Last Friday the Centre for ASEAN Studies at Chiang Mai University held a seminar titled, ‘Rohingya: Politics of Representation, Trafficking and Policy Alternatives’. There was a lot of anticipation about the seminar due to the current situation of Rohingya adrift in the Andaman Sea, the increased persecution the Rohingya are facing in Myanmar, and the significant media attention the issue is receiving. The panel included; Boonthan Verawongse from the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, Michael Heath - the U.S Consul General to Chiang Mai and Ismail Macadam from Save the Rohingya Network. In what I thought would be an enlightening, relevant and colourful discussion turned out to be a mixture of government propaganda, a defence of the Thai Junta and a incredibly simplistic explanation of what the Rohingya are. After feeling initially let down, I then realised that this was the issue, that no one wanted to properly and holistically discuss the Rohingya. It is either too complicated, too politically sensitive or people just do not know how to discuss the issue.
Boonthan Verawongse basically argued the issue is ‘complicated’, that the Thai officials are doing all they can, and that Thailand is assisting those adrift at sea with food and water. Questions he could have answered or covered include;
- Are the Thai police and military involved within the trafficking of the Rohingya?
- What is Thailand’s official stance on the Rohingya issue?
- How much is it an issue of Buddhist Nationalism and how much does the Buddhist Institution in Thailand support the Buddhist Institution in Myanmar? What does the Buddhist Institution in Thailand think and why are they not more vocal?
- Why do most Rohingya want to reach Thailand?
Ismail Macadam gave a very general overview of the Rohingya, leaving out significant issues, whilst including issues that are not relevant. For example he stated, ‘Not all the people on the boats are Rohingya, some are Bengali Muslims’. Although important, why is that an issue that needs to be discussed in a general overview of the Rohingya, and why discuss this issue above that of more crucial issues? He could have asked and discussed questions such as;
- What effect is the up-and-coming election in Myanmar having on the movement of the Rohingya?
- Why has there been an increase in violence against the Rohingya?
- What is the role of Buddhist Nationalism?
- Why is there not a larger Islamic voice on the issue? Especially from Malaysia and Indonesia and Islamic organisations there?
Michael Heath constantly reiterated that the U.S is leading the humanitarian mission and constantly reiterated ‘eveything’ the U.S is doing - education, financial assistance and training - and he overstated the importance of the U.S in resolving the issue. Questions that he could have answered include;
Why is the U.S attempting to take a lead on the issue and is it just rhetoric?
Why does the U.S rely on Thai government officials for information?
Other questions that could have been discussed or asked of the panel include;
Why is there a lack of Islamic solidarity towards the Rohingya?
Is the Thai government reluctant to get involved and be critical of Myanmar due to its own human rights issues?
Is the U.S reluctant to help due the current political ‘crisis’ in Thailand?
There is an election coming up in Myanmar and nationalist groups are spreading rumours throughout the country about the Rohingya. How can this be counterbalanced and why are the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi voiceless on the issue?
There is a lot of talk about a ‘Regional Solution’ however no mention or discussion of the word ‘Genocide’, why?