Thursday, January 29, 2009

Drowning Refugees in Thailand Is Bad Karma

By Andrew Lam
New America Media

For a country steeped in Buddhism, Thailand is accruing terrible karmic debts. News reports, including those by the Thai press itself, indicate systematic abuse of refugees fleeing from its neighbor, Myanmar.

Tourists have seen and photographed Thai troops abusing members of a Muslim minority group who were fleeing Myanmar by boat to Thailand’s southern shores. On the Similan Islands, tourists reported seeing boat people lying down on the beach, bound, struck and whipped by Thai military if they raised their heads. CNN recently confirmed with a Thai military source that Thailand is practicing a dump-at-sea policy: towing boats back to the sea, often without giving refugees food or water.

UN refugee agency spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey expressed the gravity of the situation: "The reports that we are hearing are very alarming. That the [boat people] were detained in Thailand and then towed out to sea on unseaworthy boats and left to die basically."

If it strikes the world as contradictory that Thailand, which bills itself as the Land of a Thousand Smiles and boasts of refined hospitality, could also be a country that rejects and beats up on the poor and the dispossessed, it does not strike any of its neighbors as anything but business as usual. Thailand’s long antipathy toward its neighbors is notorious.

Ask a Vietnamese boat person during the '80s who survived Thai piracy in the Andaman Sea and you will hear tales of unspeakable horrors – rape, robbery, murder, and human trafficking. UN records are full of documents, describing how Thai pirates used hammers, machetes, and guns to massacre entire boats of refugees, including children and women. Others were simply dumped at sea to drown. Despite international protest, the Thai government made few attempts to prosecute those accused.

During the Cold War, Thailand also supported the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime responsible for the death of more than 2 million Cambodians. What did the Land of a Thousand Smiles gain from supporting such a murderous group? Access to the Pailin gem mines and precious timber under Khmer Rouge control, and the promise to keep at bay the invading Vietnamese, who until 1989, occupied Cambodia.

If Thailand is now practicing a cruel and unacceptable policy toward refugees fleeing the cruel and unacceptable military regime in Myanmar, it is because Thailand hasn’t been exactly nice to its own Muslim minorities. Resentment against the Thai government has been brewing, along with allegations of abduction, torture and the disappearances of various Thai Muslim activists in the southern provinces. A primary example is human rights lawyer Sonchai Neelaphaijit, who disappeared while under police surveillance in March 2004. That same year, Thai police and security forces shot dead 107 machete-wielding youths, leaving them in a pool of blood. Thousands have been killed since then. The image of Thailand as a peaceful and gracious country has tarnished since then.

There is also an incentive for Thailand not to take refugees: it risks offending the ruling junta in Myanmar, with whom it enjoys a cozy relationship. After all, Thailand is buying jade, precious minerals and timber – all much-needed natural resources -- from Myanmar for a song, with the generals’ blessings. Last year, when the world condemned Myanmar for its inaction after the cyclone Nargis devastated half of its country, Thailand spoke in favor of the junta.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has offered to investigate the current refugee crisis. But an official investigation, given the government’s record so far, and Vejjajiva's military backing, may very well be another word for stonewalling.

Thailand has been a blessed country. While its neighbors suffered under colonial rulers, Thailand escaped that fate and was the only country in Southeast Asia to develop independently and in peace. While Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia and Vietnam suffered from insurgencies and warfare in the post-colonial period, Thailand – land of golden temples and pristine beaches - grew in confidence and sophistication. Many Thais attribute the country's peace and prosperity to an adherence to Buddhism and devotion to the Buddha.

But such good karma can last only so long. Buddha teaches love and compassion as key components to Buddhist practice. The world and the people of Thailand should seriously question whether killing unarmed refugees is the right path toward peace.

Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Reflections

READ MORE---> Drowning Refugees in Thailand Is Bad Karma...

Boat people arriving in Thailand not from Myanmar: official

YANGON (AFP) – A senior Myanmar official on Thursday denied that boat people from the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group, who have washed up in Thailand claiming abuse back home, originate from its shores.

Human rights groups have said the Rohingya come from Myanmar's western region and often flee persecution by the junta, but the official told AFP the group were from Bangladesh and had no historical connection with Myanmar.

"There is no so-called Rohingya ethnic minority group in our history before or after our independence," said the official, who refused to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media. (JEG's: but Maung Aye promises to address the problem... ooops a bit of lack of communication here...)

"It is totally unacceptable to say the Rohingya are from Myanmar," he added.

Thailand has been accused of mistreating up to 1,000 Rohingya migrants, hundreds of whom were rescued off India and Indonesia last month claiming they had been beaten by Thai soldiers and towed back out to sea.

The issue has cast into the spotlight a group believed to number about 700,000 in Myanmar but which has long been denied citizenship and faces religious persecution and crippling poverty, rights groups have said.

A further 78 boat people were detained this week on arriving in Thailand, supposedly from Myanmar, and await deportation.

Local press carried pictures of some of the men with welts on their backs and the Bangkok Post newspaper reported that the migrants said they were caned by Myanmar authorities and threatened with death if they returned.

The Myanmar official, however, claimed that such reports were untrue.

"These so-called Rohingyas are Bangladeshi who left their state for a better life, trying to get sympathy from Western countries by claiming to be Rohingyas from Myanmar," he said.

