By Francis Wade
Increasing levels of Burmese asylum-seekers in Southeast Asian states is evidence that Burma’s domestic crises are having a negative impact on the region, a top UN official has said.
Tomas Ojeas Quintana, the UN’s special rapporteur to Burma, made the remarks after a visit to Malaysia, which has become home to some 84,800 registered refugees and asylum-seekers. He spoke of “an extra-territorial dimension to the human rights problem in Myanmar [Burma]” as more and more people leave the country in search of better livelihoods.
“Countries in the region have a particular interest in persuading the Government of Myanmar to take necessary measures for the improvement of its human rights situation,” he stressed.
The comments will likely attract the attention of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, which has to date kept out of Burmese domestic affairs as part of its cornerstone non-interference policy. How much further it will go to maintain that is debatable, as heavy fighting in the Burma’s border regions combines with rampant state-sanctioned human rights abuses to fuel a heavy spill-over into neighbouring countries.
Thailand is already home to nine camps housing nearly 150,000 refugees from Burma, and has been heavily criticised in recent months as it seeks to contain increasing numbers by encouraging many to return, despite stability across the border remaining highly questionable. But with Thailand reliant on Burma for some 30 percent of its energy needs, it has stopped short of any substantial criticism of the regime.
Indeed alongside the 84,000-odd registered Burmese in Malaysia are hundreds of thousands of additional migrants from Burma who remain unregistered and, facing the perennial threat of deportation, live in a constant state of limbo. Similarly, in Bangladesh, of the nearly 400,000 refugees from Burma’s Muslim Rohingya community that have fled persecution in Arakan state, only 22,000 are registered by the UN’s refugee agency, and their burden on the country’s already stretched resources is evident.
Quintana’s comments come amid a resurgence of the debate over whether Western nations should maintain sanctions on Burma that aimed at pressuring the regime into improving its human rights record. It follows a study by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in which they claimed the embargo wasn’t hurting Burmese civilians.
Tan Sri Razali Ismail, a former UN special envoy to Burma, yesterday however called for the lifting of sanctions, saying that Burma “has to begin to prosper” and blaming the country’s pathetic agricultural output on the West’s blockade.
“They are now importing rice, which is ridiculous,” he told the Second Asian Mediation Association conference being held in Malaysia this week, adding that he disagreed with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who “insisted on sanctions”.
The Malaysian national who has in the past represented Kuala Lumpur in ASEAN said however that Southeast Asia should have an independent mediation unit to handle regional crises, something that critics of the bloc have long called for.