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Burma’s Information Minister Ye Htut on Monday said that Burma will repatriate any so-called ‘boat people’ – so long as they can show evidence of Burmese citizenship.
Talking about the current migrant crisis at a meeting between cabinet members and foreign diplomats hosted at the Myanmar Peace Centre on 18 May, Ye Htut laid blame for the crisis at the door of human traffickers, denying that those in Burma who board vessels for other countries are fleeing conflict in the country’s western Arakan State.
Ye Htut said that the region’s countries should cooperate to find ways to tackle the problem, rather than blaming Burma.
In the past two weeks, Southeast Asia has been forced to confront an emergency in its midst after Thailand began a crackdown on people smuggling following the discovery of grim traffickers’ camps, complete with graves, in its southern border region. Since then, thousands of migrants have been abandoned by their traffickers at sea, with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand all acting on their promises to prevent boats from reaching their shores.
The vast majority of migrants aboard the boats are Bangladeshis and Burmese Rohingya.
Ye Htut’s promise of repatriation for verifiable Burmese citizens will be of little solace to those caught up in the nightmare. Rohingya are not identified as an official ethnic group of Burma, and as a consequence are denied citizenship, with the recent expiration of even temporary official identification cards, or white cards.
State-run Global New Light of Myanmar on Tuesday reported that: “More than 400,000 of the roughly 700,000 white cards have been collected by authorities across the country”, reinforcing the assumption that it is a near impossible task for Rohingya to prove their Burmese residency or citizenship.
Some experts have blamed the strict non-interference policy observed by Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members for the crisis.
Bucking this trend, Malaysia has recently criticised Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population, with Foreign Minister Wan Junaidi telling AFP: “Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar [Burma] with the way they treat the Rohingya people.”
“We need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They need to be treated like humans, and cannot be so oppressive.”
The Malaysian premier, Najib Razak, on Saturday called on Burma to step up and help to resolve the crisis, with official Malaysian press citing him as saying: “We are liaising with the Myanmar government to get their response. I hope they will give a positive response as the refugees were due to internal problems that we cannot interfere with, but we want to do something before it gets worse.”
Flying in the face of Ye Htut’s comments, a recently concluded academic research investigation into the experiences of Rohingya in Burma concluded that their treatment is tantamount to genocide, and is the real basis for this current emergency.
Professor Penny Green, who led the fieldwork in Burma between October 2014 and March 2015, said, “The Myanmar government’s ongoing persecution of the Rohingya minority has, in the last two years, reached a level so untenable that tens of thousands haven been forced to flee on boats. The current exodus of those seeking asylum is just one manifestation of persecution consistent with genocide.”
“The Rohingya have been subject to stigmatisation, harassment, isolation, and systematic weakening. [They] are faced with only two options: stay and face annihilation, or flee. Those who remain suffer destitution; malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness; restrictions on movement, education, marriage, childbirth, livelihood, land ownership; and the ever present threat of violence and corruption,” said Green.