Friday, February 13, 2009

Skin Color and Prejudice Endangers Rohingya

The Irrawaddy News

Unbelievably in this day and time, skin color has become an issue in the case of the Rohingya boat people.

While much of the world has moved beyond discrimination due to the color of one’s skin (think President Obama), pockets of prejudice still exist, including in Southeast Asia.

“You will see in the photos that their complexion is dark brown,” said Burmese Counsel Ye Myint Aung in Hong Kong, in a letter to fellow diplomats, referring to the Rohingya boat people. He went on to describe the complexion of Burmese as “fair and soft, good looking as well.”

His own complexion, he said, was typical of a Burmese gentleman and his fellow diplomats could easily contrast their diplomatic colleague with Rohingya.

“Rohingyas are as ugly as ogres,” he said.

In essence, what he said was that Rohingyas couldn’t qualify as Burmese citizens because of their appearance, and they are not recognized as an ethnic group of Burma.

Thousands of Rohingyas have fled their homes in Burma and Bangladesh to Thailand and Malaysia in recent years. In 2008 alone, reports estimated 4,880 Rohingyas were arrested for illegally entering Thailand.

It’s fairly clear now that no country in Southeast Asia is willing to accept the desperate Rohingyas who wash up on their shore or enter a country by other means.

One reason is that they don’t look like ordinary economic migrants or refugees. They take to the ocean in dilapidated boats, reminiscent of the Vietnamese boat people, who also were desperate to leave an unforgiving land and would do anything—even risk their lives—to escape. In addition, they are Muslims, another strike against them in some people’s eyes.

The boat people have become an irritant for many countries in the region, especially Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Compounding the problem is the unwillingness of Burma and Bangladesh to recognize the Rohingya as citizens.

When various groups of Rohingya boat people were arrested in Thailand recently, they were beaten and tortured by Thai authorities, according to reports, and eventually towed back out to sea and set adrift with inadequate water and food in boats without working engines.

Earlier, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was quoted by reporters as saying, “They [the Rohingyas] are not refugees. Our policy is to push them out of the country because they are illegal migrants.”

More than 1,000 Rohingyas were towed out to sea and set adrift late last year by the Thai navy. Fortunately, they were rescued by Indonesian and Indian authorities. Unknown numbers, however, disappeared at sea.

Recently, the Thai premier changed his tune to acknowledge the claims of human rights groups, telling CNN in an exclusive interview, “It’s not exactly clear whose work it is.” He added, “All the [Thai] authorities say it’s not their policy, but I have reason to believe some instances of this happened, and if I can have the evidence of who exactly did this, I will certainly bring them to account.”

Clearly, the issue is now a regional issue, and the Thai government is feeling the heat of world opinion. Even a simple statement in support of the Rohingya boat people made by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who is also a goodwill ambassador of the United Nations, during a visit to Thailand last week drew a curt response from Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat, who pounced on her remarks, saying, “It’s not her role to comment on the matter.”

Thailand’s army commander is now scheduled to visit Burma next week to discuss the Rohingya issue with the military government.

Really, the issue would be best addressed in a regional forum with the gravity that it deserves.

The secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Surin Pitsuwin, said in an interview: “This is not an issue for a particular country. It is a regional issue. It is also an issue for the international community.”

When Asean leaders gather for the regional summit which is scheduled to be held at the end of this month in Thailand, Surin and other Asean leaders must responsibly address the Rohingya issue.

If they fail to do so and paper over the issue with rhetorical flourishes, they will bring further discredit to the region.

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