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A “Dream Thailand” Public Forum on: “Asia’s New ‘Boat People’ Crisis: Regionalization, Regulation, Regionalism”


A “Dream Thailand” Public Forum on:
“Asia’s New ‘Boat People’ Crisis: Regionalization, Regulation, Regionalism”

Tuesday, 9th June 2015 at 08.30 – 11.30 a.m.

The Chumbhot-Pantip Conference Room, 4th Floor, Prajadhipok-Rambhaibarni Building,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University



08.30 – 9.00 a.m.            Registration and Coffee

09.00 – 09:10 a.m.          Opening Remarks

                                         Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana
                                         Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

09.10 – 10:50 a.m.          Speakers

                                         Mr. Jeffrey Labovitz
                                         Chief of Mission
                                         International Organiozation for Migration (IOM Bangkok)

                                         Dr. Kasira Cheeppensook
                                         Department of International Relations
                                         Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

                                         Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn
                                         Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand

                                         H. E. Mr. Kasit Piromya
                                         Former Minister of Foreign Affairs
                                         Kingsom of Thailand

                                         Ms. Gwen Robinson
                                         Chief Editor, Mikkei Asain Review
                                         Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand


                                         Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak
                                         Director, ISIS Thailand
                                         Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Videos - Asia s New "Boat People" Crisis: Regionalization, Regulation, Regionalism

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Asia s New "Boat People" Crisis: Regionalization, Regulation, Regionalism 3/3:


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Introductory Remarks: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana 

Thousands of “boat people” have been journeying from the Bay of Bengal eastward, aiming primarily for Malaysia

and Indonesia. They seek jobs, to improve their livelihoods, and to escape persecution and poverty in the region of

their origination. This is an issue that has become regionalized, but without an adequate framework for its handling

or resolution. It is just not limited to the region, however; this poses challenges for the entire international community.


Some progress was made at the 29 May meeting in Bangkok, especially with Malaysia and Indonesia committing to

provide shelter for a year.  Although things seem to be going in the right direction, much more is needed.



Thitinan Pongsudhirak: The title of this forum is very broad; it will be noticed that we settled on the term

“new boat-people crisis,” and that the words “Rohingya” and “migrant” were not used. This is an issue that

crosses borders, involving South Asia as well as Southeast Asia. It also involves “nontraditional” security

concerns for the states in question. With the meeting on 29 May, several observations could be made: First,

Thailand’s role is that of a transit country for the migrants. Second, the word “Rohingya” was not used.

Additionally, Bangladesh received much international attention and clearly has some responsibility. Of a group

of migrants discovered in Aceh, approximately 60% were Bangladeshi nationals. The IOM deals with people

and with migrants… What’s next?


Jeffrey Labovitz

It is noteworthy that this topic could not be discussed so publicly just one month ago. With the events of 29 May,

this is now possible.


The phenomenon that we are witnessing is not new; it has been happening for more than a decade, with

1,000-2,000 usually making the journey annually. The change came in 2012 and was a drastic one of scale. Now,

the numbers are closer to 10,000, and there were 5,000 in April 2015 alone. With the recent crackdown, however,

the numbers will now be dwindling.


Regionalization has been occurring in that the “boat people” include not only Rohingya out of Myanmar, but also

Bangladeshis, and they are also ending up in a variety of countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, latter

of which has approximately half a million. Thailand itself may have up to 10,000, and there are now more Rohingya

outside of Rakhine state than within it. Regulation comes into play in terms of being possibly effective with

regard to economic migrants from Bangladesh, and also in the form of the recent crackdown. The larger boats have

now become too conspicuous, but we could start to see in 4-6 months smaller boats making the trip. The large

numbers that have been seen recently will never again be reached, however. Regional cooperation has been

occurring in that states are now communicating with one another hereon. Previously, there had been no effort to

assist the “boat people”, but lives must come first, and regulation can be effective in this area. The 29 May meeting

brought people together, and it was a success, because people actually talked about the issue. It is not, though,

going to be solved in one meeting; there needs to be a follow-up mechanism, which was not clearly defined.

The ASEAN processes, moreover, have not helped to solve the issue.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak: How many people can fit onto a single boat, and how much do they pay?


Jeffrey Labovitz

Three years ago, the boats were smaller, but they have been getting larger each year. An up-front fee approximately

of a few hundred USD is taken, and the boats depart once they have filled their quotas. The largest boats take

more than one thousand, who then have little food. Humans become just cargo. The journey lasts for a few weeks,

after which they arrive ashore and move to camps. 40% of those found in the camps were malnourished, 4%

severely so, and 1.9% on the verge of death. This often occurs with those who stop making payments to the traffickers

and thus stay in the camps longer.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Also, of course, mass graves have been found… Now, how would we assess the positions

of Thailand and of ASEAN?


