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Burma offers Rohingya return deal

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Rescued Rohingya boat people at a camp in Aceh, Indonesia (12/02/2009)
Burma refuses to grant official status to the Rohingya minority

The Burmese government has said it will take back ethnic Rohingyas who have fled to neighbouring countries.

But it will only do so if they identify themselves as Bengalis, as it refuses to recognise the Rohingyas as one of its official minorities.

Tens of thousands of Rohingyas have left Burma in recent years and washed up in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In December, the Thai military began dragging boats of Rohingya asylum seekers to sea and setting them adrift.

The policy has provoked widespread condemnation.

However, leaders from the affected countries attending the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Thailand have been unable to agree on a solution to the displaced Rohingyas.

Confronted by evidence that his military had been casting hundreds of Rohingya boat people adrift at sea, the Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has responded that this is a regional problem which can only be solved in consultation with the various affected countries.

Bizarre policies

This week's Asean summit would seem to be the ideal opportunity - it is one of the few international venues attended by senior Burmese leaders.

Map

But the other Asean states are getting little co-operation from their Burmese colleagues.

The Burmese foreign minister told his Thai counterpart that his country might be willing to take back Rohingyas - but only if they were categorised as Bengalis who reside in Burma, not Burmese citizens.

This is in keeping with a bizarre official policy which denies Rohingyas official status, the right to move around, even to marry without permission, despite the fact that they have lived in western Burma for more than a thousand years.

A memo faxed to journalists by the Burmese consul in Hong Kong last week insisted Rohingyas could not be real Burmese, as they were dark-skinned and "as ugly as ogres".

In any case, sending them back to a country where they face even worse treatment than the average Burmese citizen does not appear to be a practical solution.

That has left the Asean leaders bereft of ideas.

None wants to open the door to more Rohingyas.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the only option his country had was to turn them back - but that just raises the prospect of hundreds more being left to drift and die on the high seas.



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