BANGKOK—An exiled Rohingya activist last night appealed to MPs and to National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi to assist the almost 2 million Rohingya living in Burma and elsewhere.
"I would like to ask our beloved Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out of behalf of Rohingya people, and ask for the return of our lost rights, the rights our forefathers had," said Maung Kyaw Nu, the president of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority living mostly in western Burma's Arakan State where they are denied Burmese citizenship, and subjected to various forms of discrimination: they generally have to wait two to three years for permits to marry; are usually prohibited from leaving the village where they live; and are subject to human rights and other abuses by local civil and military authorities.
When Rohingya couples do receive permission to marry, they must sign an agreement that they will not have more than two children. If a couple marries without official permission, the husband can be prosecuted and spend five years in detention—with Buthidaung jail in northern Arakan State thought to hold prisoners in this category.
However, the Rohingya say they were promised equal rights by Burma's colonial-era independence heroes, including Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Gen. Aung San, in return for their support in the struggle against British rule.
"In 1946 General Aung San visited my area," said Maung Kyaw Nu. "He said to our people 'I give you a blank cheque, please co-operate with me.'"
All told, around 750,000 Rohingya live in Burma, mostly in Arakan State in the country's west, with an estimated 1 million more living in exile in Bangladesh, Malaysia, India and elsewhere—an exodus prompted by decades of human rights violations and discrimination.
Rohingya endure squalid and dangerous conditions in camps in Bangladesh and third countries, such is the oppression they face at home, say activists. Some Rohingya undertake a perilous sea journey to Thailand, where in 2009 Thai authorities were accused of pushing Rohingya boats out to sea and leaving the refugees to their fate on the open waters. Other Rohingya attempt get to Indonesia or Australia in search of a new life, including a group of 26 who were almost shipwrecked en route to Australia from Indonesia, subsequently helped to land in Timor-Leste by local fishermen.
The push factor could be increasing, according to Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson, who says relations between the Rohingya and the majority Buddhist Rakhine in the western region are deteriorating, even as Burma continues a recent glasnost. "While there are now some Rohingya MPs, some Buddhist Rakhine in the state assembly are raising issues for the Rohingya," he said.
Phil Robertson says Burma's treatment of the Rohingya and the country's 100-plus other ethnic minorities is a litmus test for the government's reform credentials. "Is there a place for the Rohingya in Burma?" he asked.
Thai photographer Suthep Kritsanavarin has visited the region. "Between the Rakhine and the Rohingya there is always tension," he said, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, where his exhibition "Stateless Rohingya: Running on Empty," is on display.
Burma is scheduled to host a meeting of the Asean human rights commission from June 3-6. It seems unlikely that the Rohingya issue will be discussed at the get-together, as according to Phil Robertson, the Rohingya were not discussed during the commission's last meeting in Bangkok.
"So far, Asean has been ducking this issue," he said, asking: "Can Asean grapple with a fundamental regional problem, and solve it?"