Region must work to improve the Rohingya's lot
One of the more positive developments since Abhisit Vejjajiva took over as Thailand's prime minister has been the ending of its scandalous treatment of Rohingya boatpeople. While in Hong Kong on a short visit last week, Mr Abhisit repeated his vow never to let his country's military abandon refugees at sea again. This inhumane practice has left hundreds of Rohingya people dead or missing. It is a forthright stance which he first promised the United Nations last month. We trust Mr Abhisit will keep his word. However, this is just a first step. The Muslim Rohingya minority from Myanmar is among the most forsaken peoples in the world today. A long-term solution to their plight is needed. Countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia also have their own Rohingya boatpeople to deal with. Regional co-operation is therefore needed. The root cause of the problem lies in their persecution in Myanmar and efforts must be made to encourage it to take a more humane approach.
The Thai army had been involved in a secret programme to detain migrants and refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh on a remote island and then abandon them at sea. The practice constituted one of the worst cases of human rights abuse in the region in recent years. In January, the South China Morning Post first exposed the Rohingya's terrible ordeal. Shortly afterwards, Mr Abhisit promised to launch investigations into the allegations. It appears results of these are now available to him. But while he tacitly acknowledged there has been wrongdoing, he has also stated that no one is facing prosecution. He said the Thai military unit which carried out the programme would continue to handle and process refugees. This is disappointing, but not surprising. The political reality in Thailand makes it difficult for Mr Abhisit to go after members of the military, which is backing his government. Be that as it may, better safeguards and monitoring are clearly needed to prevent future abuses by the unit.
As if to highlight the Rohingya's plight, we report today that Bangladesh, which has long tolerated their presence, has been quietly repatriating some of them to Myanmar. This echoes the erstwhile practice in Thailand. But, as United Nations refugee co-ordinators have warned, many Rohingya migrants would qualify as refugees fleeing persecution if they were screened properly. It is against international conventions to repatriate refugees who face persecution at home.
No Asean countries, nor any other, want to accept more refugees, least of all Bangladesh, which is among the world's poorest nations. But the next season for Rohingya people to flee by boat, in October, is fast approaching. Nations in the region need to build on the headway they made last month within the so-called Bali Process to handle human trafficking. Under the process, which involves 75 Asia-Pacific countries and international agencies such as the UN's refugee body, a country affected by refugees or other problems can trigger an ad hoc committee involving representatives of affected nations. A breakthrough last month was to successfully convince Myanmar to be involved in the process. No solution is possible without Myanmar's co-operation. It has tentatively agreed to allow the international community to boost development for the Rohingya in its northern Rakhine state. It is time for the region's governments to recognise the Rohingya's plight and work together to improve their lot.