"(It's) not our problem. It's the problem of Bangladesh," he added. (JEG's: pass the buck, never their problem)

Myanmar -- ruled by the military since 1962 -- is a predominantly Buddhist country but is also home to more than 135 different ethnic groups, some of whom are Christian and Muslim.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has requested access to any Rohingyas arriving in Thailand, saying there are legitimate concerns that some could face persecution back in Myanmar.

The Thai foreign ministry Wednesday "categorically denied" reports that it had mistreated any migrants.

READ MORE---> Boat people arriving in Thailand not from Myanmar: official...

‘Illegal Immigrants’? Who’s Threatening Whom

The Irrawaddy News

The issue of migrants has returned as a security concern in Thailand, where the government has responded to reports that Thai officials were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Rohingya refugees by vowing to crack down on “illegal migrants.”

Not for the first time, Thailand’s treatment of migrants has become a focus of international attention. Last year, 54 Burmese workers suffocated to death while they were being transported in a sealed truck to the Thai resort island of Phuket. That incident was blamed on the driver, who failed to ensure that the vehicle was properly ventilated. This time, Thai authorities have been faulted for allegedly towing boatloads of Rohingya out to sea without adequate food or water.

While the exact circumstances surrounding this latest incident are still under investigation, it is clear that, despite the official rhetoric, Thailand’s security fears are far less serious than those of the migrants, whose very lives are at risk from the moment they enter the country.

This danger does not derive simply from accidents or even from abuses at the hands of officials, but rather from the juridical-political treatment of migrant workers, who fit into a category of disposable labor created by the state-business alliance. That is why millions of Burmese migrants are able to enter the Thai workforce through the back door, only to be declared a “threat” when they are not needed.

In response to the Rohingya incident, Thailand’s new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, reiterated the country’s standard position on the migrant issue: “We have to solve the illegal immigrant problem, otherwise it will affect our security, economy and the opportunities of Thai laborers.”

As an Oxford-trained economist, Abhisit belongs to the liberal economic tradition, which removes migrant workers entirely from statistical calculations of production and profits, seeing them only as a liability.

It is not that the economic elite are unaware of the positive role of migrant labor; they simply do not want to acknowledge it. If they did, their attempts to exploit migrant labor would be called into question, and that is a risk they consider too great to take.

Treating some migration as “illegal” is to deny an enormously important facet of human history. From pre-recorded times, human beings have been on the move. Modern Thais, for instance, are the descendants of ethnic Tai who migrated from southern China millennia ago. Chinese Thais whose ancestors were more recent migrants have also had a major impact on Thai society after decades of social, economic and political assimilation.

In pre-colonial times, people did not cross borders; but in more recent times, borders have crossed people. Before the creation of national borders, people frequently moved back and forth between the different tributary states that now constitute parts of modern Thailand. These states did not have fixed political and geographical boundaries. Nor were they the vassals of the same powerful kingdoms or empires; at times, there were independent. Thus, they were neither Siamese (Thai) nor Burmese.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, however, the rulers completed the bounding up of territories into nation-states with fixed political boundaries to create modern Burma and Thailand. Human migration goes on, but it is now restricted by these artificial political borders.

Thus, if anything is illegal, it is not the people who cross the borders, but the national borders themselves, which were drawn up undemocratically by those from the power centers. (This is not to reject political borders altogether, but rather to highlight the need for more humane borders.)

If we replace the artificial national borders with the regional border of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Program, under which Thailand has been extracting resources, we can see the senselessness of regarding Burmese as “outsiders.” It is unfair to fix political geography at the nation-state level to exclude the Burmese and deny their rights, while scaling up the economic geography to the regional level to accumulate profits.

Despite Thailand’s hand in displacing people in dam and gas pipeline areas in Burma, some continue to claim that the political crisis in Burma is solely responsible for the migrant issue. In fact, Burmese rulers and domestic business partners, as well as their counterparts in Thailand, China, India, other investor countries and the Asian Development Bank (which provides the GMS cooperation framework) share responsibility.

Burma’s political crisis is not an isolated event; rather, it is part of the sick drama of the global market economy, in which the Burmese regime’s international business partners suck resources such as gas and electricity out of the country while displacing people from their homes.

Looking deep into the very nature of this global economic system, propagated and led by Europe and North America, we can see that the system itself is anti-people. That is, it forces all countries to compete on the world market. One way to survive in this market is to stay competitive by securing natural resources and labor as cheaply as possible.

The transnational alliance of elites, united under the GMS Program, hijacks resources in Burma and dispossesses its people in a process David Harvey of the City University of New York calls “accumulation by dispossession.” Among the alliance members, Thailand is the biggest winner, drawing both resources and labor from Burma. That is why Thai policymakers are deaf to the Burmese cry for democracy and migrant justice.

But the dispossessed people do not become fully exploitable until they have been made “illegal” and labeled a threat. Thailand’s migrant registration system is partly responsible for the creation of “illegal immigrants.” Nicholas de Genova of Columbia University calls this the “legal production of migrant illegality,” in the sense that the so-called “illegal immigrants” are produced by legal processes whose narrow definition of who could be included ends up excluding a majority of migrant workers.

Indeed, the issue of “illegal migrants” was not visible in Thailand until 1995, when the government decided to implement the regular registration of undocumented migrants, according to Yougyuth Chalamwong, research director of the Thailand Development Research Institute. This is not to disregard migrant registration completely, but simply to shed light on the calculated manipulations of the government.

