USDP Lawmaker Calls for Hard Line on ‘Boat People’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 3 June 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s Upper House of Parliament on Tuesday heard an urgent proposal to limit the detention of “boat people” rescued from Burmese waters.

Hla Swe, a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), submitted the resolution, urging lawmakers to swiftly implement a “precise policy” for dealing with thousands of migrants and refugees believed to be adrift in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

Most of the so-called “boat people” were determined to be Rohingya Muslims by the United Nations and several foreign governments, after thousands made land in neighboring countries. A significant remainder are migrants from Bangladesh. Burma has insisted that it is a transit country along the human trafficking route, and that those aboard are mostly from Bangladesh.

The Burmese government does not recognize Rohingya as one of the country’s ethnic minority groups, referring to them as “Bengali” which implies that they are illegal immigrants. More than 100,000 Rohingya, who are denied citizenship, have lived in isolated displacement camps deadly riots gripped western Burma’s Arakan State in 2012.

Amid claims by the international community that conditions in the state prompted people to flee, Hla Swe said that it was “very disappointing” that the international community would make such assertions without adequate verification of their origins.

The lawmaker cited the Burma Navy’s recent recovery of a boat carrying 200 Bangladeshi migrants, whose origins were also verified by the United Nations, as evidence that a hard line from the Burmese government could lead the international community to a different conclusion.

“Thanks to our government’s stance on the fact that they were not from Burma, now they [the United Nations] have admitted that those boat people are not from Burma,” Hla Swe said. “My urgent proposal is to enforce that stance.”

The proposal recommended limiting the duration of stay for migrants found in Burmese waters and brought to shore for verification. More than the required one third of the Upper House—a full 184 of 191 present—voted in favor of the resolution, enough to warrant extended debate.

“The government should set the duration of the detention, whether it is 15 days or 30. If it takes longer than that, people worry that the boat people will have more opportunity to mix with the people here and pretend that they are official ethnics of Myanmar,” Hla Swe said in his appeal to the chamber.

“It would be more suitable if they were escorted to neighboring countries or international waters with food and water,” he added.

The 200 migrants are still being detained on the Burmese side of the border with Bangladesh awaiting deportation. Arakan State Chief minister said on Sunday that the Burmese government is ready to return them as soon as Bangladesh can take them in.

Last Friday, the Burma Navy discovered another boat carrying more than 700 people, who have since been held offshore and inaccessible to reporters and aid agencies. Those aboard the ship are expected to be brought ashore for scrutiny on Wednesday.

Minister of information Ye Htut said on Tuesday that preliminary identification measures concluded that “nearly all” of the passengers were from Bangladesh.

“In order to take them back to Bangladesh, the [Burma] Navy is beginning to bring them to a safer place as a first step for more verification processes,” the minister said. “After that, we will carry out the handover.”