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Bangladesh's Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque speaking to media in Bangkok on May 29 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque speaking to media in Bangkok on May 29 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK – It was the weather, as much as anything, that put paid to Napoleon Bonaparte’s and Adolf Hitler’s ill-fated attempts to conquer Russia.

Different times, different climes, but 70 years after the end of World War II, it looks like the weather will trump policy once more – this time in providing a temporary solution to the southeast Asia’s boat people crisis.

Heavy rain and high seas on the Bay of Bengal mean that the traffic in boats will, unlike the waves, subside over the next 6 months, giving governments a window to address the causes and consequences of a grim annual seaborne odyssey.

120,000 Rohingya from Rakhine state in western Myanmar have taken to the seas since 2012, fleeing persecution and violence at home. In the first quarter of 2015, 25,000 people crossed the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in search of refuge and work in Malaysia – a two-fold increase on the previous year as thousands of impoverished Bangladeshis joined the Rohingya exodus.

Many of those making the journey were trafficked and ransomed – the morbid results of which were unveiled in May –  network of trafficker-run camps hidden in dense jungle on both sides of the Thailand- Malaysia frontier. More than 150 corpses have been found at the camps and dozens of traffickers have been arrested.

Representatives of 17 countries met in Bangkok last week to discuss the crisis, pledging to improve search and rescue coordination and increase cross-border anti-trafficking operations.

William Lacy Swing, the Director-General of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) talked up the meeting. “The fact that we all came together was good, the fact that we reaffirmed the search and rescue eforts will intensify,” Lacy Swing told The Edge Review, speaking after conference ended.

More ambitiously, meeting participants agreed to address “root causes” of migration, roll-calling factors such as “capacity building of local communities, providing economic incentives that create more jobs, promoting trade and investment and development assistance to the at-risk areas, providing skills training, infrastructure development, enhancing a sense of security and belonging, promoting full respect for human rights and adequate access of people to basic rights and services such as housing, education and healthcare.”

If applied to Myanmar’s Rakhine State, one of the poorest regions in one of Asia’s poorest countries, the wishlist would amount to a social and economic transformation. For the Rohingya, who make up around one-third of the region’s population, the wishlist must seem laughable – not least at they were not even counted in Myanmar’s 2014 census.

Detailed census results were released on May 29, the same day that Myanmar and 16 other countries discussed a refugee crisis that to a large extent is of Myanmar’s own making. But there were no Rohingya listed in the census, an unsurprising continuation of decades of official discrimination by a government that does not recognise the existence of a Rohingya ethnic group.

And just as the delegates at the Bangkok meeting did not talk about the weather – the final communqué made no mention of how the changing of the seasons will affect the refugee movements in the region – there was little direct talk about Myanmar or the Rohingya.

Anne Richard, the U.S Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, used the ‘R word’ during her post-meeting press conference, but there was no mention of Rohingya during the delegates’ speeches earlier that day. Myanmar earlier insisted it would not send a delegation if the Rohingya were mentioned, and its conference representative, Htin Lin, warned other delegates against blaming Myanmar for the flight of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants.

“This issue of illegal migration and boat people, you cannot single out my country,” Htin Lin said, responding to comments from Volker Turk, the UN’s Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees. Turk said solving the refugee crisis would “require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar toward all its people.” “Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal,” Volk added.

Turk’s statement was as direct as it got. But not only was there no mention of citizenship in the communiqué, there were contradictory accounts of whether the matter was even discussed, in private, during the day-long get-together. Anne Richard said that citizenship was discussed, right after Thailand’s Norachit Sinhaseni, Permanent Secretary at Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the opposite.

For Rohingya, it surely seemed as if the Myanmar government was not taking the meeting seriously, much less committing to addressing the decades of discrimination and bias that prompt thousands of Rohingya to risk kidnapping and destitution overseas.

“The [Myanmar] government just sent a low-level delegation,” said Aung Win, a Rohingya community leader.

“There was not even a Rohingya representative speaking at the meeting,” Aung Win said, speaking by telephone from a Rohingya ghetto on the outskirts of Sittwe, the regional capital of Rakhine state.

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