A good example is the 1999 registration, which allowed migrant workers to work in 37 provinces, down from 54 in 1998. The revised regulation ended up generating new undocumented workers outside these 37 provinces who had registered one year earlier. Ten years have passed, but the story continues. The newly “illegalized” workers then became the subjects of deportation.

Yet, it is “deportability,” and not actual deportation per se, that matters, as rightly pointed out by de Genova. The government’s attempts to deport migrant workers merely serve to destabilize the situation of migrants (both registered and unregistered), so that they become vulnerable and therefore more ready to accept exploitative working conditions.

Police crackdowns are thus meant to secure the physical presence of migrant workers while excluding them from political and legal entitlements. The crackdown on migrant workers by calling them a threat, therefore, is indeed the elites’ dirty laundry of their anti-people transnational profit accumulations.

Therefore, the future challenges for humanitarian groups would include re-connecting the role of migrant workers to the Thai economy for a better distribution of profits. Moreover, since migrant issue is embedded in the broader global political economy, activists need to go beyond the enclave of locally celebrated communities towards engaging with the networks of national and global alliances for a more democratic global economic operation.

The most immediate task: practitioners, activists and journalists should themselves stop using the language of ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘migrant problems’ uncritically.

Sai Soe Win Latt is a Ph.D. student of geography at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada.

READ MORE---> ‘Illegal Immigrants’? Who’s Threatening Whom...

Ordeal at Sea Described by Rohingya Survivors

The Irrawaddy News

SABANG, Indonesia (AP) —The bearded farmer wept in his hospital bed as he recounted a harrowing six-month journey that brought him from the isolated country of Burma to this remote island in the Indian Ocean.

Nur Mohammad, a member of the Rohingya Muslim minority group, said he was forced to work for the Burmese army, after being detained and tortured without charge. When he fled that country, he said he was exploited by Bangladeshi human traffickers, beaten by Thai officials and then forced out to sea in an overcrowded boat that nearly sank off Indonesia's coast.

And his ordeal is not over.

Rohingya refugees from Burma and Bangladesh perform evening prayers at an Indonesian Navy base where they are being held after having been rescued at sea on Sabang Island off the Coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. (Photo: AP)

The 37-year-old Muslim, who is being treated for internal bleeding and trauma, faces possible deportation by the very people who plucked him from the water.

"I would rather die here," Mohammad told The Associated Press, describing the abuse in Burma against the Rohingya, who for generations have been denied citizenship and reportedly face torture, religious persecution and forced labor under the ruling junta.

"If I'm sent back, I am sure authorities will kill me."

The stateless Muslim ethnic group, which is not recognized by the military regime, numbers about 800,000 in Burma. Their plight gained international attention after several boats carrying around 1,000 migrants were intercepted last month by the Thai navy. Human rights groups allege Thai officers detained and beat them before forcing them back to sea in vessels with no engines and little food or water.

Survivors recounted how four migrants were tossed overboard before the rest were forced at gunpoint onto a makeshift barge in the middle of the ocean, said Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Bangkok-based advocacy group Arakan Project.

Hundreds are missing and feared drowned, according to human rights groups; others have landed on remote corners of Indonesia and India, where they are being kept well away from the media, making it difficult to corroborate their stories.

Authorities in both Thailand and Burma have denied wrongdoing.

Rohingya refugees from Burma and Bangladesh stand outside their shelter at an Indonesian Navy base. (Photo: AP)

In the meantime, the harrowing accounts of victims like Mohammad continue to trickle in from hospital beds and jail cells.

Mohammad said by the time his boat reached Thailand's southern coast on December 26—after working for months on fishing vessels in Bangladesh—he and other fellow Rohingya had been at sea for four days and nights.

They were dehydrated and hungry, he said, but given almost no food or water when they reached land.

Authorities took the men to a hillside prison overseeing the Thai city of Ranong, he said, where they were lined up and stripped down to the waist. One by one, they were pummeled and taunted, with some officers scoffing at them for being Muslim and threatening to burn their traditional beards, he said.

"They tied me and beat me with sticks and kicked me with their boots until I was vomiting blood. They only stopped because I was about to die," said Mohammad. A doctor who treated him at an Indonesian navy base on Sabang island told the AP the wounds appeared to have been caused by a blunt object.

Soon after, he said, the migrants were crammed back into their boats and sent adrift in stormy seas.

Brad Adams of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the story of the Rohingya has been made all the more tragic by the consistent lack of compassion shown by some regional governments, which appear to have ignored the suffering of the ethnic minorities or played a direct part in it.

Thai authorities insist repeatedly that they do not forcibly evict migrants but only detain and repatriate people entering the country illegally.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, facing growing criticism from rights groups, said last week the government would investigate claims of abuse. The Foreign Ministry also said it would convene a meeting with its neighbors to find a solution to the growing illegal migrant problem.

On Wednesday, a Thai court convicted more than 60 migrants on the same charge, raising the prospect that they could be kicked out. The men alleged they were abused by Burmese navy officials.

A spokesman for Burma’s military government was not available for comment.

The ruling junta does not officially recognize the existence of a separate Rohingya group in the country's western areas and sometimes refers to them as "Bangladeshis."

Restrictive citizenship laws enacted in 1982 make many Muslims living in the area stateless; "'Rohingyas' do not exist in the Union of Burma and are not one of Burma's indigenous national races," the government told the UN Human Rights Council last year.

At the same time, it rejected as untrue "allegations of discrimination and harassment" toward Muslim refugees returned from Bangladesh—meaning the Rohingya.

