The New Boat People

ON THE THAI-BURMESE BORDER—When the dogs start baying at night, fear begins to grip those living in a village in the west of Burma where the Rohingya live. More often than not, the howling of the dogs means soldiers are coming and one of the villagers will be taken away.

For the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma’s Rakhine State and a people without a country, a peaceful night’s slumber is a distant dream.

“Even if you are not doing anything, anyone might report you,” says Chris Lewa, head of the humanitarian group Arakan Project. “Every time you hear a dog barking, you don’t know whether the Army is coming to arrest you.”

Arakan Project is one of many organisations fighting for the rights of thousands of Rohingya who have fled Burma and have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. So far the reception towards the fleeing Rohingya has been mixed, with the Thai military last December setting as much as 400 of them adrift on a rickety boat on international waters after they were caught within Thai territory.

The incident, which caused an uproar, has put a temporary spotlight on the often ignored Rohingya. Their fate has also become a test for the ASEAN, which has pledged in part to be “a caring and sharing community”.

Since the ASEAN charter came into force in December 2008, non-government groups have been urging the regional organisation to act more decisively to help persecuted peoples. In many cases, that would mean setting aside its policy of non-interference in a member-state’s affairs and risking antagonising Burma in particular.

A military junta has ruled Burma for decades now, with oppression of its own people among its tactics to perpetuate itself in power. Apparently, though, the Rohingya suffer even more than Burma’s other ethnic minorities among whom they stand out. For one, they are Muslims in that largely Buddhist country. For another, their skin is duskier than the rest of the Burmese, and they speak a Bengali dialect that has no shared history with any of Burma’s languages.

No place to call home

The Rohingya first came to Burma from what was then eastern India during colonial times. In 1982, a law stripped them of citizenship, making them stateless. They are, in fact, shunned by most Burmese, who view them as outsiders. Burma’s envoy in Hong Kong has even been quoted recently in news reports as saying that the Rohingya are as “ugly as ogres”.

Lewa says that the Rohingya, who at 750,000 make up a mere 1.4 percent of the Burmese population, need hard-to-get permission to travel outside their village, depriving them of the chance to study or seek treatment in better-equipped schools and hospitals.

They also need permission to marry and are restricted to no more than two children, adds Lewa. They are shut out from government jobs, their lands are taken from them, and they are subjected to forced labour, she says.

All these and more have fuelled the Rohingya exodus from Burma. Initially, they crossed the border to go to Bangladesh or went to the Middle East. These days, recent travel restrictions have given them no other choice but to escape by sea on hazardous trips arranged by human smugglers, usually during the latter part of the year, when the seas are less rough.

The Rohingya’s escape via sea from political persecution brings to mind the migration of more than two million Vietnamese in the 1970s after South Vietnam fell to communist hands. But the handling of their plight by countries where they wind up is hardly as sympathetic as the one involving the Vietnamese refugees, who were called the ‘boat people’.

The Rohingya usually head for Malaysia but they have also turned up in Indonesia and Thailand. Fifty-five-year-old Enayet Ullah, for example, has been in Thailand with his wife and child since 1995. Of all things, what prompted him and his family to finally leave Burma was an incident at a friend’s wedding.

According to Enayet, who now lives in the Thai town of Mae Sot, soldiers had barged into the wedding and grabbed the groom for his supposed political activities. Enayet tried to intervene, but ended up being a target of arrest himself. He hid and the soldiers beat his wife.

“In our place, if any government officers take action against the Rohingya, it’s no big thing,” says Enayet.

He also says that it isn’t hard to understand why thousands of Rohingya have been risking their lives to flee Burma aboard frail, overloaded wooden boats. What is difficult for him to understand is why the world seems to ignore their plight – save for the few instances when a tragedy like the one involving 400 people crammed on a single boat catches the attention of international media.

A little more than a hundred of them were rescued by the Indian Coast Guard near the Andaman Islands two weeks later. But it now seems this was not the only time that the Thai military had forced boatloads of Rohingya back to the sea with little food and water on engine-less boats.

The matter is now before ASEAN.

Doors shut

At first denying involvement in the recent boat incident, Thailand has since said that it is closing its doors to Rohingya and will deport anyone of them caught sneaking into the country. Thailand has convicted 66 Rohingya of illegal entry so far, saying they were economic migrants looking for jobs. Official Thai statistics show that from 2005 to 2006, 1,225 Rohingyas entered Thai territory by boats illegally. In 2007 to 2008, the figure jumped to 4,886.

Indonesia, after announcing a policy similar to Thailand’s, has relented and allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to verify the Rohingya’s status as refugees.

