In late December 2008, several small boats packed with hundreds of people, mostly ethnic Rohingya Muslims from western Burma, many of them emaciated, landed in India's Andaman Islands. Passengers told Indian authorities they had originally landed in Thailand, that Thai authorities held them for two days on a deserted island, and that they then towed them back out to sea, giving them only a few sacks of rice and a little water.
Media attention meant that instead of ignoring them as in the past, national leaders from the region announced that they would discuss the issue of the Rohingya "boat people" on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Thailand in February.
Little was done by the regional grouping, however, except to postpone solutions until a meeting in April of the Bali Process for People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons, and Related Transnational Crime, a multilateral mechanism created in 2002 by Australia and Indonesia for increased cooperation between regional governments and law enforcement agencies on human trafficking and smuggling.
Instead of seeking real solutions, the Rohingya issue was relegated to a discussion outside the formal agenda. The only action agreed was an ad-hoc working group to discuss Rohingya movements at future meetings.
Asean's failure to adequately address the issue reflected a long-standing disregard for the treatment of the Rohingya. The lack of urgency showed that the claims by Burma and many of its neighbours that the Rohingya pose a threat to national security are a smokescreen. For the countries involved, the Rohingya are a relatively minor case of unregulated human movement.
Raymond Hall, UNHCR regional coordinator for Asia, summed it up when he said that in terms of "generalised and systemic oppression of their most basic rights, the suffering of the Rohingya is about as bad as it gets.
Other people in this situation often have homes they can return to, but for these people, they have nowhere they are welcome. That sense of home is being denied them. It is a terrible plight."
Taken from a Human Rights Watch report, 'Perilous Plight – Burma's Rohingya Take to the Seas', published yesterday