In addition to the Rohingya, the military regime has brutally repressed a number of groups and millions have risked their lives fleeing the country.

The Rohingya, who are believed to descend from 7th century Arab settlers whose state was conquered by the Burmese in 1784, face religious persecution because they are Muslims in a Buddhist-majority country. Human Rights Watch said in its latest annual report they faced forced relocation, land seizures, and denial of citizenship and identity papers, among other things.

The State Department agreed, saying they "experienced severe legal, economic, and social discrimination."

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have ended up in neighboring Bangladesh—some getting illegal jobs and others living in crowded, squalid refugee camps—after borrowing huge sums of money from family and friends to pay smugglers.

Others have settled in impoverished communities in Malaysia and Thailand, which depend on migrant labor; even more have braved the sea to go as far as the Middle East.

"It is a horrible humanitarian crisis unfolding, the fairly large numbers of people leaving in these boats, either drowning at sea or finding themselves in exploitative, abuse situations on arrival," said Chris Lom, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.

Like other stateless people, the Rohingya are especially vulnerable to human trafficking because they provide cheap labor and are not protected by the law, he said.

"The issue of people in poor countries trying to reach richer ones is not going to stop," he said. "It's going to become more serious and it needs to be addressed, not just regionally, but globally."

In describing his persecution in Burma, Mohammad said his village was placed under a curfew and the Rohingya were unable to marry and often had their land confiscated.

He said he was forced to work as a laborer for the army after being detained and tortured without charge.

He decided to cross the border illegally into Bangladesh, where he worked as a fisherman until he was able to earn enough money to pay for a boat to Malaysia—around $430. He and others set off in their rickety wooden boats on Dec. 16 with a captain who seemed not to know the way.

The men were picked up and beaten by the Burmese navy who held them for two days, he said.

When they reached Thailand, they were again taken into custody and pummeled before being cast adrift in a boat that had been stripped of its engine and emptied of fuel, Mohammad said.

"The boat was leaking badly," he said. "The water started rising inside. Finally, it was a foot deep and we started to sink. We prayed to Allah, we asked him to save us."

A fishing boat spotted them off Indonesia's westernmost coast and alerted the navy, which brought 193 men, all but 17 of them Rohingya, to shore on Jan. 7 as it was on the verge of sinking.

Many were too weak to stand and were hospitalized.

Now the Indonesian government is threatening to send them back to where they came from.

READ MORE---> Ordeal at Sea Described by Rohingya Survivors...

People will be forced to support SPDC parties in 2010 Elections

( Mon State and other parts of Burma, the local authorities from the ruling military regime have started ‘public relations’ activities to encourage the people to support government-supported political parties in coming 2010 Elections.

Amid international and domestic pressure to engage in genuine political dialogue, the SPDC will move on with its 7-points roadmap to “disciplined democracy.” By learning lessons from its loss in the 1990 Elections, the regime plans to guarantee its own political parties win 2010.

SPDC authorities in Mon State are traveling from one village tract to another and mobilizing village headmen, fire brigades, government administrative departments and civilian groups like the Union Solidarity and Development association to prepare for the election.

Similarly to the un-democratic referendum that confirmed an un-democratic constitution in May, the general people will be forced to vote government parties in the elections. Un-free and unfair elections will be held, and the regime will win.

The elections may be called “democratic,” but the people cannot foresee political freedom and the people will still not have human rights or democracy.

READ MORE---> People will be forced to support SPDC parties in 2010 Elections...

Refugee problem needs joint action by governments


(The Star) A COMPLEX, dual injustice against the Rohingya people of Myanmar now threatens to become a more complicated problem for governments in this region.

Even as a large, 40% minority in Rakhine (the former Arakan) state in western Myanmar, the Rohingyas are denied recognition as a community by Myanmar’s military junta. And so persecution of the Rohingyas became common, forcing them to move abroad.

Rohingyas are scattered over Bang­ladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Ar­­abia, Thailand and the UAE. Refugee flows of the Muslim Rohingyas to Malaysia have risen since 2006, naturally attracted to a relatively close, prosperous and Muslim-majority Malaysia.

For years, Thai authorities had been lax about flows into Thailand, thinking that these Rohingyas were only “passing through” into Malaysia. But the former government of prime minister Samak Sundaravej tightened controls, and boatloads of refugees have since reportedly been towed into sea.

Braving such journeys may seem unnecessarily risky even for refugees, but the Rohingyas’ experience at home could have been worse. According to Amnesty International (AI), in Myanmar they suffered extortion, arbitrary taxation, land confiscation, eviction, property destruction, denial of citizenship and forced labour.

Lately, the Thai army has been accused of brutalising and even shooting some Rohingyas and leaving the rest to drift or die at sea. There are some quarters in the Thai military who even believe the Rohingyas had arrived to fight alongside separatist Muslim rebels in the country’s southern provinces.

When Rohingyas seeking to enter Malaysia through Thailand head for the south, they immediately become suspect. Their Muslim identity further inflames suspicions, particularly when they are able-bodied men who might have arrived only seeking work.

In recent days there have been reports of an illegal labour syndicate trading in migrant workers from Myanmar. This human trafficking is said to involve some uniformed Thai and Malaysian officials.

And since these “workers” are illegal, coming with hopes of a better life in a foreign land, they would want to settle in the country upon arrival.

Rohingyas resemble South Asians, speaking a language similar to Bengali, and a known number of 20,000 are already in Malaysia.

