A  humanitarian  crisis  in  the  Bay  of  Bengal  has  attracted  international  attention;  over 4,000  Rohingya  migrants,  also  referred  to  as  the  ‘boat  people’,  embarked  on   rickety vessels have been sighted or intercepted  by  the maritime  security  forces of  Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. Many more may still be at sea and their handlers are waiting for an opportunity to land them on the shores of the eastern littoral countries of the Bay of Bengal.

The ongoing boat people crisis unfolded after a crackdown on people-smuggling gangs  in  Thailand,  and  the  discovery  of  nearly  140  graves  at  28  suspected  people smuggling  camps  along  Malaysia’s  northern  borders  further  aggravated  the  situation. The crisis took a politico-humanitarian turn and the international  community accused the Southeast Asian nations of ‘cold-hearted policies’, pushing Rohingya back to the sea and not allowing the desperate people to land ashore. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia to offer temporary shelter to  the  boat  people  adrift  in  the  Andaman  Sea.  During  the  last  three  months,  several Rohingya  people  have  perished  at  sea  and  nearly  50  decomposed  bodies  were  found washed on the waterfronts of Rakhine state, Myanmar.

In   the   midst   of   the   crisis,   several   regional   countries   deployed   navies   and maritime  enforcement  agencies.  They  were  not  only  successful  in  preventing  the  boat people from landing ashore but also engaged in search and rescue (SAR) and provided humanitarian assistance. The Thai Navy deployed seven vessels and a variety of aircraft- HTMS  Angthong,  an  Endurance  class  Landing  Platform  Dock  (LPD)  to  serve  as  a floating  hospital  cum  interrogation  centre;  two  frigates  HTMS  Saiburi  and   HTMS Thayan Chon;   a landing craft, three patrol boats and four naval aircraft. These forces air-dropped food, provided water, and in one instance repaired the engine of the vessel carrying  the  boat  people.  Apparently,  the  boat  people  were  quite  satisfied  with  the assistance and stated that they planned to continue their voyage to a ‘third country’ i.e. Malaysia.   Although,   Thai   Prime   Minister   General   Prayuth   Chan-ocha   announced medical  care  for  the  boat  people  and  assured  shore  based  temporary  shelters,  but cautioned that boat people would be treated as illegal migrants.

The  Malaysian  Navy,  Malaysian  Maritime  Enforcement  Agency  (MMEA)  and Malaysian  Marine  Police  launched  operations  to  offer  assistance  to  the  boat  people adrift at sea. Consequently, Malaysia put into operation  11 ships and three helicopters for search and rescue. The Malaysian Deputy Home Minister stated that “If the boat is still good and can sail back, we give them food, and drink and fuel and send them back”. Likewise, the Indonesian authorities stated that “The people on the boat did not want to go to Indonesia, but they asked for help, clean water and food…After the aid was given, they parted”. The Myanmar Navy recued a boat carrying 707 Bangladeshi nationals and they were escorted ashore for interrogation and subsequent deportation.

The US Navy announced plans to ‘[work] with local partners’ and deployed P8-A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft at Sabang, Malaysia. It also requested Thailand for  permission  to  operate  from  Phuket  since  its  naval  aircraft  were  still  in  Thailand having   completed   the   ‘Guardian   Sea’,   a   five-day   anti-submarine   warfare   training exercise in the Andaman Sea. The Thai Armed Forces refused the US request and it has noted that “We have enough military support to look for Rohingya boats…If we do find any boats we will deal with the matter according to Thai laws. We will also provide those on  board  with  humanitarian  aid”.  Further,  the  Thai  Air  Force  stated  that  “we  have  a fixed space for US military aircraft in long term. However, this space is very small and we  don’t  want  their  aircraft  tied  to  this  area”.  Apparently,  Thailand’s  reaction  was  in response to the US ‘pressure to resolve human trafficking problems’.

It is true that Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand are caught up in the Rohingya   crisis,   their   ability   to   engage   in   SAR   and   humanitarian   assistance   is noteworthy. For Thailand, this is a welcome development given that the Thai Navy was under tremendous pressure after it was accused in 2013 of pushing the boat people to the  sea  without  offering  them  any  assistance  including  firing  at  them.  Earlier  too,  in 2009,  nearly  300  boat  people  landed  on  Indian  shores  in  the  Andaman  and  Nicobar islands, amidst reports that had been pushed back to the seas by the Thai Navy.

The   navies   and   maritime   agencies   are   in   the   forefront   of   the   current humanitarian  crisis  involving  the  boat  people  and  have  successfully  responded  to  this human  induced  disaster;  they  would,  in  future,  have  to  train  for  multiple  missions simultaneously.  This  entails  an  overhaul  of  their  training,  education  and  equipment. The SAR and humanitarian assistance operations are inherently platform intensive and require specialist ships to carry helicopters and also be able to provide food, water and medical  assistance.  This  capability  is  still  evolving  among  the  Southeast  Asian  navies. Further,  there  is  a  compelling  need  for  a  new  imagination  among  the  naval  and maritime enforcement  agencies of  human induced security issues  which will  require a newly  defined  strategy  in  terms  of  force  structure,  human  resource,  and  roles  and missions. Above all a cooperative approach to address human security issues at sea will be the new defining paradigm for the navies.

About the Author 

Dr  Vijay  Sakhuja  is  the  Director,  National  Maritime  Foundation,  New  Delhi.  The  views  expressed  are those  of  the  author  and  do  not  reflect  the  official  policy  or  position  of  the  Indian  Navy  or  National Maritime Foundation. He can be reached at




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