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ASEAN to Discuss Rohingya Refugee Issue



Waves of Burma's minority Rohingya fleeing oppression and poverty in their country have added pressure on Southeast Asian nations to find a solution to their plight. Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are meeting in Thailand this week and are to discuss the issue. But human rights activists and the Rohingya people who escaped Burma have little hope the regional organization will help them.

Hundreds of Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority, have arrived in Indonesia, India, and Thailand in recent months with stories of abuse by the Burmese and Thai militaries.

The Association of Southeast Asian nations is set to informally discuss for the first time how to deal with the flood of Rohingya refugees when they meet this weekend in Thailand.

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan says at the annual meeting all subjects are on the table.

"I am at the service of the leaders, of the ministers. Whatever they raise, whatever they want, whatever their decision to ask me to do anything I will just to have to take it from there," he said.

There are an estimated 20,000 Rohingyas living illegally in Thailand and the Thai government has said those who are caught will be sent back to Burma.

One ethnic Rohingya living in Bangkok told VOA he escaped to Thailand 20 years ago to find a better life.

He does not want his identity known because two of his children are undocumented.

The police came and took three of his neighbors, and he fears they will come for his children, perhaps even deporting them back to Burma.

"I am worried," he admitted. "The police caught our kids twice before and we had to bribe them. Now we are in trouble, we have no more money."

In Burma he owned a small shop but now his family makes a living selling flowers and doing odd jobs.

Despite the economic hardship and fear of police, he says life in Thailand is far better than in Burma where soldiers beat them, stole their belongings, and forced them to work without pay.

"We are happy here," he said. "Although we don't have money, we can sleep well here. Nobody can torture us."

Abul Kalam is a Rohingya activist supporting the Rohingya community in Thailand and lobbying for its protection.

But he is not hopeful his lobbying efforts with ASEAN will pay off. He says the organization does not have the political will to challenge Burma.

"ASEAN can make decisions, but the Burmese government will not accept it," he said. "I think ASEAN is not able to discuss these things with the Burmese government."

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority living in Burma's Rakhine state, but the government does not recognize them as Burmese citizens.

Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring Bangladesh and by boat to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

Like the man who spoke to VOA, the Rohingyas say all they want is to live free of oppression in a country where they can build their children's future without fear of the authorities.

They are willing to live anywhere where they will be accepted, he says, anywhere except Burma.

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