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    Southeast Asia
     Feb 28, 2009
ASEAN rights and wrongs
By Brian McCartan

CHIANG MAI - When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) opened its 14th summit this weekend - the first under the new charter it adopted in December - hopes ran high that the 10-member grouping would finally move beyond its code of non-interference and evolve into a more proactive organization.

Those hopes have already dimmed by the relegation to the meeting's sidelines of the first big transnational issue to emerge under the new charter - the dire and debated status of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya boat people, which rose to prominence after reports that Thai military officials had abused a group of the refugees. ASEAN, a legal entity since the adoption of the charter, is expected to review an initial draft of powers for its new human

 

rights body at this weekend's summit meeting in Cha-am, Thailand.

Assuming that body has teeth, it will have plenty to dig into. The cross-border issues of economic migrants, human trafficking and political asylum seekers are escalating across the 10 ASEAN countries [1], underscoring the region's growing interconnectedness and the need for concerted regional responses. By addressing the Rohingya issue only informally during this weekend's meeting, ASEAN has demonstrated that it has not yet taken to heart its new commitment to uphold human rights.

ASEAN's unwillingness to prioritize the Rohingya crisis, which would inevitably lead member countries to examine and perhaps criticize the reasons for the spiraling refugee situation, is consistent with the organization's past non-confrontational approach to crucial and often delicate regional security issues. Thailand has said that it officially considers the Rohingya as economic migrants, which is at odds with media coverage and rights groups who consistently refer to them as "refugees" and "boat people".

The truth is that the Rohingya are both and as such represent a complex problem for ASEAN governments. As refugees, they are entitled to certain rights, such as protection from repatriation, which undocumented economic migrants do not have. Regional countries view the Rohingya problem differently, raising the potential for diplomatic turbulence if the issue were opened to public discussion. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajeva has identified the Rohingya situation as a regional issue and suggested that it should be discussed by all concerned ASEAN countries. In a recent interview with the Bangkok Post, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said regional countries must be firm in sending the Rohingya back to Myanmar.

Refugee and migrant worker issues are endemic to the region and are expected to intensify amid the mounting global and regional economic downturn as jobs are lost, overseas workers return home, and foreign remittances are slashed. A 2009 Global Employment Trends report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) said that due to a reliance of many Southeast Asian countries on manufacturing exports, foreign direct investment, tourism and foreign remittances, the region is highly vulnerable to a prolonged recession in the developed world. Southeast Asia will also be increasingly impacted by economic slowdowns in China and India.

The ILO report estimated that as of 2007, 46.6% of those employed in the region were among the working poor, while 16.4% were considered extreme working poor. "In other words 30.2% of the employed survive on between US$1.25 and US$2 a day," the report said. For the region's more developed countries, cheap migrant labor has become a structural feature of their workforces.

In Singapore migrants are known to make up 30% of the workforce, while in Malaysia one-in-five workers are migrants, according to the United Nations-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM). And many of the region's workers are migrating intra-regionally across borders.

In 2007, the United Nations Development Program estimated that 90% of Myanmar's overseas workforce of 1.6 million is in Southeast Asia, mostly in Thailand. The "East and Southeast Asia Situation Report" released by the IOM in 2008, stated that most of Laos and Cambodia's workers abroad are also in Thailand. An estimated 59% of Indonesia's 2.3 million overseas workers are scattered across the region, predominantly in wealthier Malaysia.

Experts note that migrant workers are usually the first to be laid off during times of economic recession. In a region where most migrants are engaged in menial labor, this means that workers who are already subsisting on slim earnings will have to live on even less in the months ahead. The same will be true for families that are dependant on foreign remittances, particularly in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Waves of migrants returning unemployed from abroad will put new strains on regional labor markets, which are already suffering from rising unemployment. With so many in the region already living below the poverty line - at home and abroad - rising regional unemployment is expected to worsen poverty and accentuate development gaps. It could also, depending on how migrants are handled by regional governments, lead to diplomatic sparring.

