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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: ‘Bali Process’ May Address Rohingya Crisis

Marwaan Macan-Markar

CHA-AM, Thailand, Feb 27 2009 (IPS) - South-east Asian governments are examining the possibility of using a seven-year-old regional mechanism, known as the ‘’Bali Process,’’ to find an answer to minority Muslim Rohingyas fleeing ethnic cleansing in military-ruled Burma.

The first meeting to address the plight of Rohingyas escaping predominantly Buddhist Burma, or Myanmar, is scheduled for Apr. 14 -15 in the Indonesian resort island that gave its name to the mechanism created to combat human trafficking in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Bali Process emerged in February 2002 as a region-wide response to waves of people fleeing wars and persecution at home. The victims took risky journeys on boats across the Indian Ocean to find a safer home in some countries in this region.

Currently, 50 countries, both from Asia and beyond, are listed as part of this initiative. But Burma, the source of the Rohingya problem that has affected Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India, is not among them.

The decision to turn to the Bali Process for an answer emerged during a working dinner of foreign ministers gathered in this resort town south of Bangkok for a summit of the 10-member regional bloc, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN).

‘’The Foreign Ministers decided that Rohingya issue is best discussed at the Bali Process,’’ Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of ASEAN, said in response to a question from IPS. ‘’This problem is a human problem, a problem of humanity as a whole.’’

ASEAN was formed in 1967 to stem the spread of communism in the region but has, over the decades, evolved into a rules-based entity for greater regional integration. Its members are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

ASEAN’s push to turn to the Bali Process has been welcomed by international agencies that play a pivotal role in coordinating and monitoring this continental mechanism.

‘’It is the logical forum in which countries can look for a solution,’’ says Christopher Lom, spokesperson for Asia-Pacific division of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM). ‘’It provides an open forum so that anything can be discussed.’’

‘’The ASEAN meeting is breathing new life into the Bali process that has, over the last few years, been more focused on technical training,’’ Lom told IPS. ‘’It seems that they have the political will. It is appropriate timing because of the Rohingya issue.’’

But the working dinner on Thursday where ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to turn to the Bali Process also revealed a side of the Burmese junta that threatens to undermine the new spirit of ASEAN, which is aiming to be an inclusive and more people-centred entity following the entry into force of its charter last December.

By sticking to its guns, Burma’s military regime is also leaving little hope in stemming the waves of the Rohingyas fleeing multiple forms of oppression in the areas where they live in the Arakan state, in western Burma, close to the Bangladesh border.

Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win had reportedly told his regional peers seated around the table that they needed to ‘’learn the history of the Rohinygas’’ and he went on to describe them as ‘’Bengalis,’’ according to a diplomatic source.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya shed more light on the issue, telling journalists here that the Burmese foreign minister had said during the dinner that the ‘’Rohingyas are not on the list of Myanmars (over 100) ethnic groups in the country.’’

ASEAN’s capitulation to Burma’s policy of flagrant discrimination against an ethnic minority was confirmed by the ease with which the Burmese delegation got away on another front – that the junta would accept Rohingyas in the Arakan state if they can produce their ‘’citizenship papers.’’

The ASEAN secretariat, in fact, has been roped into playing a role in what some human rights activists are calling another ‘’Burmese bluff.’’

The Jakarta-based secretariat is expected to help coordinate the census to be carried out among the Rohingyas to determine who among them can prove that they are citizens of Burma.

That offer flies in the face of the fact that the Burmese military regime, which has been in power since the army staged a 1962 coup, had stripped the Rohingyas of citizenship in 1982.

Reducing the Rohingyas to a stateless minority was just one of the harsh measures used by the Burmese regime against a community that once had, in the early decades after Burma won independence from Britain, greater acceptance.

The Rohingyas then had political representatives, a right to vote, a role in the Union Day Celebrations, and a Rohingya language programme on the official Burma Broadcasting Service.

Today their plight is without parallel in a country known for its gross human rights violations.

‘’Myanmar must improve its treatment of the Rohingya. As long as they continue to be persecuted in Myanmar, the Rohingya will continue to leave the country, regardless of their legal status elsewhere,’’ the Washington D.C.-based Refugees International (RI) said in a statement released for the ASEAN summit.

‘’Among Burma’s ethnic minorities, the Rohingya, a stateless population, stand out for their particular harsh treatment by Burmese authorities and their invisibility as a persecuted minority,’’ RI added.

Rohigyas cannot freely move from village to village, are victims of rape and torture, are subjected to forced labour, land confiscation, extortion, and their men and women are also banned from getting married.

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