KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Southeast Asia's timid diplomacy and a see-no-evil approach to human-trafficking is to blame for its boatpeople influx, and overcoming the crisis will pose a severe test for a region loathe to address divisive issues, diplomats and analysts said.
In particular, the region has allowed the problem to fester by failing to curb Myanmar's systematic abuse of its unwanted Rohingya people, which has sent masses of the Muslim ethnic minority fleeing abroad, they said.
One of the most cherished core principles of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – to which Myanmar belongs – is its pledge of non-interference in other members' internal affairs.
But that has come back to bite ASEAN, said Elliot Brennan, a researcher at Sweden's Institute for Security and Development Policy who studies the bloc.
"Ultimately, this is a problem of ASEAN's own making – one borne of an outdated non-interference policy," he said.
"(The boatpeople crisis) puts enormous pressure on the bloc to rethink its policy of non-interference."
Even Europe, which enjoys far greater political cohesion and resources than ASEAN, is struggling to deal with an influx of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.
An EU proposal to distribute asylum-seekers among its members has sown division, but a robust debate is under way and there is broad agreement that something must be done.
Southeast Asia, however, will find it harder to muster political will, particularly given the added challenge that one of its own – Myanmar – is a major source of refugees, analysts said.
Significant numbers also are economic migrants from non-ASEAN member Bangladesh, further complicating the matter.
These factors will hinder aggressive action as countries tip-toe over the diplomatic eggshells, including a reluctance to set an interventionist precedent that could boomerang against them later, said Chong Ja Ian, an ASEAN expert at National University of Singapore.
"There are many layers of complexity involved, including the non-intervention policy and critiquing other fellow ASEAN governments in ways that set precedents that members are uncomfortable with," he said, adding ASEAN does "not seem ready to handle this migrant issue".
Most immediately, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand must determine how to deal with the rickety boats filled with hundreds of sick and starving migrants.
They have drawn global criticism for turning away vessels, apparently worried about sending a green light to the migrants.
"If countries in the region take these Rohingya in, then it would send (that) signal and will encourage Myanmar to drive out all of its Rohingya population," said Syed Hamid Albar, Malaysia's former foreign minister and now its representative on Rohingya issues to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Myanmar brands its 1.3 million Rohingya as foreigners from neighboring Bangladesh, imposing oppressive restrictions and denying them citizenship, despite many having roots going back generations.
Things have worsened since 2012, when clashes with Buddhists left more than 200 people dead and tens of thousands of Rohingya in squalid refugee camps.
To stem the migrant "push" factor, ASEAN will likely pursue a "quiet diplomacy" that lets Myanmar save face, said Alan Chong of Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
With increased Southeast Asian investment coming in since Myanmar's political opening-up in 2011, the country may be increasingly susceptible to leverage, some believe.
But prospects for securing a change on the Rohingya remain uncertain with the government focused on crucial elections later this year, Buddhist nationalist sentiment strong, and little or no domestic pressure on the issue.
Myanmar already has snubbed Thailand's call for a regional summit on the crisis, saying the migrants were not its problem.
Nowhere for Rohingya to go
Sriprapha Petcharamesree, a Thai former representative to ASEAN's human rights commission, said Myanmar routinely rejects any overtures on the Rohingya.
"Even offers from ASEAN to assist on a humanitarian basis were rejected on the grounds that it involves the internal affairs of Myanmar," she said.
Even if Myanmar were to relent, that may not stem the outflow, said Abdul Hamid, head of the Rohingya Society of Malaysia.
"After all their suffering, many Rohingya don't want to be there anymore. They don't trust the Burmese (government) and they want to leave. They feel it is not a country for them."
Myanmar's ASEAN partners share much of the blame, critics say, for providing the "pull" factor, particularly Malaysia, the primary destination for most Rohingya and Bangladeshis.
Malaysia has for years looked the other way as illegal immigrants have come in, utilizing their cheap labor while denying them many basic protections, said Brennan.
Corrupt officials in the region are believed to help facilitate the flow.
Increasingly brutal human-traffickers have profited, turning recently to offering many migrants free passage to Malaysia only to later hold them for ransom in Thailand, killing some whose families don't pay, according to anti-trafficking activists.
"Now that the problem has worsened, the spotlight is on governments to act," said Brennan.
"Myanmar must stop the persecution of the Rohingya, so too the oppressive circumstances in Bangladesh must abate, while trafficking and corruption must be faced head-on by governments," he said, adding that the issue will be a "litmus test" for ASEAN. – Satish Cheney, AFP/Rappler.com