President Obama, ‘If You Were a Rohingya…”

A Thai attendee at a recent Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative event at the White House asked President Obama the following question: “If you were a Rohinya, which country would you prefer to live in, and why?”

Now, the question drew snickers, because it’s a bit odd to ask the world’s most powerful man what he would do if he were a member of one of the world’s most persecuted peoples.

But it was actually an effective query because it forced him to personalize the question. Part of his answer: I think I’d like to live in the country where I was born.

For more on the plight of the Rohingya, here’s a recent story providing the context:

Since early May, more than 4,600 boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been brought ashore from Southeast Asian waters. Several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after human smugglers abandoned their boats amid a regional crackdown.

Some are Bangladeshis who left their impoverished homeland in hope of finding jobs abroad. But many are Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which has denied them basic rights, including citizenship, and confined more than 100,000 to camps. There are more than one million Rohingya living in the country formerly known as Burma.

You can also click on the Rohingya tag to see posts I’ve written about them dating back to 2009.

(Formatting note: This link to the video should take you to the 41:58 mark in the video, when President Obama was asked the question. The embedded video starts from the beginning of the event.)


Anasuya’s New Documentary on Myanmar’s Rohingya People

I’m proud to share a documentary produced by Anasuya Sanyal — aka my amazing wife — that recently aired on Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia.

It’s about the struggles faced by the Rohingya people of Myanmar and a controversial government program designed to offer them citizenship.

The show is called “Between Two Worlds,” and is embedded above and on the Channel NewsAsia site here.


BBC: Thai Officials Reportedly Sold Rohingya Refugees to Human Traffickers

2013 01 22 rohingya bbc

Here’s the BBC’s video report and text piece.

Parts of the story seem to have first appeared in Phuket Wan last week.

Here’s a Bangkok Post story.

Reuters and the AP also have stories.

And Saksith Saiyasombut has a post at Asian Correspondent summarizing the news.

(Image: BBC.)


Rohingya on CNN’s “World’s Untold Stories”

CNN will air an episode beginning tonight (Tues., Feb. 24) of “World’s Untold Stories” dedicated to the Rohingya abuse issue. From

Myanmar’s Rohingya Minority

They are an impoverished and persecuted minority living in a remote part of one of the world’s most repressive nations. And they are risking their lives to leave.

Next week’s ‘WORLD’S UNTOLD STORIES’ tracks the journey of Rohingya refugees, fleeing western Myanmar where they are denied citizenship, freedom of movement, property rights, are harassed and forced into labor.

But while members of this Muslim minority are choosing to escape by sea, they are just as unwelcome in the places they wash up; Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Check out the CNN link above for more info on the episode.

Hong Kong air times are as follows (subtract an hour for Bangkok time):

February 24th at 2130
February 25th at 0230
February 28th at 2130
March 1st at 0130/ 1130/ 1430
March 2nd at 0730


Angelina Jolie: Thailand should aid Rohingya refugees

AP: “Jolie asks Thailand to help Burmese refugees

Angelina Jolie has called on Thailand’s government to give more freedom to tens of thousands of Burmese refugees it has kept locked inside camps for up to 20 years.

The Academy Award-winning actress and goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Refugee Agency visited Thailand’s Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee center Wednesday.

“I was saddened to meet a 21-year-old woman who was born in a refugee camp, who has never even been out of the camp and is now raising her own child in a camp,” Jolie was quoted as saying by UNHCR in a statement released Thursday.

She asked Thai authorities to give around 110,000 refugees in northern Thailand greater freedom to move around and seek higher education, because they are unlikely to be welcomed back anytime soon to Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Bloomberg: “Angelina Jolie, UN Envoy, Asks Thailand to Aid Myanmar Refugees

Angelina Jolie, a United Nations goodwill ambassador, asked Thailand to accept Muslim migrants fleeing Myanmar’s military authorities during a visit to refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border.

Thailand is facing an international outcry over its treatment of the minority Muslim Rohingya group, after CNN published a photo showing armed forces towing refugee boats away from the shore on Jan. 26. Five of six boats towed in late December sank, killing several hundred people, CNN reported.

Jolie issued the plea during a visit yesterday to camps in northern Thailand that house 111,000 mostly ethnic Karen and Karenni refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

There’s also an accompanying article on the UN Web site.


Rohingya rescued off Indonesia

Here’s a new Rohingya story from the New York Times: “Burmese Refugees Rescued at Sea

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Dozens of refugees from Myanmar, rescued by the Indonesian Navy after drifting aboard a wooden boat at sea for almost three weeks, are receiving treatment at a hospital in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesian officials said Tuesday.

About 200 refugees, all of them men, were found by a local fisherman Monday afternoon. It was the second boatload of refugees from Myanmar to land in Aceh in the last month.

Interviews by Indonesian Navy personnel indicated the men are all part of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar who had fled to Thailand in December.

Survivors from the first boat, which was found in early January and was also carrying about 200 men, told Indonesian authorities that they had been rounded up by the Thai military after escaping Myanmar, and then were beaten, towed out to sea and abandoned.

The survivors rescued Monday told Navy personnel a similar story, adding that originally there was a flotilla of nine motorless boats that had been led out to sea by the Thais, containing about 1,200 people.

There’s more from the AP, the BBC, and AFP.


Thai media coverage of the Rohingya refugee issue

It’s interesting to note that the Rohingya boat people story is receiving scant coverage in the Thai media. This despite many stories in the international press that have drawn attention to the accusations over the last week. And yesterday, a CNN investigative report (which I mentioned here) showed new images that seem to confirm that hundreds of Rohingya people were abused and then towed out to sea with little food or water and cut adrift.

