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Plight of Rohingya: Western pressure a must

A Muslim Rohingya man sits in front of his shack in one of the displacement camp in Sittwe located in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State as they enter the final week of the holy month of Ramadan. — AFP

September 5, 2016

Malaysia is considering opening up its job market for thousands of refugees who have no legal right to work. There are some 150,700 refugees and asylum seekers in in that Southeast Asian country. About 90 percent of them are from Myanmar, with Rohingya (53,140) topping the list.

As Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, these refugees do not have formal status in the country. The Malaysia government does not extend protection, job opportunities or education to these illegal migrants. Lack of a formal status often leaves refugees vulnerable to exploitation by employers and law enforcement officials. So they felt relieved when the government announced last moth the creation of a task force to handle refugee registration issues. The government-led task force would also look into the possibility of opening up the job market for refugees and allowing their children formal education.

Also last week, UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon called on Myanmar authorities to give the right to citizenship to Rohingya. “People who have been living for generations in this country should enjoy the same legal status and citizenship as everyone else,” he said. What he said is important. More important is where he said it. Ban made this appeal on Tuesday at a press conference in the capital Naypyitaw alongside Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Of greater significance is the fact that the UN chief used the word “Rohingya”, ignoring the sensitivity of Myanmar authorities who want the group labeled “Bengalis” so they can cast them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, Suu Kyi who leads Myanmar with the title of state counselor and is also her country’s foreign minister, is on the same page with the majority Buddhists on this issue. In fact, she advised the incoming US ambassador to Myanmar to refrain from using the term “Rohingya”. She says her government will not recognize the name, singing the same tune as its military predecessors.

This also means her government is following the same policies as the military government toward Rohingya though the UN believes the entrenched discrimination this community suffers is so deep that it may amount to crimes against humanity.

Rohingya comprise nearly two percent of the country’s predominantly Buddhist population but are excluded from the official list of ethnic minorities and remain without citizenship — denied freedom of movement, access to education and the ownership of property.

Conflict over land and resources in the western state of Rakhine, where most Rohingya live in squalid camps, often lead to unrest. More than 100,000 people had to flee their homes in Rakhine state in 2012, following deadly violence driven largely by Buddhist mobs.Thousands have fled to other Southeast Asian countries on rickety boats in search of better lives, only to drown or fall victim to human traffickers. International attention grew last May when a boatload of Rohingya was found adrift in the Andaman Sea en route to Malaysia.

But Suu Kyi who fought and suffered long imprisonment for human rights says little or nothing about the abuses faced by the Rohingya. There was a case for reticence when she was fighting the military authorities and wanted to enlist the support of the Buddhist majority in the elections in which her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory. Now that she is in power, there is no reason why she should continue the same apartheid policies unless she actually believes in them.

The West has rejoiced at the election of a new government headed, in effect, by Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate. It’s up to countries like US and Britain to exert all the pressure they can on Suu Kyi’s government over this issue in the same way they applied pressure on the military junta to release the NLD leader and allow the Myanmar people to choose their leaders through a free and fair election.

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