Since before human beings invented writing, there have been individuals, families and communities who have uprooted themselves from their homeland to find somewhere else to live. In hunter gatherer societies and nomadic civilisations this was necessary to ensure access to food and water, but since the advent of cities and later the nation state, travelling to a faraway place for permanent resettlement has become a major decision, calculated from the balance of push factors (war, famine, political or religious persecution) and pull factors (security, job opportunities, rule of law, access to government welfare).
The idea of migration is deeply ingrained in some cultures – thus the Minangkabau merantau and the Iban berjalai – and pre-Westphalia, our region thrived on it. Indeed, ASEAN’s current ambition to enable freer movement of skilled labour pales in comparison to the practice in previous centuries when foreign merchants and traders settled in the prosperous ports enabling the birth of new communities such as the Baba Nyonya, and foreigners were employed by royal courts.
When hardship befell one kingdom, many people would naturally flee to neighbouring areas. For example, although the Minangkabau had migrated from their Sumatran homeland to the Malay Peninsula for economic reasons for centuries, in the early nineteenth century the Padri War broke out, resulting in a huge escape across the straits, and today there are people in Negeri Sembilan who identify as being descendants of those refugees. Ironically, the war and Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 prevented the future immigration of Rulers of Negeri Sembilan from Pagar Ruyong as had been the case up until then: from then on, the Yang di-Pertuan Besar would be elected locally.
Today, most countries in the world scrutinise and categorise people entering their territory, employing visas and a vocabulary to suit: asylum seekers, economic migrants, tourists, international students, temporary foreign workers, expatriates, MM2H, etc. Many countries have also played important roles in enabling refugees to lead better lives.
Malaysia has been one of those countries in recent history – though younger Malaysians may be unaware that since the 1970s 250,000 Vietnamese and lesser numbers of Cambodians and Filipinos (but perhaps more famously, hundreds of Bosnians in the 1990s) found refuge here. I was astounded on a visit to Australia two years ago to meet a monk who expressed such warm gratitude to me, a stranger, simply because he regarded Malaysia as saving his life after he escaped Vietnam.
Those earlier episodes were not without controversy, however, and today’s range of responses to the crisis in the Andaman Sea is no different.
Where there is least disagreement is in the short-term. The humanitarian situation is desperate, making headline news even in Europe where they are dealing with seaborne migrant issues of their own. The Pope compared the Rohingya plight to that of minorities brutalised by ISIS as stories and pictures of the appalling conditions on the boats and accounts of people being hanged and thrown overboard have emerged. Many charitable Malaysians have stepped up to send aid – as they did for Kelantan, post-Haiyan Philippines and Palestine.
However, as proposals become more long-term, disagreement grows, triggered by Malaysians asking questions like: What might be the impact of the precedent set by allowing thousands of people to land – not only to the hopes of thousands more, but also in terms of resources required? If we accept them, what are the possible long-term impacts to our neighbourhoods? What assistance and assurances will we get from the international community? Already, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments are attempting to answer these questions with explicit conditions in providing shelter.
And then there’s the continuing question of how to engage with Myanmar. The ASEAN Way of non-interference makes any form of sanctions (let alone observers) exceedingly unlikely – this aside from the fear that any such action might push Myanmar towards competing geopolitical actors, and the fact that companies which have already committed significant investment into the economically-booming country will likely resist any disruption. Old calls for UN peacekeepers to Rakhine are forgotten, and Myanmar’s only Nobel laureate is at worst complicit, at best motivated by electoral prospects.
On traffickers – those despicable people who profit so much from human misery – ASEAN might have a more realistic chance of doing much more. Ironically it was a crackdown by Thailand that may have prompted captains to so cruelly abandon boats leaving thousands to die, which is why a regional effort to build on earlier initiatives like the 2004 ASEAN Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons is crucial to enable better cross-border cooperation.
Perhaps one day, democracy and economic prosperity in the region will enable people to cross borders for only the happiest of reasons. Until then, we can’t quite celebrate our migratory legacy.
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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS