Rohingya refugees in spotlight as Nobel laureates chide Aung San Suu Kyi

An emergency meeting called by Thailand will take place Friday, but Myanmar reportedly refused to attend if Rohingya were named in the invitation. The UN says the Muslim minority is effectively stateless in their country of origin.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters
Rohingya migrants who arrived in Indonesia last week by boat wait in line for breakfast at a temporary shelter in Aceh province, Indonesia.

As Thailand prepares to hosts a 17-nation conference on the plight of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, global criticism is mounting over the passivity of Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. 

In an interview with The Australian newspaper, the Dalai Lama appealed to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel laureate, to speak out on behalf of Rohingyas. He's the latest Nobel Peace Prize winner to lend support to the cause of Rohingya Muslims, who are effectively stateless in Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country. 

Thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis have been trafficked in the open ocean of Southeast Asia, only to be pushed back by other countries. In recent weeks their bodies have turned up in mass graves in hidden camps in Thailand and Malaysia, shining an international spotlight on the traffickers who prey on migrants and asylum seekers. 

In calling Friday's conference, Thai authorities acknowledged that the issue of Rohingya and human smuggling – long swept under the rug – could no longer be ignored. 

“The meeting focuses on immediate actions to tackle the issue,” said Thai foreign ministry official Panote Preechyanud, quoted today by Reuters. “It is an urgent call for the region to comprehensively work together to address the unprecedented increase of irregular migration across the Bay of Bengal in recent years.” 

The Rohingya captured world attention after thousands were left adrift in rickety, overcrowded boats. Many Rohingya, including women and children, were kept on boats for months, often beaten, and held for ransom after thinking they were being given cheap passage, The Christian Science Monitor reported from a refugee camp in Indonesia.

Yet the issue is so contentious in Myanmar, which years ago rescinded their citizenship and keeps many of them in camps, that its government refused to attend the Bangkok conference until the name “Rohingya” was left out of the invitation, according to The Associated Press.

In recent weeks Myanmar authorities have denied that the migrant boat people are even from Myanmar. The Rohingya have been steadily marginalized in Myanmnar, especially after 2012 when they were attacked by extremist Buddhist-led groups and displaced from their homes. Some 1.1 million Rohingya live in what are often described as near-apartheid conditions in the Rakhine state in Myanmar near the Bangladesh border.

However, the political downside of supporting Rohingya is so severe that Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent many years under house arrest for defying a military junta, has been silent on the issue. Now a lawmaker, she is preparing for national elections due in November. Her silence is a subject of increasing dismay among human rights advocates. She was not invited this week to attend a a meeting in Oslo to address the treatment of the group, reports the AP:

The international gathering Tuesday at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, will feature video statements from Nobel winners Desmond Tutu, José Ramos-Horta and Mairead Maguire. Others, like philanthropist George Soros, who escaped Nazi-occupied Hungary, and former prime minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik, will also speak.

Meanwhile, even as the international press has reported that the numbers of Rohingya at sea is dwindling, the UN says many boats may still be unaccounted for. “More than 2,500 migrants could still be stranded on boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, according to estimates by the United Nations,” reports Reuters. 

So far it is unclear what “immediate actions” the 17-nation conference may enact. Earlier this month, as the numbers of Rohingya in the ocean reached as many as 7,000, no regional nation wanted to take them in, fearing a flood or exodus to its shores. The boats were pushed away from various shores back into the ocean.

"Nope, nope, nope," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quoted as saying in the AP report, "We are not going to do anything that will encourage people to get on boats."

However, last week Thailand and Malaysia agreed to give the refugees that landed on their shores temporary shelter, while still insisting that they could not accept more.

One young migrant, Mohammad Idiris, told the Monitor of an increasing atmosphere of fear in Myanmar's Rahkine state. With the lure of cheap and easy travel to a job in Malaysia, he decided to flee. Instead, once on the ocean, the traffickers demanded a ransom:

Before setting sail from Myanmar, traffickers told Idiris that he could pay for his passage once he found a job in Malaysia. But once he was en route, they moved him to three different boats and demanded $2,000 from his family for him to be delivered safely.

'I didn’t know it was going to be like this,' says Idiris, who says his family sold land to pay a broker. 'If I had known, I would have stayed in Myanmar.'

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