Migratory ups and downs
An IOM policy briefer released in January stated that migrants in a majority of cases actually create economic activity and jobs "because human mobility makes economies more dynamic and efficient". However, the common view among most governments is that migrants take local jobs, and retaining them over locals in difficult economic times would be a difficult policy for governments to maintain.

A 2007 ILO study estimated that Myanmar migrant workers added US$11 billion to the Thai economy, or 6.2% of GDP. Yet thousands of Myanmar migrants are being laid off, arrested and deported. In an incident that could signal growing antagonism towards migrants in Thailand, hundreds of Myanmar workers were arrested earlier this month after the rape and killing of a Thai university student by two migrant workers in the northern town of Chiang Mai.

The arrests were reportedly accompanied by beatings and locals petitioned the government to rid the city outright of migrants. Malaysia, known for its chauvinistic attitude and well-documented mistreatment of Indonesian migrants, has already announced plans to expel some 100,000 Indonesian migrants. Singapore has yet to announce large-scale expulsions of migrant workers, but soon could as hundreds have already been laid off following the cancellation of major projects which have resulted in a plunge in labor demand.

The Rohingya are currently the most visible problem, and should serve as a test case for how ASEAN handles future asylum and economic migrant issues under the grouping's new charter. Among other pressing human rights problems are the abuse of Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore and Malaysia, the mistreatment of Lao and Cambodian workers on Thai fishing trawlers, and the ethnic Hmong refugees in Thailand threatened with repatriation to Laos.

Although ASEAN's new charter endorses the concepts of human rights, freedom and social justice, its clear member states are still unwilling to take the diplomatic leap of genuinely addressing the often abysmal treatment of the region's refugees and migrants. Human rights and labor organizations say that often entails inhumane working conditions, low or non-payment of wages, physical and sexual abuse by employers and arbitrary deportations. They note putting the Rohingya on ASEAN's formal agenda would require an uncomfortable exploration of the allegations of human rights abuses, discrimination and denial of citizenship perpetuated by Myanmar's military government.

Yet a change in tack is clearly needed. Past regional agreements, including the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers and its 2004 forerunner Declaration on Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children, called for cooperation on preventing trafficking, identifying and protecting victims of trafficking, and promoting and protecting the rights of migrant workers. Both those declarations have come under criticism for being too general and non-binding.

Migrant policing is currently mostly handled by individual countries or through loose bilateral agreements. However these arrangements have been inadequate in dealing with protection issues - a situation highlighted by Thailand's recent treatment of the Rohingya and Myanmar's refusal to even acknowledge the refugees as its citizens. Thai and Malaysian authorities came under harsh criticism in February when US rights lobby Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused them of being in league with human trafficking gangs known to operate along the Thai-Malay border.

In a letter sent on Wednesday to ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, HRW called on the grouping to improve the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and improve protection for migrants. The rights group said that the treatment of the Rohingyas and the resultant hundreds of deaths "was proof of the need for regional solutions to Southeast Asia's human rights problems".

The rights lobby also pointed out that the impact of the global economic downturn on migrants' rights "highlights how gaps in current labor and policy frameworks across the region also have left millions of workers at high risk of mistreatment". According to Elaine Pearson, HRW's deputy Asia director, "ASEAN's continuing failure to hold the [Myanmar] military government accountable for abuses and ASEAN's unwillingness to provide refuge for those fleeing oppression in [Myanmar] are two sides of the same coin."

ASEAN's new human rights body will not be formally created until July, but already human rights and civil society groups are voicing concerns that it will be a toothless tiger. They note ASEAN's dogged adherence to a policy of non-interference and say initial drafts of the proposed body indicate that it will not have any substantial investigative powers.

Placing the Rohingya on this weekend's ASEAN summit meeting's formal agenda would have given the new human rights body much-needed credibility and set an important precedent for the grouping's approach to future refugee and migrant labor issues. By keeping the Rohingya out of the meeting's limelight, as the summit's organizers have opted, ASEAN members will conduct refugee and migrant labor policies without meaningful consultation with their often affected neighbors, or business-as-usual at ASEAN.
Note
1. The 10 members of ASEAN are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.

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