In responding to the outcry of the international community on the Rohinya saga in the past weeks, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya acted quickly by consulting all concerned countries, including Burma, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and India to find solutions.
Last week the Foreign Ministry met and discussed with the ambassadors from these five countries and stressed that this is a regional issue that would need joint common efforts.
The plight of the rohingya refugees has suddenly become a hot topic after nearly 650 of them were rescued in the territorial waters of India and Indonesia. The Royal Thai Navy was alleged by international human rights organisations of pushing back these refugees out to the Andaman Sea where they had come from. Several hundreds of people, it has been contended, might have died at sea.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva demanded a thorough investigation and pledged to punish whoever was behind such inhuman actions.
The rohingya refugees and asylum seekers are a minority in Burma's northern Arakan state. During 1991-92, around 270,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution by the Burmese military junta. Over the years, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has successfully repatriated at least 230,000 Rohingyas back to Burma. The rest are staying in the two main camps - Nayapara and Kutupalong in Cox's Bazar - without any real prospects of going home. Due to the short distance between these camps and Thailand's western coastal areas, they began to come by boats in the mid-1990s, before it became headline news. Gradually the numbers became bigger and the influx more frequent, especially during this time of the year when the sea is usually calmer. They would arrive in Ranong and other coastal provinces through vast transnational human smuggling rings, either on transit to Malaysia or Indonesia, or in search for a better life in Thailand. Most of them being Muslims would like to find jobs or be settled in the same religious environment. But quite often, at the first transit point, they usually ended up being exploited in Thailand.
During the Surayud Chulanont government, Thai authorities were instructed not to push them back out into the sea as it could endanger their lives. Instead, the visitors would be detained and given food and transported to the Thai-Burma border either in Kanchanaburi or Tha Songyang. They were sent across the border safely. However, the soft Thai response has encouraged human smuggling rings to increase their operations as no risks were involved for them. If they failed, these asylum seekers would eventually end up in the refugee camps along the Burma-Bangladesh border. Out of desperation, some of these refugees attempted to come to Thailand again.
According to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), more than 14 million people around the world fled their homes either due to war or persecution in 2007.
Thailand is one of top destinations with over 400,000 refugees and asylum seekers. USCRI pointed out that within Asia, Thailand along with Malaysia, China, Bangladesh and India are among the worst violators of the international principles as outlined by the UN Convention on Refugees 1951.
At the moment, according to unofficial statistics, Thailand is home to more than 5 million refugees, asylum seekers and illegal migrant workers and visa over-stayers in one form or another from over a dozen countries, including all bordering countries except Malaysia, and countries as far as Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, North Korea, China, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as a few thousands of illegal immigrants from Western countries. Despite several improved measures to increase coordination among intra-agencies in the past, on the whole the Thai treatment of these unfortunate people still comes under fire due to the lack of consistency, compassion and cooperation with international organisations, including UNHCR and numerous humanitarian organisations. One hindrance is Thailand's continuous refusal to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. Fear and a lack of understanding of the convention has prevented the country from joining 147 other nations that have done so.
Strange as it may seem, when it comes to accession or ratification of international treaties and protocols, the concerned Thai officials are overly cautious in interpreting Thailand's commitments. They tend to overdo it. Thailand took a long time to sign on to the UN against Torture Treaty in 2007. The efforts to ratify the International Criminal Court of Justice, which Thailand proudly signed in 2000, have fallen flat in the past eight years as some conservative lawyers thought that doing so would subject the Thai royal family to the ICC court of justice. Like a lot else in this country, whenever events and issues are related to the monarchy, the responsible authorities tend to play safe and exaggerate the impacts - real or imagined - without scrutinising the ever changing domestic and international environments. A more level-headed rationalisation is urgently needed.
Upon closer scrutiny, it is a real blessing in disguise that the Rohinya problem blew up in the face of the Abhisit-led government. First of all, given his professed high moral ground, Abhisit will definitely act on issues related to human rights and freedom of expression sooner than later. Secondly, the rohingya refugees also exposed the Thai government's limit, or for that matter what the countries at the receiving end can do on a human tragedy of this scale that they have not created. Thirdly, their plight will enable the public and global communities to understand the problem's root cause and solve it at the source. Finally, it's hoped this travesty would prompt all stakeholders to cooperate and provide more assistance, especially the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations.