Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Two months ago, the world was shocked to discover the persecution endured by the Rohingya ethnic group, which drove many of them to seek asylum in several Southeast Asian countries. The majority of the boat refugees came from Myanmar.

But the refugee problem could be worse. Consider these statistics provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Myanmar’s stateless people are estimated to number 810,000, most of them Rohingya, who are not recognized by the government. In 2012, violence in Rakhine State forced around 140,000 people, including the Rohingya, to flee their homes. Meanwhile, the number of internally displaced persons across the country has already reached 374,000. Refugees who are originally from Myanmar are pegged at 479,706, while those seeking asylum number 48,053. Temporary camps along the Thai border have been established for some 120,000 refugees from Myanmar.

The rising number of IDPs is alarming, especially in Kachin State and northern Shan State, with more than 100,000 IDPs already displaced and in need of continued humanitarian assistance.

The Kachin IDPs have been living in makeshift camps near the Chinese border ever since the resumption of hostilities between government soldiers and Kachin rebels four years ago. The Kachin struggle for independence sparked one of the longest civil wars in the world between 1961 and 1994. A ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, lasted 17 years and was nullified only when clashes resumed in 2011.

Last week marked the fourth year of the civil war. It became an occasion for civil society groups and international aid organizations to highlight the plight of the IDPs and to call for a renewal of the peace talks.

Lahpai Seng Raw, co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation, which delivers assistance to many IDPs in Kachin, narrated the suffering of the IDPs: “Some have gone through multiple displacements, fleeing from one camp to another. Some who stayed close by to be able to go back and check on their homes, livestock and farms are in particular peril, as they are often caught in the crossfire of two warring armies.”

She also warned that aid reduction is worsening the conditions in the camps. “As the war enters its fourth year, the fatigue factor is settling in with donors, social organizations and host communities who have been looking after them for so long. Currently, the threat of food shortage is very real in IDP camps,” she said.

Mary Tawm, a Kachin aid worker of Wunpawng Ninghtoi, added that desperation is already prevalent in the camps: “There are some victims who do not want to live anymore because they have lost their loved ones. Many elderly persons and some others are suffering from mental trauma, they feel hopeless. The number of students who no longer want to continue their education has increased.”

Responding to these reports, 56 solidarity groups from around the world signed a joint statement urging the government to end the military offensives in north Myanmar and allow the unhindered humanitarian assistance to the IDPs. They also accused the government of duplicity, claiming that it “continues to use its rhetoric of peace and reform to invite donors and investors to continue to fund the peace talks and development projects” but refuses to withdraw troops from the ethnic areas.

The Rohingya boat refugee crisis has alerted the world to the failure of the Myanmar government to embark on a democratic transition while guaranteeing the rights of various ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the continued displacement of Kachin residents underscores the importance of pursuing the peace talks that have been initiated in the past. An immediate ceasefire is needed to give relief to affected residents. It is no solution to end the war but it can save lives by ending the suffering of those living in the camps.

ASEAN’s Response to Rohingya Crisis Falls Short

Written for The Diplomat

On May 20, the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand met in Putrajaya to discuss the region’s refugee crisis. This was followed on May 29 by a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean was held in Bangkok, attended by 20 governments and international agencies.

Many expected that these emergency meetings would immediately translate into concrete resolutions to rescue the refugees, mostly from Myanmar and Bangladesh, who are still stranded at sea. The International Organization for Migration estimated that 4,000 refugees are still lost, while 3,200 have already landed in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Overall, the meetings yielded positive results. In Bangkok, the delegates identified urgent actions in response to the crisis. These included:

– Intensifying search and rescue operations to ensure safety of the irregular migrants at sea;

– Ensuring that UNHCR and IOM have access to the migrants;

– Identifying those with protection needs and paying particular attention to the protection of vulnerable groups, including women, children, and unaccompanied minors;

– Strengthening information and intelligence sharing mechanisms to provide accurate data on the whereabouts of migrants and vessels stranded at sea;

The meeting concluded with a statement that also recommended measures to comprehensively prevent irregular migration, such as the strengthening of national law enforcement to combat people smuggling and human trafficking and the creation of a special investigation taskforce among the key affected countries to combat transnational organized criminal syndicates.

In Putrajaya, the ministers expressed their governments’ determination to continue to take the necessary action to bring the transnational smuggling and trafficking syndicates to justice.

They agreed to provide temporary shelters to the refugees, but they called on the international community to provide the necessary support and financial assistance.

“The international community will take responsibility for the repatriation of the irregular migrants to their countries of origin or resettlement to third countries within a period of one year,” they added.

In both Putrajaya and Bangkok, the delegates underscored the importance of addressing the root causes of the problem. They proposed capacity building in local communities, especially in at-risk areas. They sought support for the granting of economic incentives that create more jobs, promoting trade and investment and development assistance to affected countries. Importantly, they mentioned the promotion of full respect for human rights and adequate access to basic rights and services such as housing, education, and healthcare.

But despite acknowledging the urgency of the refugee crisis, the meetings in Putrajaya and Bangkok failed to address some crucial issues. For example, the word “Rohingya” was not mentioned in the concluding statement disappointing several human rights groups. Many were hoping that Myanmar’s failure to recognize the Rohingya ethnic group would be specifically cited as a contributing factor to the refugee problem.

Charles Santiago, chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a Malaysian Member of Parliament, criticized the failure to reprimand Myanmar for the continuing persecution of the Rohingya.

“Lots of talk with little genuine substance or resolve to take any action whatsoever on the root causes of this crisis. The meeting’s failure to openly discuss the desperate conditions and systematic human rights violations suffered by the Rohingya population is tantamount to complicity in the crimes being committed against them,” he said.

He added that Malaysia should call an emergency summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to address the problem.

The refugee crisis and the delayed response of ASEAN member countries put to shame the regional group’s theme this year, which vows to build a “people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN.” The ministerial meetings must be succeeded by a decisive implementation of the action plans, monitoring, and aggressive coordination of all parties involved to end the suffering of the region’s refugees.

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