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Asia, Japan should do more to assist Rohingya people than just giving cash

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar at a shelter set up in a hotel for romantic encounters in Medan, Indonesia (Naoji Shibata)

By Naoji Shibata 
August 14, 2015

MEDAN, Indonesia -- A shelter in an old building here on the island of Sumatra, converted from a hotel for romantic encounters, accommodated 43 Muslim Rohingya, six to eight persons to a room, when I visited it during Ramadan.

The occupants were not allowed to leave the premises and had no access to telephones. The only things they could do, therefore, were to pray and to chat. But they all said they were happy. That was probably the flip side of the cruelty in the lives they were forced to endure before arriving here.

Mohamad Harun, 21, said he paid a broker and departed from Rakhine State, in western Myanmar, aboard a small boat on March 25. He then changed vessels to a larger ship, which carried both Rohingya people and stowaways from Bangladesh, of whom there were about 900 in total.

When the vessel entered Indonesia’s territorial waters, a warship turned up and gave the party fuel and food. But the ship was towed toward Malaysian waters where a Malaysian warship turned it away. People on board jumped into the ocean one after another two days later, when the water and food had run out.

Harun and others were rescued several hours later by a passing Indonesian fishing boat, but dozens of people perished beneath the waves. The date was May 15.

Kamal Hussen jumped into the sea with his parents, a younger sister and a younger brother. The 10-year-old said he was rescued by a man who had been on the same ship but his parents, whose hands he let go of, disappeared into the ocean.

I heard an equally appalling account of experiences on the ship when I visited a shelter in Langsa, Aceh province, also on the island of Sumatra. I was told that Bangladeshis and Rohingya fought over drinking water, and some 50 people were beaten to death.

I was left to wonder what prompted their exodus at the risk of their lives.

Harun said members of his people are not treated like human beings in Rakhine, where the armed forces and police routinely abuse them. He said he was detained by police two years ago for no reason on his way home, and he was struck for two days on end until his family paid a bribe. He added that that sort of experience was a common occurrence.


A U.N. organization has estimated that more than 88,000 people have attempted to flee Bangladesh-Myanmar border areas by boat since 2014. Rohingya people, who are not even given citizenship and occasionally have to face physical abuse, are believed to account for about half of that figure.

Disappointingly, most of Myanmar’s democracy activists, who confronted the country’s military administration, make the same argument as the military and the government when it comes to the Rohingya issue. They say the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, for whom Myanmar is not responsible.

Their attitude shows no hint of sympathy or consideration toward people who are finding themselves in a desperate plight, whatever their historical background.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has seldom spoken out on the issue ahead of a general election to be held in November.

The response of neighboring countries is anything but welcoming.

Indonesia and Malaysia set up shelters after they faced international criticism for turning back the vessel from their respective territorial waters. That measure comes with a one-year limit and with a proviso that assistance will be provided by other countries. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has decided to set up a fund, but each nation will be contributing only $100,000 (12.4 million yen).

The end of the Vietnam War 40 years ago was followed by an exodus of 1.44 million refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Asian boat people have drawn the world’s attention probably for the first time since then.

Asia has, in the meantime, undergone a sea change.

ASEAN, which started as an anti-communist league, has co-opted Vietnam, its one-time foe, and Myanmar, which remained under a military dictatorship until recently, and plans to embark on economic integration this year.

The economy in the region, with China and India included, has grown many tens of times in scale and now rivals that of the Western world.

Many of the administrations in the region, however, remain authoritarian and disrespect human rights. No government is there to demonstrate the largesse of a “major power” by accepting refugees within the region.


And Japan is another part of Asia.

Tokyo said in June that it would contribute $3.5 million to assist Rohingya through the intermediary of international organizations. But there has been no talk of accepting fellow Asians who remain adrift.

Just like in the case of Syrian refugees, whom the United Nations has asked countries to accept, Tokyo is generous in terms of cash, but remains extremely wary even about recognizing as refugees those who have arrived in Japan after long journeys.

More than 200 Rohingya have applied for refugee status in Japan, but only about 20 of these have been recognized as such, according to Shogo Watanabe, representative of the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees.

“Rohingya people, who precisely fit the definition spelled out in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, are treated in other countries unconditionally as refugees,” Watanabe said. “But Japan’s immigration offices are setting higher hurdles.”

It is believed that the government of Japan was traumatized when its $13 billion contribution to coalition forces during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s failed to be appreciated by the international community. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also noted in a book that “providing assistance in cash alone is not enough to win global appreciation.”

I don’t understand why Abe does not realize the same thing applies not only to security issues but also to assistance for refugees.

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