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Boatpeople: 'Ugly as ogres' to some, neglected human beings to others

More Rohingya Will Flee the New Apartheid

Friday, May 25, 2012
News Analysis

PHUKET: Concern is mounting that the increasing signs of openness in Burma actually could mean harsher repression for the stateless Rohingya, and more boatpeople on the Andaman Sea off Phuket in coming ''sailing seasons''.

Feeling more free now to speak their minds, the neighbors of the Rohingya in Burma - also known as Myanmar - are openly expressing contempt for the minority Muslim group, according to those with contacts in the isolated Rakhine state.

Some onlookers assumed that increasing freedoms in Burma would benefit the Rohingya in their quest to be accepted as citizens. But the opposite has proven to be true so far, says Chris Lewa, founder and director of a rights group, The Arakan Project.

''There is some evidence that the people who do not want the Rohingya in the region have been emboldened to become more outspoken about their land and their jobs 'being stolen,'' she said.

''The Rohingya are not mentioned by name and what's being said does not constitute race hatred, but that could change.

''Although it is very difficult to make predictions, the reform agenda in Burma conscientiously excludes the Rohingya and they have very little support, even among Burma's opposition parties.''

Although Rohingya can now travel between villages without requesting official permission, they cannot stay away from home overnight. Jobs and an income are denied.

Fears are also growing among those Rohingya who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where life in or around refugee camps is no better, as talk grows of forced repatriation to Burma.

The outlook for the Rohingya is not promising elsewhere in the region.

In Malaysia, the target destination for many who take to the sea looking for a better life, acknowledgement of Rohingya as refugees has ceased for the time being, possibly in an effort to reduce Malaysia's appeal to others looking to escape.

There is growing concern now, as Western nations make concessions to a more liberal government in Burma, that the 800,000 stateless Rohingya will be the biggest losers.

Violence cannot be discounted.

Dr Wakar Uddin, chairman of the Burmese Rohingya Association of North America, was recently quoted as saying: ''If somehow the Burmese government [manages] to get sanctions lifted and the Rohingya issue is not resolved, we are finished.

"There is no hope because they will not revisit this. Whatever needs to be done about the Rohingya, it has to be done before the sanctions are lifted.''

Lack of hope was echoed by Nurul Islam, president of the London-based Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, who said: ''There is no change of attitude of the new civilian government of Thein Sein towards Rohingya people; there is no sign of change in the human rights situation of Rohingya people.

''Persecution against them is actually greater than before.''

The word ''Rohingya'' is seldom used by officials in any of the countries bordering Burma, even though they share the common problem of what to do with unwanted boatpeople.

In Thailand, where the inhumane ''pushbacks'' of hundreds of unwanted Rohingya boatpeople were exposed in 2009, the military continues to determine policy, with mixed results.

Although the military says about 5000 boatpeople were detected in or near Thailand in the latest November to April ''sailing season,'' others say the real number could be approaching twice that figure.

There have been no Rohingya held in detention in Thailand for about 12 months. There would be no point.

Those boatpeople who are apprehended cannot be sent back to Burma because they do not have Burmese citizenship.

The suspicion is that those who are apprehended are handed on to people traffickers, who pass them across the border, into Malaysia.

In looking for comparisons to the Rohingya and their treatment, apartheid in South Africa brings striking similarities.

While apartheid marked the subjugation of the black majority by a white minority, the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority appears to have the overwhelming support of most other Burmese.

There is no doubt that racism is at the heart of Burma's disdain for Rohingya. The shame is that the world is now openly embracing a regime that endorses racial segregation.

Greg Torode, a journalist on the South China Morning Post newspaper, first exposed the depth of Burmese racism back in 2009 when he reported that a Burmese envoy based in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, described the Rohingya as ''ugly as ogres.''

In a letter to all heads of foreign missions in the city, Ye Myint Aung wrote: ''You will see in the photos that their complexion is 'dark brown','' noting that the complexion of Burmese is ''fair and soft, good-looking as well''.

Racism at its most blatant and insidious offers up the most logical explanation of all for Burma's treatment of the Rohingya.

Just as Ye Myint Aung was never held to account for his words, Burma has never been seriously questioned about its modern, apparently acceptable version of aparttheid.

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