Monday, February 2, 2009

Rohingya a regional issue - Editorial

(Bangkok Post) -The government and security forces lingered too long before they finally took a positive and helpful measure last week in the controversy over Rohingya illegal migrants. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva correctly allowed access to a detained group of 78 Rohingya by the United Nations. It was, in retrospect, a major step in regaining the confidence of a very sceptical international community. The usual Thai methods, in this age of instant communication, of stonewalling the media and international organisations are simply impossible to maintain. The internet requires that in an era of fast-flowing information, it is vital the country protect its reputation by full disclosure.

Because of the incredulous and prevaricating statements that emanated when this shocking scandal caught the world's attention, the government has been forced to play ''catch up'' in order to regain some sort of credibility. Press reports from other countries and witnesses agree the Thai security forces failed in their basic duty of treating illegal migrants with the due measure of respect and compassion. It put the prime minister and his government on the defensive. Mr Abhisit's pronouncement that the country will expel illegal migrants seems hardly adequate _ the international community demands more answers.

Thailand is under no obligation to accept organised groups of illegal migrants. There are internationally-accepted rules and would-be immigrants must follow them. The Rohingya, reputedly, pose a security problem, especially in the South, where relations between the government and the Muslim community, in which the Rogingya can assimilate fairly easily, remain unresolved.

But without doubt, the security forces and the government cannot abrogate their responsibility to treat the illegal migrants with basic respect for their human rights. There is no justification for physical abuse. Despite the premier's claim to the contrary, there is no ''humane'' way to force large groups of people back to sea in boats with little food and water and no means by which they can propel themselves to other shores.

The core issue, though, is not the way Thailand treats illegal immigrants. Amnesty International acknowledges the nub of the problem _ Burma persecutes the Rohingya and virtually forces the men to migrate to seek better conditions. It is unfortunate that governments and most media ignore this part of the tragic equation. If Burma were to stop its abysmal treatment of the people of Arakan, it could help to resolve the problem of Rohingya boat people.

It is important the Rohingya who have landed in Thailand are not considered refugees. They are in search of honest employment to care for their families. They are not seeking resettlement, nor do they wish to bring their women and children with them. It is shameful that conditions in Burma are so terrible that thousands must risk so much merely to feed their families. But the Rohingya trying to pass through Thailand are not like the Hmong, the Karen and other minorities seeking new homes because of a well-founded fear of death if they are returned to their home countries.

Officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees should have a better picture of the problem by now. It is not just a human rights question that is merely Thailand's alone.

Mr Abhisit, then, has the right idea in forming a council of concerned countries and organisations on this issue. Thailand must be firm in rejecting the migrants, but others share responsibility for putting the Rohingya at such terrible risk.

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