Act now on Rohingya
|Muslim Rohingya women walk inside the Bawdupha Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp located on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Myanmar's western Rakhine state on October 30, 2012. (Photo: AFP)|
November 18, 2014
US President Barack Obama had a frustrating second trip to Myanmar last week, at least for citizens of that country. Mr Obama tried to tread a middle path, always difficult in face-to-face diplomacy. When he praised the government’s policies, he disappointed many, including democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who believe President Thein Sein is resisting further democratic reform. When he criticised stalled reforms, he irritated the government.
The US leader’s “Oburma visit” (as one wag called it) was not the only case of mixed emotions about Myanmar in recent months. It was just the most recent — and prominent. This newspaper expressed similar sentiments before the Asean summit meetings held last week in Nay Pyi Taw. Launched with fanfare and well-deserved praise in 2010, the programme to turn Myanmar from a brutal military dictatorship into a democratic member of the world community progressed for two years. Then it essentially came to a halt.
There is no lack of examples. Friends of Myanmar were appalled last month when the military-dominated parliament voted to keep a xenophobic law that bars Ms Suu Kyi from high office because she has two children with foreign nationality.
Myanmar’s anti-drug campaign is non-existent; drug lords continue to churn out tonnes of illicit product, without any challenge. But nothing says “failed reform” like the policy of the Myanmar government toward its estimated 1.3 million Rohingya people, mostly in western Rakhine state.
Blame the 50 years of xenophobic, violent rule by the Myanmar army for the problem. From 1962 to 2010, the army formulated hateful, racist policies toward the Rohingya. They also oversaw all education, meaning that three generations of people were filled with the nasty claptrap that the Rohingya were “different” and therefore unwanted aliens, and troublemakers to boot. Myanmar officials today follow much the same line.
When President Obama referred to the Rohingya in a public speech last week calling on Myanmar to put human rights at the top of its reform list, there was instant derision and criticism. The chief minister of Rakhine state — the equivalent of a Thai provincial governor — said the very word Rohingya is offensive and without meaning if not outright illegal. The correct term for them, said Maj Gen Maung Maung Ohn, is “Bengali”.
That word connotes a citizen of next-door Bangladesh. It is the Myanmar government’s view that the Rohingya are foreign citizens residing illegally on Myanmar land. The fact they have been inside Myanmar borders for three, four or more generations means nothing. Mr Obama told President Thein Sein the world community is growing impatient with Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya. He suggested the Myanmar leader “do things quickly there” to alleviate the problem.
The Rohingya, meanwhile, suffer greatly under Nay Pyi Taw’s non-benevolent policies. There have been several large riots targeting the Rohingya, shamefully instigated and too often despicably led by Buddhist monks.
Like the Vietnamese government of the 1980s and the Cubans of the 1970s, President Thein Sein’s regime is happy to see Rohingya jump into rickety boats and leave for other shores. There is no intention or plan to halt this. There are few serious attempts to bring the attackers to justice. There are no plans to try and boost opportunities or living conditions for the Rohingya.
As one of a handful of countries directly impacted by the Rohingya boat people’s plight, Thailand should immediately act to follow up Mr Obama’s valid criticism. The attempt to marginalise, criminalise and ban the Rohingya is a violation of international law and human rights.