The Rohingya, who live in the northern part of Arakan state in Myanmar, adjacent to Bangladesh, are a Muslim minority. They are amongst those persecuted by the Myanmar military government. Due to persecution, they have fled to Thailand and Malaysia and live as illegal refugees in miserable conditions in refugee camps. The receiving states consider them illegal refugees and do not provide them with adequate protection. Many of them have been persecuted by the security forces of these states and exploited by the locals. Their situation is pathetic.
The recent boat people incident is additional testimony to their miserable situation. It was reported that the Thai Navy had pushed hundreds of Rohingya boat people back into the sea and let them die. The Indian Navy and the Indonesian authorities in Aceh rescued hundreds of them. Some of the survivors had claimed that they were abused by the Thai Navy.
The Myanmar government has told the ASEAN foreign ministers that it is willing to accept the refugees from their countries if they are identified as Bengali minorities. There is a contradiction in their stance as the Myanmar government does not classify them as citizens.
It was reported on 27 February 2009 in the Bangkok Post that the Malaysian Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi had stated that the countries affected by the influx of the Rohingya refugees must be firm in turning them back. The Rohingyas must prove that they came from Myanmar and have addresses and family members there. Speaking after chairing a meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers on the eve of the summit, the Thai foreign Minister, Kasit Pironmya said that since no conclusion was reached on the Rohingya issue, further discussions would be held with Malaysia, Indonesian and Bangladesh governments. The matter would be discussed from 14-15 April 2009 at the Bali Process meeting which is a non-binding grouping founded in 2002 to solve problems concerning human trafficking and smuggling. It is obvious that the meeting will not produce any substantive result as it has no binding value upon the states concerned.
Any proposal to send the Rohingyas back will only make their plight worse. What awaits them is more torture and inhuman treatment. Despite the presence of adequate human rights laws at international and regional levels, the refugee problem, especially the plight of the Rohingyas in Southeast Asia remains a long neglected issue that needs the urgent attention of the international community and regional states.
It is time that ASEAN gave serious attention to this problem as it has adopted an ASEAN Charter that alludes to human rights. It has a moral responsibility to solve the problem as it is a flagrant human rights violation in its own backyard.
ASEAN should not hide behind the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of a fellow member state and allow refugees to suffer. In fact, ASEAN should, as a matter of urgent priority, adopt a common policy on the fair and humane treatment of refugees which would cut across national boundaries. In formulating this policy, ASEAN states should be guided by both international law and the religious cultures of the region which exhort us to show our humanity to our distressed neighbour so that his dignity would be preserved and protected.
Dr Arujunan Narayanan
Executive Committee Member,
International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
6 March 2009