KUALA LUMPUR, 6 March 2009: The recent side talks by governments during the 14th Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) summit has failed to adequately address the repeated violations against the Rohingya asylum seekers, reports CARAM Asia. Although Myanmar has initially agreed to allow some of the Rohingya refugees back into the country, it has done so on the condition that the refugees must prove themselves as Bengali, further removing the onus of responsibility from the state.
All members within the Asean have also failed to acknowledge the root cause of this issue, namely the systemic discrimination faced by the Rohingya inside Myanmar. As long as this systemic persecution is not sufficiently addressed through viable policy initiatives by Asean states, the number of asylum seekers will continue to escalate.
The recent behaviour of the Thai authorities towards the Rohingya people has led to international condemnation and further demonstrates the impact on the region emanating from the failing regime in Myanmar. As a member of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) and a regional organisation that campaigns for the rights of mobile populations, CARAM Asia strongly contends that the recent cases of negligent and malicious behaviour by the Thai authorities relates to the much wider issue concerning the region’s ill treatment of mobile populations as a whole.
Since last November there have been increasing reports emerging that the Thai authorities, namely the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), were deliberately towing Rohingya refugees back out to the sea. These people had been excluded from the routine processing by the immigration authorities and the UNHCR had been denied access to investigate. Some sources now estimate that up to a thousand people have now been expelled in such a manner and at least five hundred of these remain missing feared drowned.
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Despite both eye witness testimonies and photographic evidence of these abuses, the Thai authorities initially denied that such events had taken place but, fearing further pressure from the international community, they agreed to allow the military to investigate the claims. While the new Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was eventually forced to admit that in ‘some instances’ such events had taken place, to date not a single person has been held accountable.
Following last years political turmoil in Thailand that led to the postponement of the Asean summit, Vejjajiva swept to power on a platform of enhancing the country’s democratic platform, strengthening its commitment to human rights and protecting mobile populations. These recent events, however, demonstrate that very little has changed and there remain few mechanisms of accountability in place to safeguard refugees from such barbaric treatment. To date, Thailand, like many countries in the region, has still failed to sign or ratify such international conventions as the 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons or the 1990 International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
Unfortunately, Thailand is not the only country in the region to deny the Rohingya people protection from persecution; India and Indonesia have also reported finding boats full of refugees and are ready to deport them back to Myanmar. Due to a lack of structural definition of applying the standards of what constitutes a refugee, these states frequently view applicable refugees as simply economic migrants. On 7 January, 193 Rohingya were found in the Aceh province by the Indonesian navy but denied the UNHCR access to them because they claimed that they were economic migrants ‘seeking a better life’ and were therefore deporting them back to Myanmar. In India, some 450 people have been found by the local navy and are ready to be deported. The false classification of these genuine refugees unfortunately leads to the removal of international oversight mechanisms and further persecutes this already stigmatised demographic.
While there are countries such as Bangladesh that take in some of these fleeing refugees, the Rohingya and other groups are denied permits to seek employment and therefore are forced to engage in undocumented work in order to feed their families. Such a lack of structural oversight by the Bangladeshi government has led to a backlash from the local populations who increasingly view the refugee demographic with hostility.
The Rohingya people themselves are effectively a stateless people, denied citizenship and subject to barbaric treatment by the unelected regime in Myanmar. They are routinely subject to human rights violations as have been documented by a number of groups including Amnesty International. According to one 2004 report the Rohingya people ‘are subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation, forced eviction and house destruction.’ Such reports have also included further allegations of torture and rape by the ruling junta.
The persecution of these people is not a new issue. In 1978, over 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after the junta launched a ruthless attack codenamed King Dragon or Naga Min on the Muslim population. In 1991, a further crackdown led to between 200,000 and 250,000 fleeing the country. Overall, since 1945, approximately 1.5 million Rohingyas have left Burma and are currently in exile mostly living in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.
Many of the countries in the region continue to mitigate their poor treatment of the Rohingya people on the basis that the Rohingya populace pose a threat to the national security of the country because they may engage in ensuing religious conflicts. Thailand and Malaysia continue to espouse views of this nature despite the fact that there remains not a single documented case to substantiate such claims.
The latest wave of abuses illustrates a much wider problem that the governments in the region, continually overlook, the junta in Myanmar. Despite continued hostilities by receiving governments towards a multitude of ethnic groups fleeing political persecution in Myanmar, these same governments continue to trade with the regime and place profit above the abuses and crimes of the junta. To date, Singapore, India, China and Thailand remain the four largest traders with the regime. India continues to arm and train the troops of the repressive regime to better continue their murderous acts and then denies the victims a safe haven to escape these crimes. While there has been some criticism from the Indonesian government towards the regime in Myanmar, this remains largely hyperbolic rhetoric.
Furthermore, while the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister has added that Thailand and Indonesia will continue to look at possible solutions through the ongoing Bali process, these initiatives focus on limiting irregular migration and human trafficking rather than addressing specific root causes. Such measures will only seek to further persecute refugees from finding a safe haven.
In order to rectify this continuing crisis, CARAM Asia recommends that the following actions take place:
- The Asean states must formulate a full and frank bilateral stance addressing Myanmar’s repeated breach of international law and form a framework on limiting the uses of deportation to such nations where the individuals are likely to face further persecution.
- All countries in the region must remain committed to their existing responsibilities under the United Nations Charter and allow the UNHCR full access to all suspected refugees within their borders.
- All States in the region must seek to collectively safeguard the rights of mobile populations through signing existing international conventions such as the CRSR and ICMRW.
- Asean states must put in place a regional mechanism to settle inter and intra states conflicts such as the systematic human rights abuse perpetrated by the Myanmar military regime.
- Asean members must remain committed to ensure that the creation of the human rights body, will give it adequate powers to investigate and rectify existing problems in the region.
The CARAM Asia network is involved in action research, advocacy and capacity building with the aim of creating an enabling environment to empower migrants and their communities to reduce HIV vulnerability and to promote and protect the health rights of Asian migrant workers globally. Visit www.caramasia.org for more information on CARAM Asia.