Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Unwanted Anywhere

APRIL, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.2
The Irrawaddy News

The Rohingya remain one of the region’s most neglected ethnic minorities

FOR years, the plight of the Rohingya—a Muslim ethnic minority from the Burma-Bangladesh border—had been fading from world attention.

Then, earlier this year, it abruptly reemerged in the public eye following reports that the Royal Thai Navy had towed more than a thousand Rohingya boat people out to sea in engineless boats with little food or water.

A Rohingya migrant looks out the window of a police van while being transported from jail to he immigration police station in Thailand’s southern province of Ranong in January. (Photo: AP)

A few hundred were rescued near India’s Andaman Islands and Indonesia’s Aceh Province, but many others were not so lucky, and are presumed to have died at sea.

In February, actress Angelina Jolie, who is also a goodwill ambassador for the UN’s refugee agency, drew even more international attention to the issue during a visit to Karenni refugee camps in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province.

Although she did not directly criticize the Thai authorities for their treatment of the Rohingya, she said: “As with all people, they deserve to have their human rights respected.”

The Thai government, suddenly under a harsh spotlight for its handling of the issue, has attempted to address the concerns of relief agencies and human rights organizations.

In Burma, however, the ruling regime has adamantly refused to recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s indigenous peoples, adding fuel to a fire that other countries in the region are trying to contain.

Thailand has long been on the frontlines of Burma’s humanitarian crises, and in this case, it is particularly concerned about the implications of the Burmese junta’s policies.

Not only is Thailand host to an estimated 120,000 refugees and perhaps 2 million migrant workers from Burma, it also has an Islamic separatist insurgency raging in its southern provinces and fears that the arrival of thousands of stateless Muslims could further destabilize the situation.

The Arakan Project, a Thailand-based NGO which advocates for the Rohingya, estimated in June 2008 that more than 8,000 Rohingya had reached Thai shores over the preceding two years, sailing from the coast of Bangladesh to southern Thailand; from there, most traveled overland to Malaysia.

The majority of Rohingya who make this perilous journey are looking for no more than an opportunity to earn a living in a less hostile environment than the one they left behind in Burma. Some, however, seek asylum—a process that is fraught with obstacles.

Thailand and Malaysia are not signatories to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 protocol, which define the rights of asylum seekers and the obligations of states to protect them.

Thus, although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has representatives in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, the agency’s mandate is subject to restrictions imposed on it by the Thai and Malaysian governments.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, the current Democrat-led government has attempted to deflect some of the criticism it has faced for its handling of this issue by insisting that the international community, and especially regional neighbors, must share responsibility for solving the Rohingya problem.

To this end, Thailand discussed the issue with representatives of the UNHCR and ambassadors from Bangladesh, India, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia, and raised it again at the recent summit of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean), which last year formally enacted a charter that obliges member nations to respect human rights.

At the Asean summit, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win said the boat people would be allowed to return, but only if they identified themselves as “Bengalis” born in Burma, rather than as Rohingyas.

Observers suggested that the Burmese response was just a token gesture to avoid embarrassing Asean governments and to end any discussion of the root causes of the problem, which include widespread human rights abuses in northern Arakan State.

It is clear, however, that Asean cannot afford to let the Burmese generals simply sweep this issue under the rug. Decades of neglect have turned the plight of the Rohingya into a regional issue, and any failure to address it adequately will only serve to undermine the bloc’s credibility.

The Rohingya are the second-largest ethnic group living in Arakan State, after the ethnic Rakhine; in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships, in the northern part of the state, they are in the majority. But even though they comprise nearly 30 percent of the state’s population of 2.75 million people, they are often treated as if they don’t exist.

Goodwill Ambassador of the UNHCR Angelina Jolie smiles at Karenni refugee children during a visit to Ban Mai Nai Soi camp in northern Thailand. (Photo: AFP)

Ultra-nationalist campaigns initiated by the Burmese government, often with the support of local Buddhist communities, have long portrayed the Rohingya as interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh and India, arguing that they are just another part of the negative legacy of British colonial rule.

As part of the effort to drive them out of the state, the Rohingya are routinely subjected to human rights abuses, including forced labor, land confiscation and even restrictions on marriage. They are also frequent targets of extortion and arbitrary taxation.

In 1991, waves of Rohingya refugees fled across Burma’s western border to Bangladesh to escape oppression. About 230,000 of the refugees have since been repatriated under an agreement between Bangladesh and Burma, with the involvement of the UNHCR, while approximately 28,000 remain in two refugee camps in Bangladesh.

As part of the ongoing repatriation program, the Burmese regime has agreed to issue temporary registration cards to returnees. The UNHCR estimates that around 35,000 cards were issued in 2007, with an additional 48,000 issued between January and May of 2008.

But far from providing them with any sort of legal status, the registration cards have often served to reinforce discrimination against the Rohingya.

According to the US government’s 2008 Report on International Religious Freedom, for instance, Burmese authorities insist that Muslim men applying for the cards “must submit photos without beards”—an offensively discriminatory requirement intended to discourage registration.

