Thursday, January 29, 2009

Refugee problem needs joint action by governments

Bunn Nagara
The Star

A complex, dual injustice against the Rohingya people of Burma ( Myanmar) now threatens to become a more complicated problem for governments in this region.

Even as a large, 40 per cent minority in Rakhine (the former Arakan) state in western Burma, the Rohingyas are denied recognition as a community by Burma’s military junta. And so persecution of the Rohingyas became common, forcing them to move abroad.

Rohingyas are scattered over Bang­ladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Ar­­abia, Thailand and the UAE. Refugee flows of the Muslim Rohingyas to Malaysia have risen since 2006, naturally attracted to a relatively close, prosperous and Muslim-majority Malaysia.

For years, Thai authorities had been lax about flows into Thailand, thinking that these Rohingyas were only “passing through” into Malaysia. But the former government of prime minister Samak Sundaravej tightened controls, and boatloads of refugees have since reportedly been towed into sea.

Braving such journeys may seem unnecessarily risky even for refugees, but the Rohingyas’ experience at home could have been worse. According to Amnesty International (AI), in Burma they suffered extortion, arbitrary taxation, land confiscation, eviction, property destruction, denial of citizenship and forced labour.

Lately, the Thai army has been accused of brutalising and even shooting some Rohingyas and leaving the rest to drift or die at sea. There are some quarters in the Thai military who even believe the Rohingyas had arrived to fight alongside separatist Muslim rebels in the country’s southern provinces.

When Rohingyas seeking to enter Malaysia through Thailand head for the south, they immediately become suspect. Their Muslim identity further inflames suspicions, particularly when they are able-bodied men who might have arrived only seeking work.

In recent days there have been reports of an illegal labour syndicate trading in migrant workers from Burma. This human trafficking is said to involve some uniformed Thai and Malaysian officials.

And since these “workers” are illegal, coming with hopes of a better life in a foreign land, they would want to settle in the country upon arrival.

Rohingyas resemble South Asians, speaking a language similar to Bengali, and a known number of 20,000 are already in Malaysia.

Those who had settled in Bangladesh enjoy linguistic similarities with Bangladeshi culture.

However, these stateless refugees reportedly receive no assistance from the Bangladesh government.

Last week, official reports on hundreds of refugees who recently suffered alleged abuse from Thai authorities said most of them were actually Bangladeshis. The reports also said the most popular economic destination was Malaysia.

Five days ago Thailand proposed hosting a regional conference to resolve the issue. Thai authorities have come under the international spotlight for alleged mistreatment of Rohingyas, and the new government in Bangkok wants to dispel any such misgivings.

Meanwhile, the UN High Com­missioner for Refugees is investigating allegations by groups like AI.

Thailand says it wants to resolve the issue properly, while noting that the country has been a target of various economic refugees such as the Hmong people from Laos.

Thailand’s experience in handling refugees can be helpful. It had work­ed successfully with South Korea in relocating people fleeing North Ko­­rea, in the process showing that inter-governmental action is essential.

The Rohingya question should therefore be an important item at the Asean summit in Hua Hin, Thai­land next month. The issue requires a speedy and just resolution, in the interests of the Rohingyas and the countries of Asean.

But there is a misplaced view within Asean that Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia need to take a higher profile role on the Muslim Rohingyas.

To preserve the impartiality of the country and the integrity of the Asean process, a Muslim-majority country should instead avoid seeming to set the agenda.

Asean can be entrusted with finding an agreeable formula for the Rohingyas’ resettlement through consensus. The issue is in essence political, not racial or religious.

Ultimately, the Rohingya problem lies squarely with Burma. This and other refugee problems, and all associated hardships, are likely to continue, grow and spill overseas so long as there is a wilful and wanton denial of good governance at home.

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