But Bangkok’s two English language newspapers are running very little material on the situation. The op-ed section of today’s Bangkok Post, for example, contains the following:

  • The Post‘s editorial about Thai Airways’ financial troubles.
  • A Bloomberg column about the media in South Korea.
  • A guest column about what 2009 might hold in store for Myanmar (Burma) — although the subject is domestic politics, not the plight of Rohingya refugees. (This is not a criticism of the column; the Rohingya issue didn’t fit the scope of the piece.)
  • A Post column about the level of customer service offered by Thai retailers.

Today’s op-ed section in the Post does, however, contain this Reuters column, which is about PM Abhisit’s connection to the Thai military. (The column doesn’t appear on the Bangkok Post Web site, but it’s available via the Reuters link above.)

The following passage helps illustrate the issue of media coverage — or lack thereof — of the Burmese refugee story here in Thailand:

In the short-term, political fallout for Abhisit is likely to be limited, with much of the domestic media portraying the incident as legitimate defence of the borders against potential “Muslim terrorists” in the insurgency-plagued far south.

Similarly, defending foreign Muslims has never gone down well with Thailand’s nationalist and overwhelmingly Buddhist voters, and Abhisit’s star is riding high after the turbulence of 2008, with some commentators even comparing him to Barack Obama.

Yet the episode, and his knee-jerk shielding of the army, has echoes in Thailand’s recent history and makes him look ominously like his nemesis Thaksin, condemned as a serial rights abuser during much of his time in office.

After 80 Muslim demonstrators suffocated to death in the back of army trucks in the southern village of Tak Bai in 2004, Thaksin refused to reprimand the army, and even suggested the men died due to weakness caused by Ramadan fasting.

At the time, analysts explained his comments as an attempt to appease generals even then showing signs of the dissent that would lead to a coup two years later.

In Abhisit’s case, it looks to many analysts more like repaying a favour.

Meanwhile, over at the Nation newspaper, the site doesn’t appear to be running a single story about the Rohingya issue.

And finally, if you haven’t seen the CNN video from Dan Rivers, it’s worth a look. You can watch it here.


Burmese refugee abuse claims: new photos from CNN

CNN has obtained new photos and other information that seem to substantiate claims that the Thai military mistreated Burmese refugees. One image (see the CNN link below) shows what appears to be a Thai navy vessel dragging a boatload of the men out into open water, where their craft was cut adrift.

CNN‘s Dan Rivers: “Probe questions fate of refugees in Thailand

Bedraggled, hungry and dazed, the refugees arrived on the shores of Thailand after fleeing one of the most repressive governments in the world — the hard-line military regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

But a CNN investigation has uncovered evidence that for hundreds of Rohingya refugees — members of a Muslim minority group — abuse and abandonment at sea were what awaited them in Thailand, at the hands of Thai authorities.

Extraordinary photos obtained by CNN from someone directly involved in the Thai operation show refugees on their rickety boats being towed out to sea, cut loose and abandoned.

One photo shows the Thai army towing a boatload of some 190 refugees far out to sea.

For days, accusations have been carried in several regional papers that the Thai army has been systematically towing boat-loads of Rohingya refugees far out to sea and setting them adrift.

The army denied it, and the Thai government has launched an inquiry.

CNN’s investigation — based on accounts from tourists, sources in Thailand and a Rohingya refugee who said he was on a boat towed back out to sea — helps to piece together a picture of survival thwarted by an organized effort not just to repel arriving refugees, but to hold them prisoner on shore, drag them in flimsy boats far out to sea and then abandon them.

Three tourists recently voiced concern to CNN over what they had seen — and in some cases photographed — near Thailand’s tourist areas.

One tourist provided CNN with photos last week of refugees detained by Thai authorities on a beach near a tourist site, with the refugees prone on the sun-bleached sand while guards stood nearby.

“Whenever someone raised their head or moved, they [guards] would strike them with a whip,” said Australian tourist Andrew Catton.

CNN international has also been airing a video package with the photos in question as well as interviews with a Rohingya refugee.

My previous posts on the Rohingya are here and here. And Bangkok Pundit has been blogging about the issue.


Thai navy accused of forcing boat people back to sea

The big story in Thailand at the moment involves accusations that the Thai navy intercepted hundreds of boat people and forced them back out to sea with little food or water. The refugees were Rohingya — Muslims from Western Myanmar (Burma).

Here’s a recent AFP story: “Thailand accused of returning asylum-seekers to sea to die

PORT BLAIR, India (AFP) — India said Sunday that hundreds of people were missing at sea, believed to be part of a wave of boat people allegedly dragged out to the middle of the ocean by Thailand and left to die.

Thailand has denied the accusations, but accounts of survivors and the latest reports from the Indian coast guard have piled the pressure on Bangkok, and the Thai government said it would meet rights groups on Monday.

The Thai navy is accused of detaining the migrants, from a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, after they washed up on the Thai coast — and then towing them to sea and leaving them to their fate.

India’s coast guard said Sunday it had rescued hundreds of the refugees from the Rohingya ethnic group, who live along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh, but that hundreds more were feared lost.

The BBC has more on the story, which it seems was broken in the Western press by the New York Times on Jan. 17. And the story received a lot of coverage in yesterday’s Bangkok Post. The print edition of today’s Post has a story saying that Thai PM Abhisit will meet today with human rights groups, but I don’t see the story on their site. There’s also a Nation story, but it’s difficult to follow. Bangkok Pundit has more info.

And, finally, here’s some background info on the Rohingya people.