Report Slams Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh Over Plight of Rohingya

By Nani Yusof and Imran Vittachi
150423-MY-rohingya-620 Bibijan Rahimullah, a member of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, is pictured with her children in Kuala Lumpur, Nov. 13, 2014.

Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar must do more to protect vulnerable refugees – particularly Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya Muslims – from being victimized by human traffickers, says Fortify Rights, a U.S.-based human rights advocacy group.

A year-long investigation by the group documented how huge numbers of Rohingya Muslims, driven from Myanmar by deprivation and state-sponsored violence, fall into the hands of traffickers, then are arrested, deported, enslaved or incarcerated in neighboring and nearby countries.

“We believe Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia have failed to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking as set forth in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act,” Matthew Smith, the organization’s executive director, told a panel of U.S. lawmakers in Washington on Wednesday.

The group said it interviewed hundreds of eyewitnesses and survivors of abuse at the hands of human traffickers, more than a dozen traffickers and members of various ethnic minorities in Myanmar, including the Rohingya.

Interviews with Rohingya men and women took place in Myanmar’s Rakhine State – where the minority group is mainly concentrated – as well as in Thailand and predominantly Muslim Malaysia, which is a main destination for Rohingya refugees.

Rohingya Muslims who were “fleeing state-sponsored violence and attacks in Myanmar” lacked basic protections in neighboring Bangladesh and Thailand, and in Malaysia, Smith said.

“These governments have failed to vigorously investigate and prosecute acts of trafficking that took place wholly or partly within their territories.”

According to Fortify Rights, more than 650,000 Rohingya are displaced in Myanmar and Bangladesh and are vulnerable to being trafficked.

Many have crossed the border into Bangladesh, but the Bangladeshi government “has deliberately denied Rohingya protection and aid, leading tens of thousands to take dangerous and risky boat journeys to Thailand or Malaysia,” Fortify Rights said in a statement.

The group said it had documented cases of killings, rape and torture during sea crossings.

“Fortify Rights also documented the selling of Rohingya women and girls from traffickers’ camps in Thailand into forced marriages in Thailand and Malaysia, committing them to a lifetime of domestic servitude. For many, this is a transition from enslavement to enslavement,” Smith said, according to a transcript of his testimony to U.S. congressional representatives.

Regional politicians call for action on Rohingya

A group of Southeast Asian lawmakers is also calling on nations of the region to address the systematic abuse of Rohingya Muslims.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) made its case at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, ahead of an upcoming summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand are part of ASEAN, but Bangladesh does not belong to the bloc.

“The growing risk of atrocity crimes in Myanmar represents a direct threat to ASEAN nations, both because of the security risks and economic strains it poses for all ASEAN members states, and because it undermines our shared commitment to protecting all people from persecution and violence,” Malaysian lawmaker and APHR Chairman Charles Santiago said.

“We are standing on the precipice of a great tragedy,” he added. “ASEAN as a grouping as well as individual national leaders have the responsibility, both morally and under international law, to act to prevent atrocity crimes and crimes against humanity from taking place.”

Malaysia, which currently holds ASEAN’s rotating chair, will host the 26th ASEAN Summit, set to take place in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi on Sunday and Monday.

Time to reassess non-interference?

For years, members of the 10-nation bloc have declined to “interfere” in each other’s domestic affairs.

But in Kuala Lumpur this week, politicians and senior statesmen called on ASEAN leaders to consider abandoning the policy of non-interference.

Certain regional problems “are prolonged or intensified by the blanket application of non-interference,” former Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar argued in a keynote speech Wednesday at the ASEAN People’s Forum.

“On this platform of non-interference, we turn a blind eye to the massacre of ethnic minorities or abandon them as stateless peoples,” Mohamed Azmin Ali, chief minister of the Malaysian state of Selangor, told the forum on Thursday, referring to the Rohingya, among other minorities.

“And on this principle of respecting the sovereignty of member states, we engage in a conspiracy of silence on the myriad forms of human rights violations committed against the weak, the marginalized and the dispossessed peoples in ASEAN.”


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