- - Tuesday, June 2, 2015


The Thai government, a military dictatorship installed by a coup notwithstanding, gave itself a pat on the back when it got the 17 countries together to talk about the refugee emergency in Southeast Asia, and what they could and should do about it. It’s a big emergency that nobody wants to make sacrifices for.

Thousands of men and women, including many children, have been set afloat in leaky boats in the South China Sea with evil people-smugglers promising them new lives in Australia and prosperous Southeast Asian countries, and delivering only hunger, abuse and more misery. The emergency exploded when bodies of half-starved victims turned up in mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia.

Participants were threatened by Myanmar, which for centuries was called Burma, if they brought up the subject of mistreatment and abuse, and the meeting broke up without naming even the cause of the exodus, which is apparent to everyone. There were no suggestions for a solution.

The Burmese government refuses to accept as citizens the growing Muslim minority in the southwest region of Myanmar. Neither do the generals in Naypyidaw, the new capital, though they are ostensibly committed to turning military rule back to an elected civilian government. They acknowledge that peaceful ethnic Burmese Buddhists have terrorized the Muslim population. It’s significant that even the generals’ iconic political opponent, Aung San Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has declined to publicly condemn the violence.

Like all such problems, this one is complicated. In British colonial days, Burma abutted the land of the Bengalis in British India. Some of the early immigrants developed their own language and called themselves Rohingya, a name the Burmese do not recognize for one of their numerous and conflict-ridden minorities.

In the post-independence period, with the volatility of first East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, there has been a steady stream of new arrivals from Bengal. They are Muslim Bengalis searching for a livelihood as Bangladesh’s population explosion of the 1960s and ‘70s cools. That explosion has left Bangladesh with a third of its 152 millions under the age of 14 and a population density higher than any other major country. The current refugee wave consists of both Rohingyas escaping Burmese persecution and Bangladeshis searching more prosperous lives abroad.

The pressure finally forced Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia to take in some of the refugees, often rescued with the assistance of U.S. Navy surveillance. Those countries are helping not only under protest but with making conditions so miserable that other migrants will not want to follow. Southeast Asian nations inevitably turned to the United States and Australia for help, and they have contributed $26 million to care for some of the rescued.

The Thai-led conference decided not to have a follow-up meeting, but as word drifts back of the dreadful treatment of those who put themselves in the hands of people-smugglers — many young women were sold into sexual slavery — it will stem the flow, at least temporarily. Nothing is certain. The crisis in Southeast Asia is similar to the flight of Syrian other Middle Eastern and African refugees toward Europe, and the flight of Hispanics across the U.S.-Mexican border.

This would be an opportunity for the Obama administration to sponsor a conference of many nations for a look at worldwide migration before it becomes a worldwide crisis. The administration will certainly fail if it tries to lead from behind.

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