Myanmarese refugees can hardly be blamed for wanting to escape the brutality and poverty inflicted upon them by their military rulers. Freedom from fear and want are highlighted in the Preamble of Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the uppermost human aspirations. The systemic abuse of the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar’s southwestern province of Arakan or Rakhine has been ongoing since the military junta assumed power in 1962 but in the wake of the December 2008 incident of Rohingya refugees being set adrift at sea by the Thai military, this year has seen significant media attention being directed at their plight. Given the unsympathetic attitude of both Thailand and Myanmar towards this community and even ASEAN’s inaction, how much difference can international bodies such as the UN make?
Upon her arrival in Thailand on 22 July 2009, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared that “The United States is back” - alluding to greater attention to Southeast Asia under the Obama presidency. Can the suggested deeper involvement of the US in Southeast Asia induce an egalitarian approach towards illegal migrants by the democracies in the region? It seems the US is seeking collaboration from the ASEAN nations for containing terrorism, bringing North Korea back to disarmament talks and furthering commercial ties. It is unlikely that the superpower is likely to focus on the touchy issue of refugees and migration lest that be perceived as interventionist.
After over 40 years of totalitarian rule by the military junta, one can scarcely expect good prospects for the citizenry let alone religious minorities in Myanmar. The absurd rationale for the latest detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National Democracy League and the provisions of the New Constitution which stipulates a dominant role for the army in national politics are a testament to the high-handedness of the military regime. In June 2009, Thai border guards arrested nearly four hundred migrants including children, elderly and pregnant women in the Phuphaya Township south of Mae Sot. They were arrested because they did not posses workers permits. In a similar incident on 28 March 2009, Thai soldiers burnt 80 houses in the War Taw village which is 48kms from Phuphaya. Thailand which has 80 per cent of its immigrants from Myanmar is a democracy, unlike its neighbour and should therefore be held to a higher standard even when dealing with non-nationals.
According to a 1994-2003 report by UNESCO, there were 334,123 undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand. That is a considerable burden on the land and resources of a country the size of Thailand. Nevertheless, to put matters in perspective, Thailand’s economy reaps nearly US$2 billion annually from these migrant workers. Due to their illegal status, most are not paid minimum wage, work in hazardous environments and are denied compensation and access to education for their children. The global recession that has hit Southeast Asia especially hard, has exacerbated the problem of illegal migration. In February 2009, UN goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie visited Myanmarese refugee camps in northern Thailand. Upon hearing grievances of the refugees, she urged the Thai government to take better care of them but earned their indignation instead. An admonishment was issued to the UNHCR demanding to know why Jolie was allowed to visit the camps and stated that the UNHCR did not have a mandate on the issue and should desist from commenting on it.
The UN cannot get involved in a manner that impinges upon the sovereignty of a country. The doctrine of human rights puts the onus on national governments for ensuring that their citizenry has the entire range of rights met. Thus, in this case the UN can only suggest but the real culpability lies with the Myanmarese government whose treatment specifically of the Rohingya people could be categorized as ethnic cleansing. On 22 July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, commended an endorsement by the ASEAN nations for a regional body that will protect human rights in Southeast Asia. This body, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, will be the first of its kind in the region. Given that its launch is scheduled for the 15th ASEAN summit to be held in October 2009 in Phuket, the Thai government should soften its stance on its treatment of Myanmarese refugees.
A larger question also looms in the backdrop. How much responsibility should the ASEAN nations take on individually and as a collective for the Myanmarese refugees? At the very least, a minimum standard for the handling of refugees should be established, given that it is nearly impossible for Thailand to escape the refugee exodus induced by its northern neighbour. This should, especially be extended towards the Rohingya people who are not even granted the status of nationals within Myanmar and are being forced out of their ancestral lands through state-sanctioned persecution based on their ethnic-religious identity.