The month of May has brought a terrifying humanitarian crisis to the seas of Southeast Asia. Thousands of people, Rohingya Muslims from Burma and Bangladesh, fleeing persecution and poverty, are adrift on rickety boats in the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca, risking their lives in search of a better life. But Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have turned unwelcoming. There is a very real chance thousands will die at sea from hunger, dehydration or drowning.
The 1 million Rohingya Muslims are being persecuted in Burma, also known as Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and in many cases crowded into squalid camps. Rohingya also live in poverty across the border in Bangladesh. One of the consequences of the continuing maltreatment of the Rohingya has been their steady exodus by sea to seek improved conditions in Malaysia, where thousands have landed in recent years. The escape route has often involved treacherous dealings with human traffickers in Thailand, aided and abetted by the Thai navy, a story that was detailed by Reuters in a series that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014.
The Rohingya exodus from Burma’s coastal Rakhine state, where they are concentrated, surged in the first three months of this year. The number leaving reached 25,000, about double that in the same period of the past two years and more than in all of 2012. Meanwhile, Thai authorities have cracked down on human traffickers who ran the underground routes taken by the Rohingya to Malaysia. Last year, the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report found that Thailand was not meeting minimum standards to combat trafficking, and the country was downgraded to the lowest level, which could lead to sanctions.
Thai authorities moved against the traffickers and their illegal transit camps, where fleeing Rohingya were extorted for money — those who could pay went on, and those who could not were beaten and left to die. Since May 1, the Thai authorities have exhumed more than 30 bodies from shallow graves, apparent victims of the traffickers. The crackdown appears to have scattered the smugglers, who have abandoned refugees at sea.
The migrants on the water are in desperate shape, and thousands may be adrift. Navy ships from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have in recent days intercepted boats packed with hungry migrants, given them food and water and sent them away. No country wants them, and none wants to encourage an unstoppable exodus. Thailand on Monday announced the formation of a “transit area” for temporarily housing the refugees. All three nations ought to focus on saving lives of those now drifting, rather than turning their boats into floating coffins.
The larger responsibility lies with Burma and the state’s reprehensible treatment of the Rohingya minority, a problem that festers in what was supposed to be Burma’s transition from military rule to a more open society. The nightmare at sea began with despair at home. Until that is remedied, the boats will keep coming.