THE BLOG

"Boat People" in Southeast Asia: 1979 and 2015

05/15/2015 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

In mid-June of 1979, I read a compelling piece in the Los Angeles Times about a freighter languishing off the east coast of Malaysia carrying 2500 Vietnamese refugees. The Malaysian Navy refused to allow the freighter to dock even though it had run out of fuel, food and water. The "boat people" as they were called were political, economic and ethnic refugees (local Chinese Vietnam being "allowed" to furtively book a small boat and leave Vietnam). The World looked on in shock as their numbers swelled into hundreds of thousands of refugees jammed into small boats which often capsized; or, were captured, robbed, made into sex slaves and/or killed by real life sea pirates off Thailand.

The boats went to neighboring countries seeking asylum -- Hong Kong received tens of thousands from northern Vietnamese ports but most boats went along the east
coast of Cambodia (too devastated by its own genocide to serve as a destination), Thailand (their first choice if they could avoid sea pirates), Malaysia and/or Indonesia as their small boats bobbed and bounced southward. No one wanted them. Operation California (now known as Operation USA) was formed from that crisis and sent the first planeload of outside relief into Malaysia in July, 1979. By 1982, most of the Vietnamese refugees had been resettled in Third Countries.

Now, in 2015, we see exactly the same thing happening but along Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia's west coast and involving Burmese Rohingyas (who are Muslim, originally from Bangladesh, a million of whom have lived in Myanmar/Burma for many decades as stateless persons widely discriminated against.). They are being joined by Bangladeshis from southern Bangladesh fleeing political instability and in desperate need of jobs in wealthier Southeast Asian countries. Substitute here "Human Traffickers" for sea pirates and you have the means of "escape" from Myanmar and Bangladesh. In this case the robbery comes immediately in paying for flimsy sea transportation which the traffickers often abandon without food, water and fuel.

As in 1979, there is mounting pressure on recipient countries -- Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia -- to accept what are estimated to be 25,000 refugees at sea or informally disembarked in many places along these countries' vast coastlines. Someone has to care about them and pressure from the United Nations and human rights groups is mounting on the three recipient countries to allow in international aid. As in 1979, these countries want guarantees that the refugees will go elsewhere once their condition is stabilized. They fear that giving them asylum will attract many more people and much more trafficking.

We need to remind the younger officials and leaders in the recipient countries that this has happened before and that pushing new or potential arrivals away from their shores condemns them almost certainly to death or imposes severe risks to their health and well-being. As for Myanmar, its record towards the stateless Rohingyas is shameful on so many levels and does not exempt even Myanmar's Nobel Peace Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose concern over losing support from Burma's extremist Buddhist majority has muted her own voice. In this context, getting out of Myanmar might make sense for the Rohingyas and other minorities if they can avoid pirates, traffickers and ethnic violence against them and gain civil status elsewhere.

What the World can do is pressure their own governments to apply pressure on Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to fulfill all the meaningless (to them) pledges they made to respect human rights and help all those in need without fear or favor.