Arakan Officials Face Off with Muslim Leaders over Boat People Crisis

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 1 June 2015

RANGOON — Speaking after a televised debate about a migrant crisis plaguing Southeast Asia, a top official of the state from which thousands have fled stood firm in his view that the world was being unfair to Burma in dealing with the crisis.

Arakan State Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn joined a panel in Rangoon on Sunday with three other speakers, hosted by exile broadcasting group Democratic Voice of Burma’s DVB Debate program, which airs on television nationwide.

The minister rejected statements made by world leaders and Nobel laureates at an emergency conference last week in Oslo, Norway, which chided the Burmese government for its “persecution” of Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority in western Burma that has been fleeing the country for years, many falling prey to human traffickers.

The exodus came to international attention last month when a crackdown on trafficking in Thailand left thousands of people—some migrants from Bangladesh while most were Rohingya refugees—stranded and starving at sea.

Last week, Burma’s foreign ministry agreed to participate in a regional summit in Bangkok to address the crisis on the condition that the migrants and refugees, who have come to be referred to as boat people, be referred to as “irregular migrants” instead of Rohingya.

The Burmese government has consistently denied that the migrants are from Burma, claiming instead that they are all from Bangladesh. The government does not recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group in the country, and refers to them as “Bengali” to imply that they are illegal immigrants.

Riots in 2012 left hundreds dead and about 140,000 in isolated displacement camps, where they are denied mobility and basic services. International observers, including a top US diplomat, have said that conditions in the camps and political estrangement in the state have been driving factors in the crisis.

When asked after the debate if conditions in the state were a “root cause” of the recent exodus in the Bay of Bengal, Maung Maung Ohn contradicted overwhelming claims by the international community.

“Who can say they all are from Burma? There may be a few people from Burma among them, but I can’t accept the fact that all of them were from Burma,” the minister said, despite a statement by US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a recent visit that a “majority” of the boat people are from Arakan State, “are Rohingya, and left because of desperate conditions that they faced.”

Last week’s “Oslo Conference to End Myanmar’s Persecution of Rohingya Muslims” reinforced the sentiments of the US State Department. In a pre-recorded address, Nobel laureate and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu referred to warnings by scholars and researchers who view the situation as a “slow genocide being committed against the Rohingya people.”

“I can’t accept it at all,” Maung Maung Ohn said on Sunday, the same day state media published a press release from the government that “categorically rejects unbalanced, negative comments” made by the international community about Burma’s role in the crisis.

The Burma Navy recently intercepted a boat in the Bay of Bengal carrying more than 200 people, all but eight of whom are believed to be from Bangladesh. Those eight, found to be displaced Rohingya from a camp near Kyauktaw, will return to their families while the 200 others are soon to be deported.

“If you want to know whether or not what they [the international community] say is true, come and have a look at Arakan State. We are open to any investigation,” Maung Maung Ohn said. “Don’t say anything based on hearsay.”

The origins of more than 700 people found on a boat near the coast of southern Burma on Friday, however, have not yet been revealed, and journalists have been denied access to the area where they are being detained.

Panelist Win Soe Tun, director of the Arakan State Peace and Development Organization, based in the state capital Sittwe, had the unprecedented chance to respond to the minister’s claims on television, based on his experience working first-hand in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

“Most of the boat people are from the camps [in Arakan State],” he said. “They can no longer bear the suffering they face in the camps, so they run away to have a better life and future.”

The response did little to sway the minister, who said that those seeking more rights should become citizens, an impossible choice for the group whose ethnic identity is categorically denied the privilege by a 1982 Citizenship Law.

“If they want citizens’ rights, they have to first be a citizen. If you are an IDP, you are entitled to the rights of an IDP,” Maung Maung Ohn said.

Also on the panel were Upper House parliamentarian and Chairman of the Arakan National Party Aye Maung and chief convener of the Islamic Center of Myanmar Al-Haj Aye Lwin. The full debate is available in Burmese on the DVB Debate website, and an edited version with English subtitles is viewable on www.dvb.no.

Additional reporting contributed by Moe Myint.