Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Burma:Regional approach to problem of Rohingya boat people

Thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar in recent decades

Southeast Asian leaders have agreed to use the regional mechanism, known as the "Bali process", to try to solve the problem of the minority Muslim Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) made the decision at its annual meeting in Thailand at the weekend.

"The matter of the Muslim migrants from Myanmar is a regional issue that needs to be resolved regionally," the Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, told IRIN at the end of the two-day ASEAN summit in the coastal town of Cha-am Hua Hin, Thailand.

"It is not good for us and we agreed that an ASEAN country should not export problems to another," he added.

"The foreign ministers decided that Rohingya issue is best discussed at the Bali process," Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of ASEAN, told journalists.

"This problem is a human problem, a problem of humanity as a whole," he said.

The next annual ministerial meeting of the group, scheduled in Bali on 14-15 April, will discuss the issue, the Indonesian foreign minister, who is co-chair of the Bali process with Australia, Hasan Wirajuda, told reporters at the summit, a meeting Myanmar has confirmed it would attend.

"The Bali process is a very attractive and viable option for the region to get together to discuss the Rohingya issue," Surin told IRIN.

"ASEAN member states affected by the problem can come together and pool their expertise and resources to put this problem into a proper context and manage it together," he said.

The Bali process

The Bali process, established in 2002, involves more than 50 countries committed to practical measures to help combat people-smuggling and trafficking, and related transnational crimes in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

"It is primarily a process and framework for information-sharing and training of officials, in law enforcement and drafting legislation, in connection with the smuggling and trafficking of people and other crimes," said Chris Lom, regional spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in Bangkok.

IOM and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) are part of the secretariat and help facilitate meetings.

Long-standing problem

The problem of the Rohingyas - or Bengalis as the Myanmar government calls them - resurfaced a few months ago when thousands risked their lives for a better life in Malaysia or Indonesia. They spent weeks in small boats braving the rough seas off the eastern coast of Southeast Asia.

Hundreds who made it to Thailand were then pushed out to sea by the Thai authorities with little food or water. Many ended up in Aceh, Indonesia, and the Indian Andaman islands.

The Myanmar foreign minister, Nyan Win, told his ASEAN counterparts his country would readily accept all those Rohingya from Arakan (Rakhine state), in the northwest, who could prove their citizenship.

It has been left to the ASEAN secretariat to conduct a census of all those Myanmar Muslims in Indonesia, India and Thailand.

But while this may help the return of the boat people who have already tried to escape persecution in their home country, it is not likely to stem a mass exodus.

"Myanmar must improve its treatment of the Rohingya. As long as they continue to be persecuted in Myanmar, the Rohingya will continue to leave the country, regardless of their legal status elsewhere," the Washington DC-based Refugees International said in a statement released for the ASEAN summit.

"Rohingyas cannot freely move from village to village, are victims of rape and torture, are subjected to forced labour, land confiscation, extortion, and their men and women are also banned from getting married."

UNHCR says there are some 28,000 recognised Rohingya refugees in two UNHCR camps in Bangladesh and 200,000 unregistered Rohingya outside the camps.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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