Myanmar is in the midst of a sweeping transition, but one thing that has not changed is that Thailand is still left with little moral choice but to shelter its refugees. These days, that means mostly Rohingya who have taken to the sea and washed up on Thai shores after fleeing mob violence directed at them in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
As international outrage mounted following reports that Rohingya boat people were being pushed back out to sea by Thai authorities, earlier this year Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra promised to care for those who had ended up on Thai soil for six months, while the United Nations and other groups tried to come up with a permanent solution. A report in Wednesday's Bangkok Post contains a list of 24 centres in Thailand where about 2,000 Rohingya are being sheltered.
That six month period ends on July 26, but with no real alternatives the government should and almost surely will extend the period, while more Rohingya come into the country with nothing but the clothes on their backs
International organisations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation of Migration are helping to provide health care, food and other essentials to the refugees, but a solution looks no closer today than it did six months ago. Sadly, this applies not only in Thailand.
Wednesday's Post article was headlined "Uncertain Rohingya stuck in limbo". That was followed by an AFP report on Friday "Myanmar Rohingya face limbo in Indonesia". While the predominantly Muslim populace of Indonesia are more receptive than their Thai counterparts to the idea of Rohingya being allowed to assimilate, the government is no more inclined to take them in permanently. In Malaysia, about 28,000 Rohingya refugees are registered with the UNHCR, but the number is probably at least double that. While many Rohingya would like to become permanent residents or citizens of Malaysia, in the foreseeable future there seems little chance the government will make that possible for more than a few of them.
The sad truth is that globally only a small percentage of refugees of any ethnicity are ever permanently resettled. Clearly there is a great need for host countries to do more for refugees of all origins, in cooperation with international organisations, despite the expense and domestic friction this almost inevitably causes.
This means building decent shelters where refugees can be united with their families and have room to move about. Education, job training and on-site employment should also be provided, again with the the cooperation of international organisations, with oversight from the UNHCR. With regard to Rohingya refugees in Asean countries, more involvement and support should be provided by Muslim organisations, in particular the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
However, by far the most practical way of tackling the problem is at the root, which in the case of Rohingya is in Myanmar. There are reports that the government is making preparations for the return of tens of thousands of ethnic refugees in camps along the Thai border who left because of conflicts with the former military junta. There is no such move to repatriate Rohingya.
The sticking point is, of course, that the Myanmar government regards the approximately 800,000 Rohingya in the country as illegal immigrants, not citizens, despite the fact that many families have been there for generations. But in any case the government has a clear responsibility to guarantee the safety of Rohingya still in the country and prevent persecution of all Muslims within its borders. Again, international organisations and NGOs should be given freedom and protection to help the Myanmar government accomplish this. The private sector should also be involved. The phalanx of international corporations ready to swoop in to take advantage of the country's vast resources and untapped markets should be required to promote fair treatment through their investments and hiring practices.
Myanmar is a country in transition, and the general direction is undoubtedly positive, but the way it handles the Rohingya situation may well decide the fate of the nation. There can be no true democracy in a racially segregated society.