Sunday, February 1, 2009

A bad start to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's administration.

Bangkok and Boat People

(WSJ Online) -Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took office last month hoping to rejuvenate Thailand's international reputation. His handling of boat people fleeing Burma is not a good start.

The refugees are Rohingya, an outcast Muslim minority denied basic rights such as land ownership. In the past, Rangoon has even refused to accept Rohingya deported from Thailand, claiming they are not Burmese citizens. More than a million Rohingya have fled to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Some 28,000 live in U.N.-run refugee camps in Bangladesh. Most of the Rohingya who ended up in Thailand this winter were actually heading to Malaysia, a Muslim country. Others landed in Indonesia.

In recent weeks, the Thai military has intercepted around 1,000 Rohingya boat people and sent them back out to sea. More than 500 are dead or missing, human rights groups say, based on tallies derived from interviews with survivors. Since the story broke, photographs have surfaced showing the military towing rickety boats out to sea.

Mr. Abhisit seemed honestly caught off guard. He first called the accounts "exaggerated" and vowed to launch an investigation. On Tuesday he floated the idea of a regional meeting with India, Bangladesh and Burma to address the problem. Meanwhile, his government launched a PR campaign, broadcasting videos of the army giving food and water to a group of recently arrived Rohingya. On Wednesday, a statement from the Foreign Ministry said, absurdly, that "there is no reasonable ground to believe that these illegal migrants fled from their country of origin for well-founded fear of being persecuted."

The Foreign Ministry statement is right, however, in saying that "large inflows" of people test Thailand's "absorption capacity." But turning the boat people away to near-certain death is not a solution. The root of the problem is in Burma, where a failed state and ethnic cleansing policies leave the population little choice but to flee.

The Rohingya are just one example of the regional fallout from the junta's rule. Ironically, it is trade and support from Burma's neighbors, Thailand and China in particular, that keep the regime propped up. The plight of the refugees is a regional problem, and the countries that are most affected are also the best placed to help.

It's also a job for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which was denied access to the boat people in Thailand until late Thursday, when representatives met with 12 underage Rohingya. Bangkok has dragged its feet in responding to a request from UNHCR for access to the refugees, but said last week it would allow it to meet a group of 66 more Rohingya soon.

Mr. Abhisit came to power with tacit military backing, so it's politically delicate for him to criticize the military's apparent abuse of the Rohingya. The fragility of his government was underscored by yesterday's protests, where more than 10,000 citizens demanded that Mr. Abhisit dissolve the government and call an election. Like it or not, Mr. Abhisit and his new government will be judged by how Thailand treats the Rohingya boat people.

READ MORE---> A bad start to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's administration....

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