Solving the problem of Burmese Muslim refugees will take the full efforts of several of the region’s organisations
By: Larry Jagan
“The Rohingya issue is a very complicated challenge to the entire region of Southeast Asia,” Mr Surin told Spectrum in an exclusive interview. “Asean happens to be a foremost regional organisation aspiring to evolve into a community of caring societies, so it has to be an issue of concern to Asean.”
The Rohingya issue featured prominently in bilateral talks in the region last week. US Secretary for State Hillary Clinton discussed it during meetings with both the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and the foreign minister, Hasan Wirajuda. Army chief Anupong Paojinda reportedly raised the issue with the Burmese junta’s leader General Than Shwe when he visited the Burmese capital Naypyidaw earlier in the week, while Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva also compared notes with his Indonesian counterpart during his visit to Jakarta.
“We are going to find a suitable way to raise the Rohingya issue during the Asean meeting,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman. “But it may not be discussed formally at the summit.”
But this is unlikely to satisfy activists and human rights groups who believe that unless there is a strong political will on the part of the region’s leaders at the forthcoming summit to seriously tackle the issue, the problem will be left to fester.
INTERNATIONAL CONCERN: Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after their meeting in Jakarta.
“The Rohingya issue is a cross-border problem that cannot be handled by one country alone, it needs a regional response,” Yap Swee Seng head of a regional human rights group, Forum-Asia, told journalists last Thursday ahead of the Asean summit. “While it may be discussed on the margins of the Asean leaders’ meeting, what is needed is a formal consultative meeting of Asean, including Bangladesh and India, who have both been affected by the exodus of Rohingya from Burma.”
Thailand and Indonesia have already agreed that the problem will be referred to the Bali Process after the summit. In fact, the Indonesian and Australian foreign ministers, who chair the international group, have already agreed that the next annual gathering will discuss the Rohingya issue. This year’s Bali Process meeting is expected to be held next month, or early in April. “We discussed and welcomed the fact that the question of the Rohingya will form part of the discussion at the forthcoming ministerial meeting of the Bali Process,” Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told reporters in Sydney last week, after a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart.
“The Bali Process is a very attractive and viable option for the region to get together, to discuss the Rohingya issue,” Mr Surin suggested. “Asean member states affected by the problem can come together and pool their expertise and resources to put this problem into a proper context and manage it together.”
The Bali Process brings together more than 50 countries, mainly Asian, and at ministerial level, to work on practical measures to help combat people smuggling, people trafficking and related transnational crimes in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. “It is primarily a process and framework for information sharing and training of officials, in law enforcement and drafting legislation, in connection with the smuggling and trafficking of people and other crimes,” said Chris Lom, the regional spokesman for the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), based in Bangkok. IOM and the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are part of the secretariat and help facilitate the group’s meetings.
MEET AND GREET: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva compared notes with his Indonesian counterpart.
The Bali Process was originally set up at the Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, held in Bali in February 2002.
“The region has faced these kinds of challenges many times before, including the [Vietnamese] boat people in the 1970s, but more recently the influx of people fleeing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran,” Mr Surin said. “That was the origin of the Bali Process, with Australia very much an active participant in the regional efforts to manage that human tide floating across the Indian Ocean.”
Thailand has been forced to take the lead on the issue after allegations that more than 1,000 Burmese-Muslim illegal immigrants were intercepted in Thai territory and cast adrift in three separate incidents on the high seas in several boats, with little food and water, and their engines disabled or removed. Some of the survivors ended up back in Thailand, some made it to India’s Andaman islands, while others drifted as far as the Indonesian island of Sumatra before being rescued. Many of them accused the Thai authorities of abusing them and treating them inhumanely.
REGIONAL INVOLVEMENT: Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Hassan Wirajuda speak at the opening session of the Australia-Indonesia Conference in Sydney.