Those who had settled in Bangladesh enjoy linguistic similarities with Bangladeshi culture. However, these stateless refugees reportedly receive no assistance from the Bangladesh government.

Last week, official reports on hundreds of refugees who recently suffered alleged abuse from Thai authorities said most of them were actually Bangladeshis. The reports also said the most popular economic destination was Malaysia.

Five days ago Thailand proposed hosting a regional conference to resolve the issue. Thai authorities have come under the international spotlight for alleged mistreatment of Rohingyas, and the new government in Bangkok wants to dispel any such misgivings.

Meanwhile, the UN High Com­missioner for Refugees is investigating allegations by groups like AI.

Thailand says it wants to resolve the issue properly, while noting that the country has been a target of various economic refugees such as the Hmong people from Laos.

Thailand’s experience in handling refugees can be helpful. It had work­ed successfully with South Korea in relocating people fleeing North Ko­­rea, in the process showing that inter-governmental action is essential.

The Rohingya question should therefore be an important item at the Asean summit in Hua Hin, Thai­land next month. The issue requires a speedy and just resolution, in the interests of the Rohingyas and the countries of Asean.

But there is a misplaced view within Asean that Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia need to take a higher profile role on the Muslim Rohingyas.

To preserve the impartiality of the country and the integrity of the Asean process, a Muslim-majority country should instead avoid seeming to set the agenda.

Asean can be entrusted with finding an agreeable formula for the Rohingyas’ resettlement through consensus. The issue is in essence political, not racial or religious. (JEG's: but so far ASEAN has kept a scary silence..)

Ultimately, the Rohingya problem lies squarely with Myanmar. This and other refugee problems, and all associated hardships, are likely to continue, grow and spill overseas so long as there is a wilful and wanton denial of good governance at home.

READ MORE---> Refugee problem needs joint action by governments...

66 migrants convicted

RANONG (THAILAND - ST): A Thai court yesterday convicted 66 barefoot, dishevelled migrants detained at sea for illegally entering the country, raising the prospect that they could be sent back to Myanmar despite fears of persecution.

A Ranong provincial court judge sentenced each defendant to five days in prison after none of them was able to pay a 1,000-baht ($43) fine.

Four of them had to be ferried to court from hospital to face sentencing, one carried by two men because his legs were broken.

The Thai navy detained the Rohingya migrants on Monday after their rickety boat was found adrift in the Andaman Sea off Thailand's south-western coast. The Thai government contends that the migrants do not qualify for refugee status, and a police official said they could be expelled after serving their sentence.

'Have pity on us,' migrant Mamoud Hussain said before the ruling. 'They'll kill me and my family if I go back.'

Hussain, 50, was among 78 migrants on the boat. Twelve minors are being held separately because they are too young to be tried, said Ranong police Colonel Weerasilp Kwanseng.

The plight of the Rohingyas - a stateless, Muslim ethnic group who fled persecution in Myanmar - was highlighted earlier this month, following accusations that some of them had been abused by the Thai authorities.

Human rights groups say the Thai navy has twice intercepted boats filled with hundreds of Rohingyas and sent them back to the open seas, where hundreds later died.

The Thai authorities have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, insisting they only detain and repatriate people entering the country illegally. 'There is no reasonable grounds to believe these illegal migrants fled from their country of origin for well-founded fear of being persecuted,' the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Thailand faces an 'enormous burden' because there are three million illegal migrants currently in the country, it said.

But the Washington-based Refugees International has warned that any Rohingya repatriated to Myanmar 'is subject to arrest and abuse'.

Hussain said his group fled Myanmar about a month ago to escape poverty and persecution. He said sailors from the Myanmar navy who caught up with them as they sailed towards Thailand boarded their vessel and beat them with wooden and metal rods.

'They told us there are no Muslims in Burma, and they continued to beat us,' he said. The migrants were detained for 10 days and then allowed to go.

'They told us not to come back again, or they'll shoot us all.'

Tens of thousands of Rohingyas live in camps in Bangladesh, where many have been granted refugee status.

Many more brave the seas in search of a better life, often travelling to Thailand on their way to Malaysia.


READ MORE---> 66 migrants convicted...

Chin 'living in slavery'

Human rights body highlights plight of persecuted Christian group

By Nirmal Ghosh

BANGKOK (ST): The Chin people, Christians living in remote and rugged north-western Myanmar, are subjected to forced labour, torture, killings and religious persecution by the country's military regime, a human rights group said yesterday.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a report based on interviews with Chin refugees across the region, said thousands of Chin have had to flee their homeland, mostly across the border to India as well as to Malaysia and Thailand.

The population of the Chin state is reckoned to be around 500,000. But between 75,000 and 100,000 Chin currently live in the Indian state of Mizoram, without support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). About 30,000 Chin live in Malaysia.

The refugees have fled lives of constant fear, hardship and harassment, and conditions that amount to little more than slavery.

HRW's report documents cases of Chin people being forced to work without pay for the Tatmadaw - the Myanmar army - in projects such as road-building, construction and porterage. They worked under harsh conditions and could not attend to their crops and families.

The report documents several individual cases of arbitrary abuse ranging from harassment for money, to torture and imprisonment. The Chin people's religious symbols are also often destroyed.

Ms Sara Colm, a senior researcher for HRW, told journalists yesterday that the exodus of minority groups from Myanmar showed no signs of stopping, and had to be recognised as a problem for the whole region. 'The Chin state is a template for how repression works in rural Burma,' she said.

