Tue 22 May 2012
Filed under: Interviews,Refugees
Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will address an International Labour Organization conference in Geneva next month, on her first trip outside Burma, in 24 years.
The ILO says Ms Suu Kyi will address the final day of the conference, which is expected to discuss the issue of forced labour in Burma.
Aid groups say while the situation has improved a little, ethnic communities like the Rohingyas of Arakan state are still at risk.
The Bangkok-based Arakan Project researches and monitors the Rohingyas in Burma.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Chris Lewa, founder and director, The Arakan Project
LEWA: One shocking situation that the Rohingyas faced in Arakan, is that the fact that they have to apply for an official marriage permission for a couple to get married. And when they get that, they need to sign an undertaking that they won’t have more than two children. And if a couple married without official permission, the husband can be prosecuted and spend five years in detention. And there are many people, for example, in Buthidaung jail, which is the main jail in north Arakan, who are imprisoned for this particular reason. Of course, the issue of marriage permission, I think that should be lifted and it’s only imposed on the Rohingya population in Burma. No other community has to suffer this. And of course, citizenship. For me, that is a key right that the Rohingya should have and have the right to have, is to become recognised as a citizen in Burma. And of course, forced labour also should be eradicated. It’s good there is a plan now, signed between the government and the ILO for the total eradication of forced labour in 2015. Well, I hope it will be implemented. So there are many issues, but that I think to me, are the main ones. There’s been a little progress, but very very small. For example, recently, the government decided that the Rohingyas no longer needed to apply for travel permission, to go from village to village. But of course, they still need to get permission to travel from township to township, and north Arakan, where the majority of Rohingyas are concentrated, there’re only three townships and basically, they’re not allowed to go beyond these three townships. So, freedom of movement is not open to them, it’s just slightly eased.
LAM: Hasn’t the government also recently encouraged the Rohingyas in political participation? They’ve encourged them to stand as candidates and to form political parties?
LEWA: Well, they were allowed to vote and to participate in the elections and to stand as candidates. And they do have three representatives currently in the national parliament, but that has unfortunately, not been translated in any other concession or improvement in the situation of the majority of the Rohingyas in north Arakan state.
LAM: And neighbouring Malaysia has an estimated two million illegal migrants, and of the nearly 100-thousand legitimate refugees with papers, quite a sizeable portion are the Rohingyas. So what is the experience of the Rohingyas in neighbouring Malaysia?
LEWA: Yes, there’re about 22-thousand Rohingya refugees registered with the UNHCR, but there’re also perhaps ten-thousand or more who are still unregistered. Malaysia is in a way, the only country in the region who allow the Rohingya access to the UNHCR, but as with other refugees, protection is very limited because it doesn’t give them the right to work, nor the right to health or education. So the Rohingyas who make it to Malaysia, especially those not registered with the UNHCR, because the process of registration is quite slow, they can face arrest any time.
LAM: And of course, that would lay them open to exploitation by potential employers?
LEWA: Exactly. And also, they don’t have access to even primary education in Malaysia. And for health care, they are allowed to access government health care, but they have to pay at least half the cost if they’re registered refugees, and the full cost if they’re not. So the situation in Malaysia is definitely better than in Burma, but it’s still very, very difficult for the Rohingya refugees and other refugees there.
LAM: And Rohingya community leaders in the US recently urged America not to ease sanctions against Burma, until minority rights are recognised. Do you agree that it’s too early to lift sanctions on Burma?
LEWA: What I’m particularly concerned is mostly about the ILO, because as you may know, the ILO had imposed sanctions on the issue of forced labour, and it seems like during the forthcoming conference now, the ILO may suspend sanctions as well, but our findings are that forced labour may have reduced, but definitely has not stopped. And it’s still very prevalent in the country. And in the area North Arakan which I study in particular, the issue of forced labour may have reduced in some areas, but taxes have increased instead in others. So, I am worried about those types of sanctions.
But it’s true that there’s a decrease over the last six or seven months, in particular, the infrastructure projects. It seems now people are being paid, which is at least progress, for example in the building of roads which are under military supervision. But the military camps, they continue to use forced labour, every day to do all the chores and the repair work and the maintenance of their camps. Villagers still have to do every night guard duty in the villages. So they still have to work at least one day and one night a week of forced labour. And in some cases, where the authorities would order the villagers to collect bamboo and logs, that seems to have reduced now, but instead, the wood and bamboo cutters have to now pay a tax. Part of their production and their collection have been confiscated instead. So I don’t see that much progress in reality on the ground, and the people still have to respond to the whims and demands of the military authorities, so that they can’t work for themselves to support their family.