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Thailand Calls for Regional Response to Rohingya Boat People

  • Ron Corben

Rohingya minority children held by women board a bus after they were rescued by Thai authorities in Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Jan. 11, 2013.

Rohingya minority children held by women board a bus after they were rescued by Thai authorities in Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Jan. 11, 2013.

Thousands of Muslim Rohingya fleeing sectarian violence in Burma’s Rakhine state have taken to the sea, ending up in Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere. There are calls for a regional response to the humanitarian situation.

Hundreds of largely stateless Rohingya have been detained by authorities after landing on Thailand’s southern shores often aided by human trafficking gangs.

As more refugees arrived in recent weeks, there have also been accusations that the Thai military has been involved in detaining arriving boats and selling the passengers to human trafficking brokers who then transport them to Malaysia.

Senior Thai Foreign Ministry officials say they are investigating. In 2009 the Thai Navy faced charges of abandoning up to 1,000 Rohingya refugees at sea without engines and navigational aid as well as little food and water.

The latest charges came as the Thai Supreme Commander, General Tanasak Patimaprogorn, called on the international community to provide more assistance for the refugees.

Chris Lewa, an advocate for non-government group, the Arakan Project, says at least 13,000 people have fled parts of Burma’s western Arakan state in recent months.

“Rohingya people now have lost hope for a better future," Lewa said. "They could support some persecution before, but they kept their hope alive that something will improve in the future. The boat season we see this year examples of changes and one of them is that women and small children are leaving. That means entire families.”

In Thailand, more than 900 Rohingya are being detained after security forces raided known trafficking locations in Songkhla province.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, who met with refugee groups in Songkhla, expects more Rohingya to flee to Southeast Asia.

Panitan says the Thai government’s response has been in line with national security guidelines together with providing humanitarian aid. But, with the Rohingya’s stateless legal situation, he says a regional response is required.

“The initial response is according to the National Security Council guidelines, use humanitarian responses in terms of setting up the help for these people especially for the women and children," he explained. "But, of course, they will be repatriated back but the problem is to where? And the situation is much more dangerous for them. So actually we don’t know what to do with them. The international community especially the agency responsible for taking care of these people should come up with a better guideline.”

Related video report by Steve Sandford The International Committee for the Red Cross has been given access to the Rohingya and a interim agreement to allow the United Nations High Commission for Refugees access has also be agreed upon.

But a full response from the Thai government is still pending.

A Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman told VOA that senior government officials are meeting to formulate the Thai policy. But, the Thai Army remains opposed to plans to set up a semi permanent camp for the detained Rohingya.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says Thailand needs to work with regional countries and put pressure on Burma to grant citizenship to the Rohingya.

“Obviously we’re very hopeful that Thailand facing this large influx of boats will play a leadership role in galvanizing some other neighbors in ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] who have been affected by the Rohingya boats - for instance Malaysia, Indonesia perhaps Brunei," Robertson said. "Put concerted pressure on Burma to recognize the Rohingya as citizens.”

In the past year, sectarian violence in Burma’s western Rakhine state between the largely Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist community has left up to 200 people dead with more than 100,000 people forced into temporary camps. United Nations says the total number displaced by the conflict is around 500,000.

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