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Prison Doors Open in Burma, But No Sign of Hope for Rohingya

Friday, January 13, 2012
PHUKET: Burma's latest release of prominent dissidents under an amnesty raises fresh hope of real change. But we have to ask: What's changed for the Rohingya? What real hope is there for them?

Even Human Rights Watch has today delivered muted praise for Burma's latest efforts. Yet for the mistreated Muslim-minority Rohingya, there is no guarantee that they will ever be regarded as human beings.

It's two years this week since Phuketwan and the South China Morning Post newspaper broke the news that the Thai military was secretly ''pushing back'' Rohingya boatpeople from Thailand, setting them adrift on the open sea in secrecy, where hundreds are thought to have perished.

For a time after that revelation, it seemed that the countries of the region most likely to be affected by Burma's brutal treatment of the Rohingya could achieve a changed approach by Burma, or perhaps even citizenship for them.

Since then, hopes have faded. Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Malaysia have found the disturbing treatment of the Rohingya too difficult an issue to resolve.

We have been led to believe that Thailand and Malaysia now covertly cooperate in transferring boatpeople who happen to land in southern Thailand to Malaysia.

Those who come ashore north of Phuket are more likely to be trucked to Ranong, on the border with Burma, and surreptitiously transferred at sea back to people smugglers.

A surge of boats arriving in Thailand from Bangladesh, where many Rohingya live in exile, has ceased. Since mid-December, when the number of boatpeople looked likely to increase, authorities in Bangladesh have stopped the people-smugglers.

Rohingya who did arrive in Thailand were either handed straight back to the Thai military or, so Phuketwan has been told, ''helped'' across the border into Malaysia.

In practice, the covert but deadly ''push backs'' have been replaced by a ''help on'' policy for those who are intercepted at sea or fortunate enough to land in Thailand close to the Malaysian border.

The others who come ashore north of Phuket are less fortunate, and are taken north.

While the present method for dealing with the Rohingya boatpeople is not open and transparent, NGOs say that as long as the lives of boatpeople are not being put at risk, the process remains ''acceptable.''

Long-term, though, the Rohingya continue to lead repressed lives in northern Burma or Bangladesh, where their movement is controlled or strictly monitored, and where brutality frequently occurs.

Even the Rohingya's most ardent supporters among the international community - especially in Europe and the US - have fallen silent for fear of somehow dampening the 'Burma Spring.'

For us, there can be no 'spring' until the Rohingya have equal rights with other citizens of Burma.

Here's the full text of the latest media announcement from Human Rights Watch:

The release of key political prisoners on January 13, 2012 is a crucial development in promoting respect for human rights in Burma, but all remaining political prisoners should be freed immediately and unconditionally, Human Rights Watch said today.

Among those released are members of the 88 Generation student group that led the 1988 uprising, including leader Min Ko Naing, Nilar Thein, her husband Kyaw Min Yu, known as Ko Jimmy, as well as Htay Kywe. Shan ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo, monk leader U Gambira, journalists Zaw Thet Htwe, Ngwe Soe Linn, Hla Hla Win, and blogger Nay Phone Latt were also released today.

Burma state media said on January 12 that 651 prisoners would be freed so they can participate in the task of nation-building.

''Years of international calls to release long-detained political prisoners seem to have pushed the government to finally do the right thing,'' said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ''The government should ensure that there are no obstacles to these activists participating in public life and upcoming elections.''

The US State Department had estimated that at least 1100 political prisoners were detained in Burma and the Thai-based Association of Political Prisoners in Burma counted more than 1500. Given the closed nature of Burma's justice system, the lack of a free press and unsophisticated communications in one of Asia's poorest countries - particularly in remote ethnic areas affected by conflict - each of these lists may omit significant numbers of people being held for the peaceful expression of their political views.

Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to allow international independent monitors to publicly account for all remaining political prisoners.

''The latest releases are wonderful news for the individuals and their families, but foreign governments should continue to push for the release of all political prisoners, and for international monitors to verify the process,'' said Pearson.

''For years Burma's prisons have been off-limits to any independent monitoring mechanism. The next step for Burma's government is to allow international monitors to verify the whereabouts and conditions of remaining political prisoners.''

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