Her comments came amid a storm over the Thai military's alleged abuse of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar's Rakhine state, which has put pressure on Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to live up to his publicly stated commitments to human rights and justice.

Life for the Chin in their mountainous homeland, hard enough in normal circumstances, is made unbearable by the Tatmadaw which has 10 battalions stationed in the state. An assessment in 2007 by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar came to the conclusion that 70 per cent of the population of the Chin state live in poverty, and 40 per cent are without adequate food sources.

The junta has done nothing to alleviate famine conditions in the state, where the 50-year bamboo flowering cycle has recently fuelled a boom in the rat population - which has attacked crops after finishing off the bamboo.

The Chins' own armed group, the Chin National Army, no longer poses a significant threat to the military regime, but its cadres make matters worse by levying taxes on locals. Any contact, even accidental, between an ordinary local and a Chin National Army cadre is grounds for being beaten, tortured and imprisoned.

Conditions in Mizoram are also not friendly, even though Mizos and Chins are ethnically closely related. Chins have been harassed by the Young Mizo Association, an ultra-nationalist vigilante organisation which constantly threatens to evict them from Mizoram and has carried out its threats.

HRW called on India to do more for Chin refugees in Mizoram, including allowing UNHCR to set up an office there.

The group also called for more assistance in remote areas of Myanmar. 'There is a need to focus international attention on areas of Burma that are extremely remote and neglected,' said Ms Colm.

READ MORE---> Chin 'living in slavery'...

Strategic Outlook of 2010 and the Role of Moderates in Burma Conflict

By Min Zaw Oo
Mizzima News

Key Points
* The west-driven support to Burma's pro-democracy movement has reached its limit.
* The regime has maintained its intuitional apparatus to crackdown domestic oppositions after the monk-led protest and the Cyclone Nargis.
* The military is facing dilemma to proceed to the transition in 2010 because of the distrust of the oppositions and the lack of civilian partnership.
* Factional mobilizations can lead to instabilities after 2010.
* Conflict prevention based on reconciliation and nation-building should be priority after the coming election.
* The emergence of moderate political forces is critical to promote reconciliation after 2010.

The Burmese regime has claimed to hold a new election in 2010 to facilitate a formation of a civil-military government in accordance with the military-orchestrated constitution which was approved in a widely slated referendum held last year. The prospect of the new election is a moral and strategic dilemma to the oppositions, especially the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its supporters who are entrenched in their upholding of the NLD's victory in the eighteen-year-old election.

Any proponent of the new election will undoubtedly find it hard to make a moral advocacy without risking an inadvertent endorsement of the reprobated constitution. However, the participation of moderate pro-democracy forces in the 2010 election is strategically sound and practically necessary to avoid instability and foster much-needed reconciliation for Burma's political and ethnic crises. This essay addresses why the 2010 election is important, and how the moderates can nurture reconciliation after 2010.

The State of the Opposition Movement

Before we think of the future, we should honestly assess our pro-democracy opposition movement, especially its west-driven support.

The attack on Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade in Depayin and the crackdown on the NLD in 2003 marked a turning point in the conflict. The Depayin incident was also an enlightening moment for some opposition members to re-evaluate their strategies in Burma's protracted conflict.

The Depayin clampdown invigorated ferocity and anguish among the Burmese opposition communities. The emotional instinct called for escalation of the conflict to punish the military's onslaught on the NLD. Furious responses from the international community, including the abrasive condemnations coming from the US senior official, appeared to convince Burmese oppositions that their supporters in the west were ready to boost up Burma's opposition movement beyond rhetoric and miniscule financial supports.

Nevertheless, Burma's pro-democracy movement was merely a moral case for the west. Moral concern is usually inferior to strategic needs in international relations.

Even the Bill Clinton's administration approved about $ 100 million to support the Iraqi oppositions in 1998.1 Compared to this amount, less than $10 million of US funding, including the money to assist refugees and humanitarian programs, was a drop in an ocean of need to boost up an opposition movement.

The Depayin crackdown revealed the reality of the international support to the pro-democracy movement. A few exiles had reached a conclusion on the international front—the west-driven support to Burma's pro-democracy movement has exhausted its capacity in the international system.

On the political front, the NLD explicitly called for the intervention of the United Nations Security Council. The actual reason behind the NLD's SOS signal was its leadership's realization that the government had effectively clamped down the party's capacity to mobilize inside the country. While Aung San Suu Kyi and her able colleagues were under detention, the junta's restrictions had potently demolished the party's grassroots foundation.

The Burmese oppositions and their supporters in exile well heeded the NLD's distress call. Some activist lawyers in Washington prepared a lengthy and controversial appeal, commissioned by Former Czech President Vacláv Havel and noble laureate Desmond M. Tutu. The document argued that Burma under the military junta was a threat to regional stability although all neighboring countries refused to endorse this claim. Burma's threat to peace allegation came neither from the Pentagon nor the US intelligence community. It was a pure agenda from the activists using it as leverage to elevate pressure over the regime.

Despite the understanding in advance that such appeal at the UNSC would not survive, the US Congress and the Bush administration rode the flow of the activists' agenda. In contrast, the Clinton administration chose not to pursue the similar agenda at the UNSC after US ambassador to UN Madeleine Albright met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995 because of the same reason of an eventual failure. The result is the history.

