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Key players must attend Rohingya talks

By Achara Ashayagachat
May 12, 2015

The Prayut Chan-o-cha government deserves praise for initiating talks on the Rohingya trafficking problem with Myanmar and Malaysia, but it must turn the talk into deeds.

Perhaps at a later date Bangladesh and Indonesia, as well as non-partisan nations such as Australia and the United States, could make their own contributions and address the plight of the stateless people fleeing Myanmar's Rakhine State.

The recent discovery of mass graves of Rohingya in Thailand's deep South should be a wake-up call for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which is selling itself as a "caring and sharing" entity as it prepares for the launch of the Asean Economic Community later this year.

It should be noted that Myanmar has always blocked official discussions on what they call the "Bengali issue" - refusing to recognise the Rohingya as their own people.

Myanmar blocked discussion of the Rohingya issue at the Asean talks when it chaired the ministerial meetings and summits in 2014; again when foreign ministers met in Kuala Lumpur; and when Asean leaders met at the Langkawi summit last month. 

But the Rohingya issue has been swept under Asean's carpet for too long.

This is the time to test the stewardship of Malaysia, as chairman of Asean, and see whether it can help convince Myanmar to join the Rohingya talks, seeing as Malaysia is the country that pushed for Myanmar's Asean membership in 1997.

The Rohingya issue deserves more attention from international actors. The United Nations should do more. It could assist with on-the-ground assessment of the Rohingya exodus - both inside Myanmar and at the Bangladesh border - and help to register and screen those inside Thailand.

While the UN secretary-general's special envoy and UN special rapporteur have been vocal in addressing the Rohingya issue, funding agencies, such as the UN Development Programme and Unicef, should also help.

As a major investor in Myanmar, Japan should also engage Nay Pyi Taw to attend talks.

Those running in the general election in Myanmar in November should devise a policy on this minority group.

It is estimated that some 140,000 Rohingya have been forced from their homes in Rakhine State due to clashes with Buddhists over the past two years. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis fled on boats in the first quarter of this year, double the number of this time last year. Of these, hundreds died at sea due to starvation, dehydration and abuse by boat crews.

The lucky ones who make it to Thailand are often taken detained in jungle camps where traffickers demand a ransom from their relatives for their release, or smuggle them across the border, mainly to Malaysia.

The latest grisly discovery reaffirmed the role that some state officials play in the human trafficking business.

Dozens, including provincial administrative officials and the Padang Besar mayor and his deputy were arrested for alleged links to human trafficking networks. Some 50 police, including immigration officers, have been transferred.

A number of Rohingya have been lured from temporary detention centres in Phangnga and Satun by trafficking gangs. Their disappearances went unnoticed by authorities. The chances that these people may fall into the wrong hands are very high.

Among the escapees was a woman who was raped by a member of a trafficking gang, and then a junior local police officer in Phangnga. I met her just a few months before she and her daughters were lured away from a detention centre last year. No progress has been made on the criminal lawsuits regarding the rapes.

While it's not certain whether the Prayut government will be successful in getting Myanmar and Malaysia to join the proposed talks, I would urge it to consider proposals from the Asian Human Rights Commission, which asks it to guarantee justice and ease the plight of these poor people.

To start with, it should expedite the process to identify the dead bodies to determine whether they were Rohingya or Bangladeshi migrants. Next, it needs to identify the perpetrators and take action against them.

Apart from keeping the migrants safe during the investigation, authorities should provide special protection to women and children to prevent them from becoming victims of human trafficking rings.

The screening of the trafficked migrants to determine their status should be done by multi-disciplinary teams. Civil society groups and UN agencies should be allowed to conduct independent interviews and provide the migrants with legal and humanitarian aid. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission also urges the government to develop a policy to help the Rohingya in accordance with the UN convention relating to the status of refugees.

Without action, the Rohingya issue will diminish Thailand's hopes of ever upgrading its status in the US TIPs (Trafficking in Persons) report, although this year's report, due out next month, will deal only with events in 2014. But surely, the current efforts will show results in next year's report.

With the right political intentions, we can clean up our human rights record once and for all.

Achara Ashayagachat is Senior News Reporter, Bangkok Post.

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