices and a lot of mutual suspicion that make it difficult for any entity to do something about this situation,” Surin said.
The U.N. has said the deadly pattern of migration across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Myanmar ends discrimination against the Rohingya.
Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis of very large proportions, it’s shocking and it requires the highest level of urgency to deal with it,” said Surin.
Faced for years with the exodus of thousands of Rohingya, other countries in the region have been reluctant to take responsibility for the latest wave of migrants.
In the past week Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia all turned away or towed the crowded migrant boats away from their shores.
Neither is there a conclusive plan over what to do with about 2,500 migrants who have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia over the past week or some 5,000 others still stranded at sea in rickety boats with dwindling supplies of food and water.
Malaysia, the current chair of ASEAN and one of the region’s richest countries, says it has already taken in 120,000 illegal migrants from Myanmar and made it clear that it wants no more.
“ASEAN has the capacity to be very effective in crisis management but only if there is political will,” Lilianne Fan, a former adviser to the bloc’s special envoy on post-Nargis recovery, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Even if there was more willingness to deal with the situation, ASEAN lacks a legal framework for protecting refugees even though disasters and conflicts uprooted 7.8 million people in the Asia-Pacific region in 2013, according to the U.N.
Only two ASEAN member states - Cambodia and the Philippines, have signed the U.N.’s Refugee Convention.
“Refugees are part and parcel of ASEAN’s social fabric,” said Fan, a researcher at the London-based Overseas Development Institute thinktank.
“By doing nothing it is out of step with the social and humanitarian reality of the region.”
ASEAN’s widely praised role during Cyclone Nargis has often been credited with inducing Myanmar’s ambitious reform process, which started in 2011 when President Thein Sein began his term as the country’s first civilian president in decades.
It sparked a wave of foreign investment, and critics say a focus on doing business with Myanmar is stopping other countries from taking a tougher stance on human rights abuses.
“ASEAN talks a lot about the rule of law and democracy but it is in a state of paralysis over this crisis,” Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It is just focusing on investment, so you won’t see ASEAN put pressure on Myanmar when there are so many investment opportunities there,” said Santiago, a member of parliament in Malaysia for the opposition Democratic Action Party.
ASEAN was unavailable to comment despite several attempts to contact it.
Reporting By Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Ros Russell