ASEAN ignores Burmese Rohingya refugee crisis

There seems little likelihood the plight of Burmese Rohingya refugees will be discussed at the ASEAN leaders summit this week. The Rohingyas came to international attention after Thailand admitted it towed a thousand refugees out to sea. Vitavas Srivihok, Thai director of ASEAN Affairs Department, said talks about Rohingya would at best be marginalised to the “sidelines” and even then expects little by way of concrete outcomes. The conference’s contempt for Rohingya shows ASEAN’s disinterest in human rights issues.

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim community in Arakan province, Burma. Their ethnicity and religion made them a target of oppression by Burmese military rulers. In a move reminiscent of Nazi discrimination against Jews, a Burmese 1982 law stripped them of their citizenship rights. Rohingya also endure restrictions affecting movement, education, and freedom to marry. They are often forced into slavery, have their land confiscated and suffer arbitrary arrests, torture, and extra-judicial killings. The Rohingya have become increasingly landless and jobless forcing many into exile.

The Rohingya refugee issue affects Burma, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. One thousand people set off from Bangladesh in December and were detained and beaten when they landed in Thailand. The refugees were forced back to sea in boats without engines or food. Many died but hundreds more were rescued in Indian and Indonesian waters after several weeks at sea. On 7 January, 198 were found by Indonesian fishermen adrift off Aceh, in northern Sumatra. Indonesian authorities say they rescued 400 Rohingya migrants while Indian authorities at Andaman Islands have said they have also rescued hundreds of refugees. India plans to deport them back to Bangladesh.

Thailand initially denied claims its security forces abused the refugees. However in an interview with CNN last week, Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva admitted security forces towed away the boats. Vejjajiva could not pinpoint which government official approved the practice, but claimed he was fixing the problem. “All the authorities say it’s not their policy, but I have reason to believe some instances of this happened, the PM said. “If I can have the evidence as to who exactly did this I will certainly bring them to account.”

Ye Myint Aung, the Burmese Consul-General at the Hong Kong consulate exposed what authorities really think of their minority in an extraordinary letter (pdf) to consular corps and media. Aung denied Rohingya were Burmese. The Burmese, said Aung were good looking with “fair and soft” complexion. Rohingyas, by contrast had “dark brown” skin and were “ugly as ogres.”

Unfortunately, as New Mandala notes, the racism Ye Myint Aung shows against Rohingya is not unusual. New Mandala blames academics for stoking up “institutionalised chauvinism and historical memories built around communal conflicts from the last century”. Spurious research questioning their heritage gives people an excuse to distrust Rohingyas even though most have never met one.

The Arakan Rohingya National Organisation wrote an open letter to ASEAN leaders on the weekend which said Burmese persecution was a violation of the ASEAN Charter to respect human rights and international law. They called on them to address the root cause of the Rohingya refugee problem and boatpeople crisis, pressurise Burma’s rulers to end human rights abuses and also urged Thailand to pay compensation to the families of Rohingya who drowned.

The international peak political body for Burmese ethnic groups is calling on the Australian government to push for democracy in Burma. The Ethnic Nationalities Council represents seven ethnic Burmese groups comprising 40 percent of the population. The Council’s vice chair, Dr Lian Sakhong, told Foreign Affairs and Immigration officials Australia should call for multi-party talks on Burma “to put pressure on the military regime so that we can have a dialogue.”

Sakhong said the talks should lead to a negotiated settlement to return Burma to democratic rule and end ethnic oppression of Rohingyas and other groups affected by the 1982 citizenship laws. “We need to review the constitutions that are adopted by the military, so that we can have a compromise,” he told ABC’s Connect Asia. “If we don’t do that, then the result will be another 50 years of civil war.”

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