Both the free Burma movement and the free Tibet campaign share the same fate. Both movements have been remarkably successful in awareness campaigns. However, awareness is only the first step to mobilize international support in transnational causes. The actual policy making depends on the willingness and capability of the international powers. Both free Burma and Tibet movements grind to a halt when their fates fall into the hands of the international system.

In the domestic front, the junta faced two major crises almost simultaneously within 8 months. The monk-led uprising brought thousands of people to the streets for the first time in eighteen years. Cyclone Nargis virtually destroyed the rice bowl of Burma in the delta region and killed over 130,000 people, marking it the worst natural disaster in Burma history. Nevertheless, the regime survived both crises.

The military proved its institutional capacity to shoot, arrest and torture even monks who are regarded one of the three most revered in Burmese society. The Cyclone deepened poverty and forced people to prioritize their economic survival over political dissatisfaction. The regime has successfully preserved its capacity to quash political challenges after two major crises.

The Limitations of the Military Junta

The major difference between Gen. Ne Win's military coup in 1962 and the current junta is the former's ability to consolidate its power by institutionalizing a one-party state 12 years after the military takeover. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) successively claimed it was a coup d'état government. The nature of the current junta is transitional. Unlike Ne Win's coup, the current junta is not capable of institutionalizing its rule into a formal political system.

In addition, the regime is under constant pressures domestically and internationally although the junta is capable of withstanding them from pushing it to collapse or concede the oppositions' demands. The Depayin incident accelerated the regime's eventual end game, 7-step Road Map to a political transition.

The transition plan is based on the regime's orchestrated constitution which the junta forced through in a rigged referendum amidst the cyclone crisis in May 2008. According to the Road Map, the regime will hold a new election in 2010 and form a new government. The military will have 25 percent of seats in the Parliament, and the military's interests will be protected.

However, the interpretation of the constitution in practice will depend on the degree of participation by civilian politicians in the election and the authority of the elected representatives in the government. The constitution itself does allow elected members to hold substantial power in the new government. The legitimacy of the 2010 election depends on the participation of pro-democracy civilians and their roles in the new government.

The regime is also facing a dilemma based on three major concerns. First, the military is reluctant to open up political space for the civilian politicians to mobilize to contest in the election because the regime learned a hard lesson after it had released former student leaders and allowed them to organize their supporters. Their mobilization paved a way to the monk-led protest in 2007. The regime is very careful this time not to repeat the previous mistake.

Second, the regime is concerned with the repetition of the NLD's another victory in the 2010 election. The dominance of anti-military oppositions in the civilian portion of elected representatives will encourage the oppositions to challenge the military after the election. In other words, the military wants more 'moderate' opposition to contest in the election than the hard-liners. The release of student leaders in 2004 partially aimed at creating a so-called 'third force' between the NLD and the regime. However, the student leaders chose to take hard-line stance.

The regime's strategy appears to minimize the influence of hard liners, including the NLD, in the opposition movement. The recent arrests and severe jail-terms imposed on the activists are a part of the plan to steer clear hard-line elements before the election comes. On the other hand, an alternative third-force in the opposition movement is not in an organized form. Because of the nature of polarization in Burma's conflict, many moderate individuals are reluctant to engineer a third-force platform which is a politically derogative term for the Burmese oppositions.

Third, the regime is worried that the emerging civilian-led government would undermine the military's institutional interests. The military wants to avoid creating a Frankenstein monster by its own Road Map. The military therefore embedded protective clauses in the constitution to guarantee its own interests because of its distrust on civilian politicians.

Overall, the SPDC does not have viable civilian partnership in the new government after 2010. Lack of confidence on civilian politicians and amicable partnership has fostered siege mentality among the military leaders who cling onto the constitution and use suppression to safeguard their interests.

Civilian Forces in the 2010 Election

Depending on their roles and stance towards the coming election, there are four types of civilian politicians, in addition to the pro-military elements to contest the election. The majority of the oppositions strongly condemned the regime's road map. They will continue to reject the 2010 election and refuse to participate. These hardliners among the opposition movement are mostly in exile. Most hardcore activists inside the country have been placed under detention since the crackdown of the monk protests. The hardliners' voice will make little impact on the holding of the election.

The second type of oppositions sees the election as a step towards a confrontation with the military. Despite its call to recognize the result of the 1990 general election, the NLD is likely to participate in the 2010 election because it is the only option for Daw Suu's party to reclaim its legitimacy and remobilize its supporters after 2010. For many hardliners, including the Burmese Communist Party, the coming election is a tactical battleground for further escalation of the conflict.

The third political group views the coming election as an enticing opportunity to pursue their interests. Many ceasefire groups fall into this account. They will seek to strengthen their legitimacy through the existing electoral process regardless of the degree of fairness and freedom of the election. Some ceasefire groups are also inclined to transform into the fourth category, the third force.

Most individuals in the so-called third force inside Burma are non-NLD pro-democracy activists who disagree with the NLD's sanction-oriented policy and confrontation with the regime. They regard themselves moderates and share a view that the current NLD-led opposition movement is a failure. Many individuals in the third force include former political prisoners, elected representatives from the NLD, current leaders in NGOs, and environmental activists. Although they have not emerged as an institutionalized political force, they are likely to establish their political platform to contest the 2010 election.

