Monday, February 2, 2009

Is there a holistic approach to Burma’s refugee problem?

With the Rohingya boat people washing up almost daily on Thai shores, it is appropriate and as well, a welcome initiative for the Thai government to call for a conference, involving and consulting all concerned countries, including Burma, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and India to find durable solutions. In other words, applying a holistic or comprehensive approach, like an opinion piece on 26 January of The Nation rightly pointed out.

By Sai Wansai
Shan Herald Agency for News
29 January 2009

The heart of the Rohingya problem is the Burmese military regime’s denial of rights to exist officially as an accepted ethnic group, within the larger national context of Burma. The bulk of Rohingya’s population, mostly a Muslim ethnic group, resides in northern Arakan state of western Burma

It is believed that 800,000 Rohingya live in Burma, but have not been granted citizenship.

Around a half-million Rohingya fled military crackdowns in 1978 and 1991, the majority moved to Bangladesh and many remain exiled in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Malaysia

While the Rohingya problem has aroused willingness for the concerned states to look for solution in a comprehensive and holistic way, it should also be noted that the woes of the refugees stemming from Shan, Karen, Karenni and Mon states bordering Thailand are identical, where oppression, ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses are concerned.

According to Thailand Burma Border Consortium’s (TBBC) conservative estimate count in eastern Burma - Shan, Karen, Karenni and Mon states -, the internally displaced persons population is said to be 500,000. Grand total refugees from Burma for all sites within Thailand is numbered 1 44,455.

Thus, it is quite clear that all these illegal migration spreading out in all directions across the regional is fast becoming a transnational issue and multilateral approach is the only way out.

But what is actually the root cause of such illegal migration?

The answer lies in the Burmese military regimes failed policies and its entrenched racist mind-set.

In other words, its failure to recognise that Burma is a multi-ethnic state and that the Union of Burma is a newly developed territorial entity, founded by a treaty, the Panglong Agreement, where independent territories merged together on equal basis.

The successive military dominated regimes, including the present ruling State Peace and Development Council, see Burma as an existing unified nation since the reign of Anawratha thousands of years ago. As such, all other non-Burmans – Shan, Kachin, Chin, Arakanese, Mon, Karen and Karenni - are seen as minorities, which must be controlled and suppressed, lest they break up the country.

To achieve its goal, the Burmese military goes about with its implementation of protecting “national sovereignty” and “national unity” at all cost. This, in turn, gives way to open conflict resulting in more suppression and gross human rights violations. The intolerance of the military to and its inspiration to “racial supremacy” and to political domination and control has no limit and this could be seen by its refusal to hand over power to the winners of 1990 nation-wide election, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and other ethnic parties. The genuine federalism platform, which the NLD and ethnic nationalities embrace, is a threat to its racist mind-set and obsession of domination and control.

In short, the Burmese military regime must come to term that its zero-sum game plan of “total elimination” of the opposition parties, racial supremacy implementation and gross human rights violations are not working to its advantage. Instead, it should opt for real democratisation process, all-inclusiveness and equality to create a better future for the country and its people.

If there is anything that could underpin the condition for holistic approach regarding the Rohingya issue and illegal migration in general, it will be creating a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere within Burma. And the concerned stakeholders should coax or persuade the ruling generals to pave way for such positive change. Otherwise, the refugee problem, stemming from Burma, affecting neighbouring countries will continue to exist for a long time to come.

(Sai Wansai is the General Secretary of the exiled Shan Democratic Union - Editor)

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