To some people, Filipinos especially, this is a case of déjà vu. It’s three and half decades ago all over again. At that time the boat people were Cambodians and Vietnamese. (Landlocked Lao refugees walked to Thailand.) This time they are Bangladeshi and Rohingya.
In response, the US State Department announces that the US is willing to accept Rohingya refugees as part of a way of addressing the crisis of stranded boat people in Southeast Asia. The US says it’s ready to take a leading role in any multilateral initiative to find a home for the suffering refugees.
Next comes word from the Philippine government that, as party to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, says it’s committed and obligated to extend humanitarian assistance to the asylum seekers.
The government spokesman refers to a precedent when the Philippines accepted Indochinese refugees who came by boat and other means to the Philippines after the end of the Vietnam War. Some 400,000 Indochinese refugees went through the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC) before they were eventually brought to permanent refuge in third countries.
One government spokesperson is quoted as saying in effect, “Bring all the refugees to us. We have the knowledge, the experience and facilities to take care of them.”
These mouthpieces have only a vague knowledge or memory of the humanitarian service rendered by the now-defunct PPRPC, but beyond that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Apart from the Philippines offering to accept boat people, two countries to which thousands of asylum seekers have already found their way, Malaysia and Indonesia, have announced they will allow some 7,000 boat people stranded at sea to land on their shores. But this will happen under a strict condition: within one year these asylum seekers must either be permanently resettled in third countries or repatriated.
In effect, Indonesia and Malaysia are willing to serve as countries of first asylum for a limited period — one year. After the asylum seekers are certified to be genuine refugees and not jobseekers, they go to a second country of asylum to prepare them for their future new home.
Probably the Philippines is willing to be both a first asylum and second asylum country for however long it takes, provided it gets the same international support that it enjoyed while hosting the Indochinese (Vietnamese, Cambodians and Lao people) refugees between 1980 and 1994.
While there are similarities between the situation of the Rohingya boat people today and their Vietnamese counterparts in the 1980s, the differences are huge.
The US fought a war in Vietnam and lost, and therefore had immense responsibilities for those who fought and worked on its side, and who were left behind when it pulled out. That’s why it was willing to take in all its collaborators and sympathizers.
This is not the case with the Rohingya. They don’t have an effective third country advocate. There’s no strong and organized international effort to help them resettle. I’m not sure Myanmar will agree to an Orderly Departure Program like Vietnam did.
Vietnam received back its repatriated boat people as Vietnamese citizens. How can Myanmar do likewise if it doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar?
Most of the Bangladeshi asylum seekers are probably economic refugees. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve help. By all means an international effort to resettle the Bangladeshi and Rohingya boat people should be organized and funded. That will save many lives.
But in the case of the Rohingya, the only long-term solution is for them to be granted citizenship, and to enjoy the rights and opportunities available to all citizens of Myanmar.
That won’t happen until the thin Lady sings — and sings the truth about the Rohingya and the injustice inflicted on them.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own.