Potential Instability after the 2010 Election

Under the current constitution, the likely polity in Burma is inclined towards illiberal democracy after 2010. Illiberal democracy is the most potent ingredient for instability when poor economic performance and factional mobilization characterize a new transition, according to the study of world-wide instabilities since 1955.2

Any new government, regardless of the forms of transition, will not be able to revive the country from current economic pauperization in a short term. Poverty will continue and quality of life remains poor after 2010. Economic destitutions are usually channeled towards political discontent. Under poverty, Burmese people will remain dissatisfied with the government as long as the military is a part of the ruling institution.

Illiberal democracy also expands political space for formerly suppressed oppositions who were deprived of political mobilization under the previous system. Economically dissatisfied public is vulnerable to political instigation stirring up unrests. The hardline oppositions will utilize newly emerging political space to mobilize poverty-stricken angry publics to pressure the new government. Their objective will aim to scrap the existing constitution and boot the military out of politics.

On the other hand, the military is likely to be politically defensive after the 2010 election while taking shelter under its brainchild constitution. The military's 25 percent of representatives in the parliament and its supporters will continue to preserve the military's institutional interests threatened by the oppositions' mobilization. Alternatively, the military may disenfranchise potential hardliners in the 2010 election and continue to deny their political freedom even after 2010. In both scenarios, the confrontation between the military and hardcore oppositions is likely to escalate after the election.

Another challenge for the post-2010 government is disarrangement and demobilization of ceasefire groups. Twenty-year old ceasefire has not addressed political settlement of fifteen major ceasefire groups whose strength reaches over 40,000 armed troops, approximately four-time larger than the size of Taliban in Afghanistan. Any misstep in the 2010 transition can trigger the revival of major armed conflicts in the country. The outbreak of wars will inevitably promote the role of military in Burma's politics.

Realistic Reconciliation after 2010

The only way to avoid potential instabilities, destructive confrontation and the revival of suppression is to purse realistic reconciliation after 2010. Reconciliation needs political space, common ground and readiness of both parties. The opposition's call for reconciliation in the past has failed because of the lack of all major premises.

The transition in post-2010 may not foster willingness to reconcile but will create political space to expand shared common ground where confidence can be restored among major parties in the conflict. In the past up to this point, both sides use 'reconciliation' merely as a political lexicon to take advantage over another while neglecting common grounds to cooperate on shared interests of the nation.

It will be the first time in 22 years both civilian politicians and the military representatives will be sitting under the same roof in the Parliament. It will also be the venue for both the military and civilians to interact in policy making and mutually envisioning the future. Against all odds, the transition in 2010 offers an opportunity to jumpstart confidence building to seek much need reconciliation for the country.

Realistically, the regime's Road Map is inevitable. The military will not drop its Road Map and seek an alternative political settlement with the opposition. Any political outcomes have to go through the military-led transitional process. In the past, the military is asked to sit down at a table set up by the opposition. It is now inexorable for the oppositions to proceed to the table prepared by the military.

The reconciliation after 2010 may not be an immediate tripartite dialogue among the military, pro-democracy oppositions, and ethnic minorities. The process will be likely initiated in phases, starting with the military and moderate political forces in the parliament and the government. The ceasefire groups in the political process can play a crucial role in steering the dialogue towards the issues of ethnic minorities.

Prevention of destructive conflicts and nation-building should be the priorities after 2010. These two critical processes are the indispensable steps towards successful democratization. Factional mobilization will be detrimental to any progress of liberalization and democratization. The grim truth about democratic transition is the fact that among 108 democratic transitions, only 12 countries have consolidated democracy since 1955.3 In many cases, instability follows transitions. Some countries fell back to some forms of autocracy. Many transitional countries are still struggling with factionalism.

Moderates Matter

Burma conflict is vastly factionalized, and the polarity between the military and the oppositions is deeply entrenched. The traditional opposition forces will likely take the path of confrontation with the military after 2010. Confidence building won't be materialized as long as both the civilian politicians and the military fail to cooperate in shared common interests, such as economic development, health care, security and public welfare. The essential approach is collaboration in common grounds instead of all-out confrontation.

As long as the junta sees no viable civilian partnership after 2010, the military will restrict the participation of civilian politicians in the coming election and their capacity to mobilize. The only civilian force willing to categorically cooperate with the military is moderate non-NLD pro-democracy activists who feel discontented with the status quo in the opposition movement. Although the military may not trust this so-called third force, it is the only viable civilian partnership the military needs to implement its Road Map.

The military and the third force share similar interests in development-related fields which can be the initial point of cooperation to foster confidence in civil-military relation. Pro-democracy orientation of the moderates can bridge the relationship between traditional oppositions and the military. The third force can function as a requisite buffer between both ends of hardliners by minimizing polarization in Burma conflict.

The major drawback of the potential third force in Burma is the lack of substantial leadership and institutionalization. The moderate force has not been able to organize its political platform and leadership structure to function as a feasible political institution. The election in 2010 will likely be a breeding ground to shape the structure of moderate force in Burmese politics. As long as the military's Road Map is the inescapable point for a change in Burma, the emergence of competent third force is strategically important to jumpstart reconciliation after 2010.

(Min Zaw Oo is a security analyst focusing on South and Southeast Asia region. He is also a PhD candidate at George Mason University, writing his dissertation on the analysis of 108 democratic transitions. Oo holds a MA in Security Studies, Georgetown University, and a MS in Conflict Analysis and Resolutions, George Mason University.)

READ MORE---> Strategic Outlook of 2010 and the Role of Moderates in Burma Conflict...

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