‘Rohingya’ taboo at 17-nation meeting – Nikkei Asian Review



Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn speaks at the refugee crisis meeting in Bangkok on May 29. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn speaks at the refugee crisis meeting in Bangkok on May 29. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK — Deferring to a Myanmar government demand, representatives at a meeting here aimed at resolving southeast Asia’s ongoing maritime migration crisis are sidestepping using the term “Rohingya.”

“We are totally against the use of the nomenclature Rohingya, which never [existed] as a race in [this] country,” Htin Lin, Myanmar’s representative at the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Friday’s discussions involve representatives of 17 countries and come after Thailand launched a crackdown on long-established human trafficking syndicates preying on migrants aiming to get to Malaysia from Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Some 25,000 people took to boats crossing the Bay of Bengal in the first quarter of 2015, according to figures from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. The crackdown on traffickers forced boats south to Malaysia and Indonesia and focused international attention on Myanmar’s policies toward the Rohingya, a Muslim minority numbering between 1.0 million to 1.3 million people and mostly living in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine.

However, the Myanmar government does not recognize the Rohingya as a discrete ethnic group, describing them as immigrants from Bangladesh.

Htin Lin earlier accused the U.N. refugee agency of politicizing Friday’s discussions and warned other delegates against blaming Myanmar for the flight of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants.

“This issue of illegal migration and boat people, you cannot single out my country,” Htin Lin said, responding to comments from Volker Turk, the UN’s Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees,

Turk said solving the refugee crisis would “require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar toward all its people.” “Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal,” Volk added.

The Rohingya say they are fleeing poverty and persecution at home, where they are mostly denied citizenship, with around a tenth of the overall Rohingya population forced into squalid camps after violence erupted in Rakhine in 2012.

Detailed results of Myanmar’s 2014 census were released earlier Friday, but Rohingya were excluded because most refused to list themselves as “Bengali,” the government’s preferred designation, during the census-taking held a year ago.

“The current humanitarian crisis we’re witnessing in Southeast Asia is a direct result of the Myanmar state’s historical, ongoing, and severe persecution of the Rohingya,” Alicia de la Cour Venning, researcher at the International State Crime Initiative, told the NAR.

Tragedy continues

Exact figures for the refugees and migrants are unclear, but the UNHCR office in Malaysia believes that around 400 of the 1,100 new boat arrivals in Malaysia are Rohingya, with the remainder economic migrants from Bangladesh.

The head of the Thai military junta, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, said earlier that Thailand is merely a transit country for migrants trying to reach Malaysia. However, Thailand hosts around 3 million migrant workers from Myanmar, and has been widely criticized over allegations of migrant slave labor in its fishing industry.

Over the past month, dozens of alleged traffickers have been arrested in Thailand and Malaysia, with hundreds of dead bodies found at hastily abandoned camps on either side of the Thai-Malaysian border.

“We are saddened but not surprised by this latest news,”  Yante Ismail, UN refugee agency spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur, told the NAR. “Information we have received from survivors and families over the last two years has provided insight into the horrors of trafficking and smuggling across the Thai-Malaysian border.”

Malaysia and Indonesia have said they will host refugees for up to one year, provided other countries pledge to take new arrivals thereafter.

It seems unlikely that Friday’s meeting – attended mostly by mid-level officials from the main countries involved – will conclusively address the region’s ongoing migration crisis.

“Time is too short to thrash out a proper resolution,” Htin Lin said.

Time is running out, however, for thousands of refugees and migrants adrift on the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn, the senior-most official attending Friday’s meeting, said his country would allow U.S. aircraft access to its airspace to carry out search missions for the remaining migrant boats.

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