The refugees were on their way to Malaysia, according to activists and UN officials who have had access to the survivors. Most of them paid the equivalent of 10,000 baht to smugglers who promised to get them to Thailand on the first stage of their trip to a better life. “They would then pay Thai traffickers a further 20,000 baht or so to get them to Malaysia,” said Chris Lewa, who works with the regional Arakan Project, which monitors the situation of the Burmese Muslims, both in Arakan state and those who try to escape the country.
The refugees are members of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, who live in northern Arakan state, in western Burma bordering Bangladesh. They have fled social and religious persecution by the Burmese military authorities there. Most human rights activists believe that the abuses committed by the junta in the Muslim-dominated areas of western Burma are worse than anywhere else in the country.
“Burma’s Rohingya minority is subject to systematic persecution. They are effectively denied citizenship, they have their land confiscated, and many are regularly forced to work on government projects without pay,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher. “They are often prevented from marrying or conducting religious ceremonies. They are also effectively prevented from travelling within the country as well. The regime creates conditions and circumstances that make it clear to the Rohingya that they are not wanted or welcome, so it’s no surprise that they try to flee the country by the thousands.”
MILITARY MIGHT: Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe, left, and Thailand’s General Anupong Paojinda.
Thousands make the hazardous two-week journey from Bangladesh at this time of year – between November and April – when the seas are not so rough. “We cannot tolerate the suffering any more. We would rather risk going to sea than stay and perish little by little,” one of those who fled Burma and ended up in Thailand told Spectrum. “Live or die; it’s up to Allah.”
More than 5,000 Rohingya have left Bangladesh in the past four months, according to researchers at the Arakan Project. Some have managed to make it to Malaysia, but several thousand Rohingya refugees may have perished in the Andaman Sea in pursuit of freedom and a better life, said Mr Lewa.
The danger now is that by relying on the Bali Process to sort out the problem of the Rohingya boat people, the issue will be treated as people smuggling rather than as a result of persecution.
“It is important that they [the Rohingya] are clearly identified, not just as economic migrants who have been trafficked,” said a UN worker who has interviewed many of the survivors of the latest incidents, but declined to be indentified. “They are asylum seekers escaping oppression, the denial of their rights, violence, land confiscation and religious persecution.”
“UNHCR would like to point out that being trafficked or smuggled does not preclude persons also having a legitimate claim to being a refugee,” said the regional spokesperson for UNHCR, Kitty McKinsey. “Often people fleeing persecution have no way out of their country other than to resort to smugglers or traffickers.”
The root cause of this latest exodus from Burma is the junta’s treatment of its Muslim minority, especially in Arakan state. The regime refuses to accept that they are Burmese citizens. “In reality, the Rohingya are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar’s ethnic group,” the Burmese consul general in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, wrote in a letter circulated to the press. And what is more they are “ugly as ogres”, he added.
The issue of Burma’s Rohingya has proved an intractable problem in the past. More than a quarter of a million fled massive human rights violations at the hands of the Burmese army. More than 200,000 ended up in camps in Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazaar from 1991 to 1993, largely in the care of UNHCR. Although the UN managed to negotiate a repatriation agreement between Burma and Bangldesh, many thousands remained in Bangladesh, and many of those who returned to Arakan simply fled again at the first opportunity.
So the countries of the region, with the help of the UN and several Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have tried in the past to help resolve this problem. But all efforts have floundered, largely because of the intransigence of Burma’s military rulers. At the height of the last mass exodus of Burmese-Muslim refugees from Arakan more than 15 years ago – the then Bangladesh foreign minister, Mustifizur Rahman (now deceased) said that the Rohingya issue could never be solved while the generals were still in power in Burma.
Many analysts and activists would agree. But that is no excuse for not trying, according to Asian diplomats.
“Countries have always been reluctant to deal with this challenge on their own. They are even hesitant to bilateralise the problem. So as a region we must try to face the challenge as a region,” Mr Surin said.
“Our image, our profile, and our efficiency as a regional organisation, are being tested by the current Rohingya phenomenon. Strong leadership and a determined political will are needed.”