There seems little likelihood that the plight of Burmese Rohingya refugees will be discussed at the ASEAN leaders Summit this week. Rohingyas are victims of racial discrimination in their own country and their plight came to international attention after Thailand admit they had towed a thousand refugees out to sea. Vitavas Srivihok, Thai director of ASEAN Affairs Department, said talks about Rohingya would at best be marginalised to the “sidelines” of the conference and even then expects little by way of concrete outcomes. The conference’s contempt for Rohingya shows yet again ASEAN’s disinterest in human rights issues.
The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim community, with a long history, inhabiting Arakan province of Burma. Their ethnicity and religion has made them a target of oppression by Burmese military rulers. In a move reminiscent of Nazi discrimination against Jews, a Burmese 1982 law stripped them of their right to citizenship. Rohingya also endure restrictions affecting their movement, education, and freedom to marry. They are often forced into slavery, have their land confiscated and suffer arbitrary arrests, torture, and extra-judicial killings. Today the Rohingya have become increasingly landless and jobless forcing many to flee the country.
The Rohingya refugee issue is now an international problem affecting Burma, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. One thousand of them set off for Bangladesh in December and were detained and beaten when they landed in Thailand. But Thailand decided to export the problem. The refugees were forced back to sea in boats without engines or food. Hundreds died but hundreds more were rescued in Indian and Indonesian waters after several weeks at sea. On 7 January, 198 of them were found by Indonesian fishermen adrift at sea off Aceh, in northern Sumatra. Indonesian authorities say they have now rescued about 400 Rohingya migrants while Indian authorities at Andaman Islands have said they have also rescued hundreds of refugees. India plans to deport them back to Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, Thailand initially denied claims that its security forces abused the refugees. However in an interview with CNN last week, Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva admitted Thai security forces towed away the boats. Vejjajiva gave the unconvincing answer that he could not pinpoint which government official approved the practice, but claimed he was working on fixing the problem. "All the authorities say it's not their policy, but I have reason to believe some instances of this happened, said the PM. “If I can have the evidence as to who exactly did this I will certainly bring them to account."
But while the world should rightly judge Thailand harshly for its conduct in this shameful affair, Burma’s role should not be forgotten. Ye Myint Aung, the Burmese Consul-General at the Hong Kong consulate exposed what authorities really think of their minority in an extraordinary letter (pdf) addressed to the peninsula’s consular corps and media. In it, Aung denied Rohingya were Burmese. The Burmese, said Aung were good looking with “fair and soft” complexion. Rohingyas, by contrast had “dark brown” skin and were “ugly as ogres.”
Unfortunately, as New Mandala points out, the racism Ye Myint Aung shows against Rohingya is not unusual in Burma. New Mandala blames academics for stoking up “institutionalised chauvinism and historical memories built around communal conflicts from the last century”. Spurious research questioning their heritage gives people an excuse to distrust Rohingyas even though most have never met one.
But there are still groups around who are working to improve the Rohingya's lot. The Arakan Rohingya National Organisation wrote an open letter to the heads of ASEAN on the weekend which said that Burmese persecution of Rohingya people was a violation of the ASEAN Charter to respect human rights and international law. They called on the leaders to address the root cause of the Rohingya refugee problem and boatpeople crisis, pressurise Burma’s rulers to end human rights abuses and also urged Thailand to pay compensation to the families of Rohingya boatpeople who drowned.
The international peak political body for Burmese ethnic groups is also calling on the Australian government to push for the case for democracy in Burma. The Ethnic Nationalities Council represents seven ethnic Burmese groups Burma comprising 40 percent of the population. The Council's vice chair, Dr Lian Sakhong, told Foreign Affairs and Immigration officials that Australia should call for multi-party talks on Burma “to put pressure on the military regime so that we can have a dialogue.”
Sakhing said the talks should lead to a negotiated settlement to return Burma to democratic rule and also end ethnic oppression of Rohingyas and other groups affected by the 1982 citizenship laws. "We need to review the constitutions that are adopted by the military, so that we can have a compromise,” he told ABC’s Connect Asia. “If we don't do that, then the result will be another 50 years of civil war.”