The People Nobody Wants – ISN

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The plight of the Burmese Rohingya made headlines in early 2009 when Thai security forces were accused of pushing migrant boats out to sea. With ASEAN establishing a new human rights body and a US delegation visiting Burma, any chance things could improve?

By Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch

At its 15th summit held in Thailand two weeks ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) inaugurated the ASEAN Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission. It is the first time that the 10-state bloc has given institutional recognition to human rights.

What that means in practice is unclear. The body will promote human rights but cannot sanction offenders or protect victims. With the Burmese junta nominating a representative to the 10-member commission, along with states such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which have less-than-stellar rights records, it seems the new body is there to pay lip service.

Action for sure is needed. Malaysia does not recognize refugees as a category; communist Vietnam continues to make life hard for many religious groups; and Burma’s 50+ million citizens are caught under the jackboot of a military dictatorship.

Standing out for the wrong reasons

But of all the ethnic groups in the region perhaps one stands out as suffering the most. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in western Burma, living mainly in Rakhine state close to the border with Bangladesh. Muslims make up around 4 percent of the country’s total population, and a majority of Burmese Muslims describe themselves as ‘Rohingya.’

The Rohingya number about two million people, though no precise tally is available. Approximately 800,000 remain in Burma with 200,000-400,000 in Bangladesh, many as refugees who fled Burma. An estimated half million live in the Middle East as migrant workers, with around 50,000 more as migrant workers or refugees in Malaysia.

Some are thought to be descendants of migrant labour imported by London from what is now India and Bangladesh during British colonial rule. Others believe the Rohingya descend from Arab traders who settled in Rakhine more than 1,000 years ago. No-one can say for sure, and histories are nebulous and politicsed. Either way, no matter who came from where or when, the Burmese junta maintains that the Rohingya are not among the country’s 135 recognized ethnic groups.

Since 1982, Rohingya have been denied citizenship. The Rohingya do not have an automatic right to education or work. They need permission to travel even a few miles between villages in Rakhine, much less move freely around Burma. The junta throws a cascade of red tape around marriage, requiring Rohingya to obtain a variety of authorizations before being issued a ‘marriage permit,’ which may take sereral years to be issued.

It doesn’t end there. Burma’s army has targeted almost all of the ethnic groups living along the country’s mountainous borderlands, from the Wa and Karen near Thailand, to the Chin living close to India and Bangladesh. Some of these groups have powerful militias that in turn carved out de facto autonomous zones for themselves, in many cases funded by smuggling and drug trafficking, Most have, to some extent, been able to protect their people from the army.

Defenceless and nowhere to go

However, the Rohingya have been defenseless for the most part. Multiple accounts of torture, summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, rape, destruction of homes, forced relocation and eviction, confiscation of land and property and so on, have been given by refugees fleeing to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia.

The situation for Rohingya has worsened, as the ruling junta’s resource wealth increased. Since the early 1990s, the number of battalions in western Burma has jumped from three to over 40. The soldiers often live off the land, expropriating property and implementing forced labor projects. The region is close to offshore oil and gas fields, which the junta needs to boost revenues and fund its military expansion. Burma has the biggest army in Southeast Asia, numbering over 400,000, despite having only around one-fifth the population of Indonesia’s estimated 250 million, by far the largest country in the region.

The most important new development is the Shwe gas field off the coast of western Rakhine. In December 2008, the Chinese energy company PetroChina signed a 30-year lease with the Burmese to buy natural gas piped from this field, in a consortium involving Indian, Thai, South Korean, Chinese and Burmese interests. Moreover, another pipeline will run from the coast, into western China, transporting crude oil from the Middle East. China wants that pipeline in place to avoid sending all its oil traffic from the Middle East and Africa through the Straits of Malacca. In the event of some great power conflagration, the straits could be vulnerable to a US naval blockade, and China’s growing but relatively weak navy might not be able to counter.

Refugees across the border

Bangladesh hosts 28,000 Rohingya in two refugee camps supervised by the UN. An estimated 200,000 – 400,000 live outside camps without access to international protection or humanitarian assistance. Many Rohingya have been pushed back into Burma, only to return to Bangladesh.

In recent weeks, a maritime and land border dispute between Burma and Bangladesh has reopened. The Burmese junta is building a border fence between the two countries, and in a cruel twist, is coercing Rohingya into building the fence. According to Bangladeshi media, the junta is hoping to keep the Rohingya that have fled to Bangladesh from being pushed back by Dhaka.

K Mrat Kyaw is editor of Narinjara, a Bangladesh-based news service. He told ISN Security Watch that “Bangladesh authorities would like to push back the Rohingya to Burma before the fence is completed.”

Harsh conditions in Bangladesh and the closure of other migration routes to the Middle East have resulted in Rohingya moving by boat toward Malaysia via Thailand. Reports that Thailand’s ‘push-back’ policy involved security forces pushing boat loads of Rohingya into international waters prompted an international outcry – but scant action, aside from Indian and Indonesia naval vessels later finding drifters and survivors – who said they were sent to sea by Thai security officials.

Thailand believed the Rohingya to be economic migrants, rather than refugees, and many of the men were fined for illegal entry as they had no papers – which of course they could not get in the first place given that Burma does not grant them citizenship.

Malaysia is listed by the US State Department as one of the world’s places of concern for human trafficking and refuses to sign any refugee conventions. However, it is the destination of choice for Rohingya fleeing Burma, and that Rohingya are willing to pay to be smuggled there says a lot.

As Shu Shi of Malaysian human rights group SUARAM put it to ISN Security Watch, “basically, the Malaysian authorities treat all the refugees equally badly.”

Little hope

Chris Lewa is director of the Arakan Project, which lobbies for the Rohingya. She tells ISN Security Watch that she “hopes the Rohingya issue will be addressed” when a high-level US delegation visits Burma on 3 and 4 November as part of the new ‘engagement’ policy with the junta.

As for ASEAN, recent history suggests there won’t be much done to help the Rohingya, despite the new human rights body being set up. The bloc passed the buck on Rohingya issue at its 14th summit in February 2009. With ASEAN chair Thailand in the spotlight over the ‘push-backs,’ the bloc delegated the Rohingya issue to the Bali Process, a regional forum on human trafficking and related issues. However, this grouping has not come up with anything of note so far.

The recent 15th ASEAN summit in Thailand made no mention of the Rohingya, whose plight which could soon be backin the international spotlight, as seasonal winds make it easier to travel from Bangladesh and Burma to Thailand by boat from October onward. It is likely that more Rohingya will arrive on Thailand’s shores in the coming months, given the border wrangles between Burma and Bangladesh.

Despite ASEAN’s new human rights commission, member-states Thailand, Malaysia and Burma have not ratified the UN Refugee Convention nor enacted domestic refugee legislation. The same applies to Bangladesh, which is not an ASEAN member.

This means these host countries do not abide by the principle of non-refoulement – which stipulates that refugees cannot be sent back to their home country if it is clear that they face persecution. 

Chris Lewa told ISN Security Watch that “I have little hope that the ASEAN human rights body will make any difference to the Rohingya, or to human rights in general in Southeast Asia – at least not for the foreseeable future.”


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