With no hope of improvement in their situation, many Rohingyas continue to leave Burma, often via Bangladesh. But in their quest for friendlier shores, they often have to pass through Burmese territorial waters, putting them at risk of arrest under Section 13(1) of the 1947 Immigration Law, which prescribes penalties for illegal entry into Burma.

According to the Arakan Project, many Rohingyas who have been arrested in Burmese waters on their way to Thailand have been sentenced to up to five years in prison for illegally crossing the border. Such prisoners account for the majority of the jail population in northern Arakan State.

Rohingya boat people receive medical treatment at a temporary shelter in Aceh Province after being rescued by local fishermen on February 2. The all-male group of 198, who had not eaten for a week and who included a 13-year-old, was found floating in a wooden boat off the coast of Aceh after 21 days at sea. (Photo: Reuters)

Former inmates of these prisons say that Rohingya prisoners are fed only once every three or four days, and are often subjected to beatings. Little can be done to protect them from such treatment, however, because international agencies such as the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross currently have no access to jails in Burma.

For those who are pardoned and allowed to return to their home villages, the situation isn’t much better. They often find that their names have been permanently deleted from their household registries, meaning that they are constantly at risk of being arrested again.

“Since they are no longer administratively listed, many have been forced to flee to Bangladesh again,” according to Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project.

In Bangladesh, life is only marginally less precarious.

The Bangladeshi government divides the Rohingya into two categories: recognized refugees living in official camps and unrecognized refugees living in unofficial sites or among Bangladeshi communities.

The UNHCR provides basic services to around 28,000 registered Rohingya refugees living in the official Nayapara and Kutupalong camps, and Islamic Relief, a UK-based charity, supports a further 10,000 people living in an unofficial camp constructed in 2008.

But for most of the estimated 200,000 undocumented Rohingyas living in Bangladesh today, the only way to survive is by performing backbreaking labor that pays less than a dollar a day.

Now, with the impact of the global economic downturn hitting one of the poorest regions of Asia, many Rohingyas are growing increasingly desperate to find some way to support themselves and their families—forcing many to turn to brokers who, for US $300-450, arrange to smuggle them by boat to countries such as Malaysia and Thailand.

Most set off on this dangerous journey between November and April, when the seas are at their calmest.

Typically, they are given water and rice that has been cooked and dried for their one meal of the day. The traffickers, wary of naval patrol boats, order the migrants to pack into the small hold below deck and remain there; if they try to come out, they are beaten. Only after dark are they allowed up on deck to stretch and shower.

According to Thailand’s House Committee on Security, which has blamed international human traffickers for the recent massive influx of Rohingya boat people, some of those who were apprehended had telephone numbers they used to contact other Rohingyas who have already settled in Thailand and Malaysia.

This prompted Thai police to round up roadside roti vendors in Bangkok and cities in the predominantly Muslim south. Thai security officials say that many of the trafficked Rohingya sell rotis as a temporary job until they are ready for their departure to Malaysia.

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have all focused their efforts on cracking down on trafficking gangs, insisting that the Rohingya boat people are victims of unscrupulous criminals exploiting their economic desperation and not refugees fleeing persecution.

One problem with this approach is that it isn’t likely to end the exodus anytime soon. Observers say that endemic corruption in all of the countries affected by this issue makes it impossible to stem the flow of people seeking a better life, especially when they have highly organized and well-financed brokers helping them.

In northern Arakan State, the border security forces readily turn a blind eye to human trafficking in exchange for bribes. Bangladeshi law enforcement agents also cooperate for a cut of the brokers’ profits. And for the right price, immigration officials in Thailand and Malaysia hand Rohingyas over to traffickers instead of deporting them across the border.

Meanwhile, Asean foreign ministers will have another opportunity to tackle the problem at the Bali Process meeting on April 14-15. The Bali Process brings together more than 50 countries and international agencies, including the International Organization for Migration and the UNHCR, for talks to discuss practical measures to help combat human trafficking in the Asia-Pacific region.

Beyond this, Asean may be counting on the precedent of the Cyclone Nargis relief effort to open up the possibility of greater cooperation between the Burmese junta and the international community on the Rohingya issue.

In March, Burma’s neighbors were given some reason to hope for the best.

After months of dragging its feet over the future of the UNHCR’s mandate to operate in northern Arakan State, the regime finally gave the UN refugee agency a green light to stay. In an echo of the junta’s post-Nargis reversal on allowing aid into the Irrawaddy delta following a visit by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last May, the decision was made only after a high-profile visit to Burma by Antonio Guterres, the head of the UNHCR.

But convincing the generals to accept hundreds of millions of dollars to help restore Burma’s agricultural heartland is one thing; persuading them to end a pattern of abuses against an ethnic minority with few friends anywhere in the region is another.

Unlike the situation in the Irrawaddy delta, the humanitarian crisis emanating from northern Arakan State is almost entirely of the regime’s making. Until Burma’s neighbors finally begin to address this fact, they can continue to expect more unwelcome visitors on their shores.

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too