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One year ago, the travails of Rohingya from Burma shocked people around the world. Boat after boat of refugees, fleeing abuse and oppression in Burma, were intercepted at sea by the Thai army, who then proceeded to detain them without trial. After days in outdoor detention, the Rohingya refugees were loaded back on to their boats, and the Thai army proceeded to tow them out to sea where they were abandoned with little food or water and no motors to power their boats. Over 500 people died in the few weeks that the Thais carried out the operation, and one year later, 500 more remain in detention in India, Indonesia and Thailand.
International outcry ended the Thai military’s operations against the Rohingya. It also led to pledges by governments throughout the region to develop long-term solutions to the plight of the Rohingya. The issue was raised at summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and at meetings of the Bali process. Fingers were pointed at Burma for its abuse of the population at home, at Bangladesh for allowing Rohingya to transit there on their way to sea, at Thailand for their abusive policies, and even at Malaysia, whose economy is a pull factor for Rohingya seeking safety. In the end, there were no decisions made about the Rohingya, and with the summer monsoons putting an end to sailing season, the issue soon faded away, back into the obscurity that the Rohingya have endured for decades.
One year later, the sailing season is again underway. While smugglers and the Rohingya alike have been hesitant to resume the voyage, indications are that once again boats have begun sailing with passengers destined for Malaysia. And as a safeguard, the Rohingya are now attempting to fly to Kuala Lumpur via Dhaka and then making the arduous overland journey by foot. For most though, boats remain the most affordable, if dangerous, option for a better life, and they will continue to sail.
A new twist on the Rohingya migration is a push to reach Australia by boat via Indonesia. While this may be an indication that slowing economies have created fewer opportunities for new refugees seeking work, it may also be a sign that the Rohingya are hoping to move further from the Southeast Asian countries that refuse to provide any real refuge. If anything, this shows the growing reach of the problem, rather than any real solution to the Rohingya’s plight.
The anniversary of the Rohingya boat crisis highlights the lack of action by the region’s governments, but it also draws attention to the problems that arise when there is no legal framework for refugees. Policies that target people solely as economic migrants and ignore the persecution, abuse and violation of human rights they face, whether in Burma or elsewhere, will never be able to address the causes of their displacement. The countries of South and Southeast Asia need to recognize the fact that the Rohingya will continue to leave Burma, and that their policies to deal with this reality are inadequate. On the anniversary of last year’s tragedy, policymakers in the region should look with a renewed eye towards finally creating humane policies to ensure that the Rohingya do not continue to face abuse after abuse in their search for safety.January 20, 2010 | Tagged as: Myanmar