Myanmar must end its discrimination against minority Rohingya Muslims

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 August, 2015, 1:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 August, 2015, 1:08am

Thailand has set the right course to helping end the plight of Rohingya Muslims by charging dozens of people, an army general and officials among them, for human trafficking. Southeast Asian nations have to ensure a policy of zero tolerance towards smugglers and those who profit from them by bringing them to justice. But that does not solve the problem - Myanmar's unrelenting state-sponsored persecution of the ethnic minority. Until it changes its approach, the likelihood of more atrocities, at home and abroad, will persist.

The complicity of officials with smuggling networks was an integral part of the movement of Rohingyas to Thailand and Malaysia. Mass graves containing dozens of bodies found at abandoned border transit camps in May led to the crackdown; an international outcry the previous month ensued after packed boats were found adrift after being prevented from landing by the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian navies. A court's charging last month of 72 people on 16 counts - among them human trafficking, involvement in international crimes and taking and bringing illegal migrants - begins the process of ending the smuggling. How effective it will be depends on the resolve of authorities to act against officials, no matter how high their rank or seniority.

A reluctance, in large part due to corruption, is why the number of refugees has risen to thousands a year. Monsoon weather has reduced the influx for now, so until the heavy rain stops next month, there is uncertainty about the effectiveness of the new policy. What is clear, though, is that the plight of one million Rohingya in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine has not changed. Denied full citizenship, they do not have basic civic rights and social welfare. Violence between majority Buddhists and Muslims that has caused hundreds of deaths since 2012 prompted authorities to restrict 140,000 Rohingyas to internment camps. Those who flee can end up in the hands of smugglers, kidnappers who demand ransoms from families or the Thai fishing industry, where they are all but enslaved.

Crackdowns in Thailand and Malaysia will curtail the smuggling, but not help Rohingyas. With elections in November, Myanmar's government has been increasing its nationalist rhetoric to appeal to the Buddhist masses. It should instead be pushing for ethnic harmony by revising citizenship laws. Ethnic and religious classifications should also be removed from identity cards; they only perpetuate differences.