ASEAN test: New 'boat people' from Burma

(Note: This article was written under the 2009 Southeast Asian Press Alliance Journalism Fellowship)

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 (Myanmar) where the Rohingya people 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. Every time you hear a dog barking, you don't know whether the Army is coming to arrest you," said Chris Lewa, head of the humanitarian
group Arakan Project, which is fighting for the rights of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled Burma and found new home in neighboring countries.

The fate of the Rohingya has become a test for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Will the 10-member bloc, which includes the Philippines, be true to its pledge to be "a caring and sharing community?"

Escape from Burma

That's one question Enayet Ullah, a 55-year-old refugee now living in the Thai town of Mae Sot, is asking.

Enayet escaped from Burma with his wife and their child in 1995 after an incident during the wedding of a friend which showed them that normal life was nearly impossible for the Rohingya in the military-ruled country.

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," Enayet said in a recent interview.

It isn't hard to understand why thousands of Rohingya have been risking their lives to flee Burma aboard frail, overloaded wooden boats, Enayet said.

New 'boat people'

What is difficult for him to understand is why the world seems to ignore their plight.

Their escape from political persecution brings to mind the migration of more than two million Vietnamese in the 1970s after South Vietnam fell to communist hands.

In January, Thailand's military was accused of forcing boatloads of Rohingya back to the sea with little food and water on their engine-less boats. Some drifted to nearby countries.

The matter is now before the ASEAN.

Human rights body

In December last year, the Asean charter came into force embodying principles that call for the establishment of a human rights body.

Nongovernment groups have urged Asean to use its new mandate to act decisively to help persecuted peoples. Whether Asean, with its policy of noninterference in a member state's affairs, will act at the risk of antagonizing member Burma, remains to be seen.

The Rohingya Muslims are a minority in the largely Buddhist country. Their dusky skin and other physical features make them look different from the rest of the population. They speak a Bengali dialect.

A 1982 law stripped them of citizenship, making them stateless. They are shunned by most Burmese, who view them as outsiders. Burma's envoy in Hong Kong was quoted in news reports as describing them as "ugly as ogres."

No travel, no jobs

They 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, Lewa said.

They also need permission to marry and are restricted to no more than two children. They are shut out from government jobs. Their lands are taken from them and they are subjected to forced labor,
Lewa added.

She said the abuses had fueled the Rohingya exodus. Initially, they crossed the border to go to Bangladesh or went to the Middle East.

But recent travel restrictions have given them no other choice but to escape by sea on hazardous trips arranged by human smugglers. They usually flee to Malaysia but they have also turned up in
Indonesia and Thailand.

No room for them

Indonesia said it would deport them, but later allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to verify their status as refugees.

Thailand has convicted 66 Rohingya of illegal entry, saying they were economic migrants only looking for jobs.

Deporting them poses problems. Burma denies they are its citizens and refuses 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 is a test case for Asean ... whether or not they will uphold the purpose and principles they set forth in the Charter," said Sriprapha Petcharamesree, director of the Human Rights Studies at
Mahidol University in Thailand.

Thailand cited domestic concerns for denying them entry. A deputy prime minister was quoted as saying that accepting 200,000 to 300,000 Rohingya would be a huge burden for Thailand.

Back to the sea, again

Petcharamesree said no state should abandon humanitarian obligations based on its own internal affairs. She said the Asean human rights body should tackle the Rohingya case, or "it would definitely be discredited."

Debbie Stothard of the Alternative Asean network on Burma (Altsean) said the Asean policy of noninterference was a "red herring" invoked to escape state obligations.

However Asean moves, it will be October again soon, the waters will be calmer again, and Enayet's people will again be braving the seas.

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

"They will be thinking, 'If I stay, I die. 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 my family who are suffering.'"

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