In truth, deporting the Rohingya poses problems. Burma at first denied they are its citizens and refused to accept them. Later, it said it would take them back but only if they said they were Bengalis. Bangladesh says they are not its nationals.

“This a test case for ASEAN … whether or not they will uphold the purpose and principles they set forth in the Charter,” says Sriprapha Petcharamesree, director of Human Rights Studies at Mahidol University in Thailand.

Among other things, Article 1 in the Charter says that the purposes of ASEAN are “to ensure that the peoples and Member States…live in peace with the world at large in a just, democratic, and harmonious environment” and “to enhance the well-being and livelihood of the peoples of ASEAN by providing them with equitable access to opportunities for human development, social welfare, and justice”.

This would then mean that ASEAN member states are obligated to provide protection to people like the Rohingya. This entails not just refraining from physically harming minorities and refugees, but also ensuring that such peoples would not be placed in a situation where they are sure to face danger. In the case of the Rohingya who landed in Thailand, they should not have been sent back—whether out to sea or to the country from which they escaped.

There is also the general responsibility of ASEAN members to work for the improvement of the conditions in Burma to help eradicate the reasons that prompt its people to flee.

Thailand cites domestic concerns for denying entry to the Rohingya. A deputy prime minister was quoted as saying that accepting 200,000 to 300,000 Rohingya would be a huge burden for Thailand, which is already host to thousands belonging to other ethnic minorities from Burma.

Sripapha says that no state should abandon humanitarian obligations based on its own internal affairs. She says the proposed ASEAN human-rights body (AHRB) should tackle the Rohingya case, or “it would definitely be discredited”.

A body worth watching

The AHRB is set to be launched this October. According to former ASEAN Secretary General Rodolfo Severino of the Philippines, the establishment of the body was a step forward.

“For the first time, ASEAN will have a body concerned with human rights,” he says in an email interview. “This is an advance. It certainly will not have powers of ‘enforcement’ in an association of sovereign states, but it can bring opinion to bear on egregious violations of human rights.”

After all, Severino notes, there is no transnational human-rights body anywhere with the power to punish or protect.

Civil-society groups meanwhile warn that a human-rights body with no protection powers or independent experts would not fulfill its pledge to respect fundamental freedoms, protect human rights, and promote social justice.

“This would reflect badly on ASEAN as being unable to live up to the spirit of its own Charter and further dent the credibility of ASEAN in the eyes of the international community for setting up a substandard regional human rights mechanism as compared to those in the African, Inter-American and European systems,” says a 22 June 2009 letter that was signed by 200 groups and individuals and addressed to the panel drawing up the AHRB’s terms of reference.

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), one of the letter’s signatories, says having competent experts in the AHRB could make it relevant to beleaguered peoples.

They could also help the AHRB initiate actions to reduce human rights problems even with a limited mandate, Forum-Asia’s Yuyun Wahyuningrum, program manager for East Asia, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Yuyun says it was vital that the people manning the AHRB would not be afraid to contradict the government line, if necessary.

She says this was the case with Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission, which, although created by then President Soeharto, did not become a government mouthpiece but criticised abuses and tried to curb them.

Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean), for her part, describes the ASEAN policy of non-interference as a “red herring” invoked to escape state obligations.

No biting

But Dr. Termsak Chalermpalanupap, director of ASEAN’s Political and Security Directorate, says in an article that while the AHRB mandate includes protection and promotion of human rights, it would focus on protection first. He argues that its functions could evolve over time, and that the body itself “is merely the new beginning”.

Responding to claims that the AHRB would be toothless, Termsak echoes Severino in saying that the body was not intended to have teeth or to function as an independent watchdog.

“The AHRB shall operate through consultation and consensus, with firm respect for sovereign equality of all Member States,” he adds. “Good points can be made and constructive actions can be agreed upon in friendly discussion and persuasion. No ‘biting’ is ever required.”

As for concerns that the non-interference principle would hamper AHRB’s functions, he says the ASEAN charter also speaks of collective responsibility in enhancing peace, security, and prosperity in the region, and of enhanced consultation on common concerns.

Coincidentally, the launch of the AHRB will happen when the waters will be calmer again, enabling many of Enayet’s people to brave the seas once more – and whatever lies beyond.

The sad thing, says Enayet, is they’d rather face the dangers from the waves than spend more sleepless nights hearing the dogs howling at the moon again.

“They will be thinking, ‘If I stay, I die’,” he says. “’If I jump into the sea, it’s the same thing. But if I can swim to this place at any cost, tomorrow I can help (members of) my family who are suffering’.”