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Thai FM defends Suu Kyi’s handling of Rohingya woes

Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai arrives to attend the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting on the Rohingya issue at Sedona Hotel in Rangoon on 19 December. (Photo: Reuters)

Thailand’s foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, has spoken for the first time in defence of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is increasingly being accused worldwide of ignoring the plight of Burma’s Muslim minority in Arakan State.

Don said he believes her civilian government is not ignoring the persecution of the Rohingya, but needs time to make the problems “right.”

Don, who in December attended a special meeting in Rangoon with nine other foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to discuss the problem, said Suu Kyi has shown her willingness to tackle the Rohingya issue with caution.

“The government of Myanmar is concerned [about the Rohingya’s problems], but has to be careful,” Don told the Bangkok Post.

Suu Kyi, who is also the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, told the meeting she is working on the “sensitive” issue, he said.

Following 9 October attacks on police posts around Maungdaw town in Arakan State and the resulting crackdown, some 43,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled into Bangladesh by crossing the Naf River.

According to a report titled “Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea Crisis Response,” released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) late last year, there were 329 migrants, 313 Rohingya from Arakan State and 16 Bangladeshi migrants, in six Immigration Detention Centres, five Shelters for Children and Families, and five Welfare Protection Centres for Victims of Trafficking in Thailand. Of the 329, 68 were women, 117 were men and 144 were children, the report said.

Amid increased tensions in northern Arakan State, a video recording showing border police repeatedly beating and kicking villagers, who lined up in a row and sat on the ground with their hands behind their heads, went viral online over the weekend.

It is believed to have been filmed during “clearance operations” in Kotankauk village two months ago.

The state was recently visited by former United Nations secretary­general Kofi Annan — appointed head of a commission looking into the Rohingya issue by Suu Kyi — who warned Burma was on the brink of “renewed instability” if the problem remained unresolved.

Even though the May 2015 Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean hosted by Thailand, a similar meeting in Malaysia, and the “Bali Process” Ministerial Meeting in Indonesia resulted in more effective measures to deal with the influx of Rohingya, their status is not yet recognised and they remain regarded as “illegal Bengali migrants.”

Don said Thailand has also provided assistance for sustainable development to local people in Arakan State, including healthcare services, rice mills and subsidies for the Burmese government.

“We [Thailand] are thinking of what we could do to improve the livelihoods of the affected people,” the foreign minister said, urging Burma not to mix up the Rohingya issue with religious matters since 47 percent of the world’s Muslim population are among the 625 million citizens in ASEAN.

Asked if Thailand would step up its role as a coordinator on the issue as it once did for the settlement of the South China Sea disputes, Don said that was not the government’s intention. “We are not expecting to play a big role, but only want to see Myanmar at peace and with no armed conflicts,” he said.

However, humanitarian responses and the temporary protection of refugees are not enough to deal with the refugee outflow in the region, said the spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Vivian Tan.

“They must also address the root causes of displacement,” she said, referring to the thousands of people who have been displaced from their homes due to the ongoing crackdown.

Tan recommended measures such as allowing full humanitarian access to affected communities and lifting restrictions on freedom of movement that currently affect people’s ability to gain access to healthcare, education and work. “Such measures, as well as the provision of legal status, can help people survive where they are and not feel compelled to leave in search of safety and stability,” she said.

Even though the boat movements paused last year due to several factors, for example, stricter interdiction at departure and arrival points, increased fees by smugglers, growing awareness among passengers and a lack of legal status in destination countries, Tan did not guarantee that irregular maritime migrations would not reoccur.

“It is hard to say if such boat movements could resume amid the current tensions in Rakhine [Arakan] State,” she said.

This story was originally published by the Bangkok Post here.