Kavi Chongkittavorn

What comes next should be more meetings, but they ought to be higher-level. Thailand is a frontline state. With the 29

May meeting, it performed well, though the Minister of Foreign Affairs should have talked to the media. Previously,

the crisis had been regarded as an “internal” problem of other states, but it has since been acknowledged that it

is actually a regional one now. Even Myanmar realized this, and that is why they attended. Thailand asserts now zero

tolerance for human trafficking and will adapt its law-enforcement procedures; even if this was due in large part to

external pressure and a desire to gain more international legitimacy (especially vis-à-vis the U.S.), it is still a positive

development. Thailand is showing that it is facilitating and being more coordinated. (We do need to wait until

John Kerry’s remarks on 23 June, however.) It is also good that Myanmar is more willing to talk now. Thailand’s

next step should be to push this onto ASEAN’s agenda, but this would happen incrementally. What happens

in Malaysia, furthermore, will depend heavily on domestic-political concerns there. Previous attempts to work

through ASEAN failed, but now is the time for ASEAN to take the lead.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak: We will move the discussion now to Myanmar, and the limited success of

trying to talk to “Burma” about the “Rohingya”…


Gwen Robinson

I have gone to Rakhine state, and to the camps there. What is salient there is the sentiment against Muslims in

general, and not just the “Rohingya.” It is also clear that this crisis concerning a particular stateless people

with no governmental recognition is currently the biggest diplomatic challenge facing ASEAN and

Southeast Asia as a region. Among the “boat people,” there were previously no Bangladeshis, but, now, there

are varying proportions on each boatload. In the end, though, all of them need help.


On the diplomatic side, the 29 May meeting was a success, but this is a defining crisis for ASEAN. It brings

forth numerous underlying issues and tensions (noninterference, religion, security, migration), and we have

seen a lot of buck-passing and finger-pointing (such as that from Malaysia and Indonesia against their Buddhist

neighbors to the north). The Thai-Malaysian border has been tightened, resulting in economic fallout. It also

has implications for the AEC and Malaysia’s TPP negotiations (because of stipulations on human-trafficking).


The upcoming election in Myanmar will be crucial, though, and excessive international criticism could be disruptive.

Individuals with political aspirations cannot take any substantial course of action that would not have political

implications. Moreover, the antagonistic sentiment against the Rohingya is quite universal among the people of

Myanmar. What happens with them, though, will very much depend on the results of the election.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Domestic politics are also a concern in Thailand, though…and what of Bangladesh?

They are not part of ASEAN, so how will ASEAN deal with them?


Kasit Piromya

The 29 May meeting was officially among representatives from the five “most-affected” states, with regard to

the crisis, but this is wrong! Myanmar is not an “affected” state; it is the cause and origin of the crisis. There

was not, however, any discussion on Myanmar’s responsibility as such. Myanmar must solve its own problem.


There are two points that establish Myanmar’s responsibility. The first is its status as the successor state to that which

existed when the issues allegedly originated. The second is that, when border demarcation was negotiated with India,

there was no attempt to have the latter repatriate the Rohingya. Rather, Myanmar seemed to accept the Rohingya. Since

that time, though, Myanmar has come to list only 135 official nationalities leaving out the Rohingya, but this was

decided undemocratically, by military decree.


The international community must continue to pressure Myanmar. The Rohingya have the right to citizenship,

and Myanmar should not export its problems. I am also deeply disappointed with the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi

on this issue, especially as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient; is she to be world figure, or just a politician? I am also

very disappointed with the UN, and also the IOM, for not being at the forefront of this. Historically, the UN’s

track record in Southeast Asia has been much better; it affirmed states’ responsibilities. The UN could involve

itself more with resettlement and engage more with Myanmar especially on issues of development and education,

and to help the Rakhine Buddhists.


The 29 May meeting was just a showcase; the reality on the ground is much different. Thailand is closing one eye,

and there is too much attention to what is happening at sea. On land, there is slavery and torture. The Muslim chief

of Thailand made a proposal to help the Rohingya, but there was no response from the government. The Rohingya

need, however, the sensitivities of their fellow Muslims. The 29 May meeting was not enough.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak: You have essentially confined the problem to the Rohingya, though.


Kasit Piromya

This must be verified, but I believe that the “Bengalis” among the boat people are actually Rohingya who started

their journey from Bangladesh


Thitinan Pongsudhirak: At any rate, thank you for reminding us of the historical context.

We will now focus on the ASEAN dimension. With the discovery of the mass graves, this issue has come

into the public eye, and ASEAN is now in a quandary. There has since been a chain reaction of peer

pressure, and ASEAN would lose tremendous face by not reacting. It shows how ASEAN works and does not work.


Kasira Cheeppensook

The issues of regionalization, regulation, and regionalism are all intertwined. The aspects of regionalization and

regionalism both require that there be regulation, as there are now few legally binding mechanisms. Nonetheless,

there has been a norm-shift in ASEAN.


The crisis has shifted from one of internally displaced persons to one of irregular migration. After the 29 May

meeting, means of solving the crisis were divided into three areas providing humanitarian assistance, combating

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