Sunday, January 25, 2009

Asylum seekers told to look elsewhere

Persecuted and tossed out of the land of their birth, ethnic Rohingya are not finding life any easier on the immigrant trail

By: Suthep Chaviwan
Bangkok Post - Newspaper section: Spectrum

Reports that ethnic Muslim Rohingya migrating on the open seas from Arakan state in Burma and nearby the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh have met harsh treatment from the Thai Navy are not likely to slow their exodus from the region, according to the leaders of two Burmese Muslim groups. This is because the Rohingya, whether in Burma or Bangladesh, feel they have no chance for a better future if they stay where they are.

‘PROCESSED’: This picture, courtesy of the ‘South China Morning Post’, taken in late 2008 shows Colonel Manas Kongpan of ISOC, right, with a group of refugees on a Thai island. Colonel Manas has been accused of detaining Burmese Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees in a secret detention camp on the island before they were towed into international waters on unpowered boats and abandoned.

Col Kyaw La, a self-styled leader of the All Muslim Liberation Organisation (Amlo), an outfit fighting for human rights for all Muslim people in Burma, and particularly the Rohingya minority in Arakan state, said as long as the political problems inside Burma are not resolved and the economy of Arakan state is not developed, the plight of the Rohingya will never be improved.

Abdul Razak, the leader of anti-junta group the All Burmese Muslim Union (ABMU), shared the view of Col Kyaw La and described the Rohingya's problems as chronic. He was certain the Rohingya in Burma will continue to seek asylum in foreign countries, and stressed that the Burmese government forces these people out of the country.

In an exclusive interview last week, Col Kyaw La said the Burmese government has stripped the Rohingya in Arakan state of their citizenship, codifying an ongoing campaign to encourage them to leave the country of their birth. As refugees swelling makeshift camps in a poor nation, the Rohingya in Bangladesh can hardly hope for a full measure of basic civil rights either.

So the Rohingya make their way by the hundreds to the Bay of Bengal and take to the sea for destinations unknown in whatever vessels they can find. They risk their lives for the chance of a new start in a foreign country, seeking employment so they can send money back to the families they leave behind.

Mr Razak, who has visited Rohingya Muslim villagers at the areas where they live in Arakan state, said their living conditions are the ''worst of the worst''.

The two Muslim leaders made their comments after allegations were aired by several media sources that the Thai Navy had barred Rohingya boat people from Thai shores and forced them back out to sea with little food or water and in some cases even brutally dealt with Rohingya who tried to resist. The Thai government has denied the allegations.


IN TRANSIT: Rohingya refugees who landed in Ranong and Phuket last year at a mosque in Mae Sot. After several weeks they were sent back to Burma.

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority group in Burma whose origin is disputed among historians and among the Rohingya themselves. The Burmese military government maintains that the Rohingya migrated from the southeastern regions of Bangladesh in a process that started before the British colonial era. Many Rohingya, but not all, claim they are the true indigenous natives of Arakan state, having converted to Islam centuries ago after contact with Arab traders who came to trade with their ancestors in the coastal regions of the state. The claim, however, is lacking in supporting evidence.

In any case, the Burmese government does not list the the Rohingya among the scheduled ethnic groups who are qualified for citizenship, so they are stateless people in the land they have lived on for generations. As such they are deprived of basic rights and under various restrictions, such as having to obtain permission before travelling from town to town inside Burma. They have no right to own property and are prohibited from marriage with other ethnic groups.

It is estimated there are at least 1.5 million Rohingya still living in Arakan state, and about one million Rohingya living in other countries, mainly Muslim countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

It is known that previous Burmese military regimes have launched military operations against Rohingya Muslims in the past, expelling more than half a million of them to nearby Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh from 1978 to 1991. Many later managed to return, but large numbers are still in Bangladesh, where they also face persecution, or have continued on to settle in other countries.

Mullah Yousef, a Rohingya Muslim from Arakan who is temporarily staying in Mae Sot, Thailand, with his family members while en route to Saudi Arabia, said Rohingya in Burma are not even permitted to own a radio. They exist as slave labour and sometimes are even beaten in the streets.

After leaving Arakan state, Mr Yousef, 53, and his family spent three years in Chittagong Division before getting passports for travel to Saudi Arabia, where they want to settle. They travelled to Thailand via an overland route.

STRANDED: Rohingya on an island in southern Thailand in late 2008.

According to Mr Yousef, there are many such land routes for Rohingya to enter Thailand along with other Burmese migrants. He said there are a large number of Rohingya in Thailand seeking employment.


This writer was told by officials of the Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC) who are authorised to follow up on the issue of Rohingya boat people that it has been the policy of the Thai government to push out illegal immigrants found entering the country, no matter whether they come by land or by sea. In the case of the Rohingya boat people, there is a specific policy to push them out of Thai waters.

''We provide them with supplies, food and water, if it is found they have a shortage of these items. We help repair their boat engines if necessary and then push them out,'' said one ISOC officer.

According to several officers, quite often the boat people resist being turned away from Thai shores, and even protest by demolishing their boats, punching out the bottoms and letting them sink.

''On humanitarian grounds, we feel sorry for these boat people. But at the same time, we have to abide by the policy,'' said an ISOC officer. ''Suppose we provide shelter to them and give them sanctuary _ the number of these people will be increased and be a big burden for Thailand.''

Another ISOC officer said Thailand is already carrying a heavy burden with more than two million people from neighboring countries living illegally in Thailand.

''We have officially allowed more than 140,000 ethnic Karen, Mon and Shan to live at the camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Is there any country in this world that will accept these displaced persons for settlement?'' asked the officer.

The ISOC officers then claimed that in fact several groups of Rohingya boat people, big and small, who had successfully landed on Thai soil, had been treated well by Thai authorities and locals, who provided them with food and shelter.

ANTI-JUNTA LEADER: Abdul Razak described the Rohingya’s problems as chronic.

In most cases, they were brought to stay at mosques near the Thai coastal towns where they landed, say the officials.

Sometimes they were also brought to live at faraway mosques, including in Mae Sot district in Tak province.

Last year, according to the ISOC officers, a group of 40 Rohingya from Arakan state in Burma (see photo) were found on Thai shores in Ranong and Phuket and were brought to Mae Sot district, where they stayed at a local mosque for several weeks before they were sent back to Burma by land. For safety reasons, Thai immigration officials did not push them back via the Burmese township of Myawaddy, opposite Mae Sot, but instead brought them down to Dan Singkorn in the southern Thai province of Prachuap Khiri Khan.

They were then sent across the border in this area where many Muslim villagers are living.

Despite the apparent inconsistencies in treatment, the ISOC officials agreed that Thailand will not change its policy towards these boat people; that the Thai Navy and all concerned authorities, including local police and immigration police, will certainly push out the Rohingya boat people if they are found illegally entering Thai waters, until such time as a third country promises to help settle them.

But in all probability the Rohingya issue will continue simmering in Arakan state until the military dictatorship in Burma has a sudden, and unlikely, change of heart toward them, or until such time as the present regime is toppled and a democratic government is installed, opening the door to economic development in the region.

When interviewed last week, Dr Nural Islam, President of the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, said his group is among the Rohingya civil and political groups working with international organisations and governments in an attempt to resolve the Rohingya dilemma.

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