Steps Urged on Rohingya

Bangladesh prods Burma over its treatment of a Muslim minority group.

2009-05-29
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Rohingya-boat-305.jpg Rohingya asylum-seekers aboard a Thai Navy vessel, December 2008.
Photo courtesy of Thai Navy.

BANGKOK—Bangladesh is calling on Burma to take "needful" steps to stop a flood of minority Rohingya asylum-seekers over the border.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told reporters the influx of Rohingya would continue “unless there is a qualitative change in Arakan state,” also known as Rakhine state, in western Burma, where most of the group resides.

"The Rohingya problem has been lingering for more than 30 years, and Myanmar [Burma] must take steps to solve that," Moni said, a week after a new influx of Rohingya was reported in Bangladesh, prompting authorities to step up vigilance at the border.

"The issue has been raised prominently among the countries affected by Rohingya refugees, and we hope Myanmar [Burma] will do the needful to retain their people within its territory."

The comments followed Moni’s official visit to the new Burmese capital, Naypyidaw, earlier this month, during which she claimed progress in convincing the military regime to accept some of the 300,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh illegally.

The treatment of the Rohingya in Burma is deplorable—the Burmese government doesn’t just deny Rohingya their basic rights, it denies they are even Burmese citizens."

Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch

Bangladesh hasn't granted refugee status to any Rohingya since 1992.

Rights report

Human Rights Watch meanwhile issued a report calling on Burma’s neighbors to press the junta to end its abuse of the Rohingya and protect those who seek refuge within their borders.

The report examines the causes behind the exodus of Rohingya from Burma and Bangladesh and what hardships they must endure upon their arrival in other Southeast Asian countries.

“The treatment of the Rohingya in Burma is deplorable—the Burmese government doesn’t just deny Rohingya their basic rights, it denies they are even Burmese citizens,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said in a statement.

“Instead of sidestepping the issue, ASEAN should be pressing Burma’s military rulers to end their brutal practices,” Pearson said.

Vulnerable group

Faced with a lack of legal status and the threat of persecution, thousands of Rohingya have left Burma in recent years.

Rights groups say they are particularly vulnerable to human traffickers, and their case is now being taken up by the Bali Process, a human-smuggling summit involving more than 40 governments.

The Rohingya drew global attention this year when the Thai military was accused of towing the boats of up to 1,000 Rohingya asylum-seekers out to sea and leaving them to drift without adequate food and water.

Hundreds of thousands have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh or attempted the perilous sea crossing to other Southeast Asian countries.

But talks between Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Burmese police chief Brigadier-General Khin Yi ended with only a reiteration of the Burmese government's refusal to recognize the Rohingya as Burmese.

Australia has pledged U.S. $3.2 million to aid programs set up for the Rohingya.

Thousands of refugees

The Rohingya are denied citizenship under the laws of mainly Buddhist Burma, and rights groups say they face official repression and poverty.

The Rohingya themselves say they are Muslim descendants of Persian, Turkish, Bengali, and Pathan traders, who migrated to Burma as early as the 7th century A.D. But their ethnic identity isn't widely recognized.

In 1992, 250,000 Rohingya, around one-third of their total population, fled over Burma’s border into Bangladesh, citing persecution in Burma.

Rights advocates estimate that the number of Rohingya fleeing the Burma-Bangladesh border area to seek a better life elsewhere has increased from hundreds to thousands over the last five years.

The Rohingya take to the sea for a dangerous voyage in boats, putting their lives in the hands of human traffickers and facing brutal treatment by the Thai and Malaysian navies when they arrive, advocates say.

The Rohingya have been leaving Burma and heading mainly into impoverished Bangladesh since the late 1970s. The biggest influx occurred in 1992.

Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Additional reporting by news agencies. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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