02/28/2009, 00.00
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ASEAN summit: talk includes economy, ignores human rights

by Weena Kowitwanij
A free trade agreement has been signed between ASEAN countries and Australia and New Zealand. But there is no interest in truly addressing the emergency of the Rohingya, who have been forced to flee from Myanmar, persecuted there and not welcome anywhere else.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) - On the first day of the 14th summit in Cha-am, province of Hua Hin (Thailand), the 10 countries of ASEAN are talking about the economy and trade agreements, but human rights and the dramatic situation of the Rohingya remain entirely forgotten.

The ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Brunei, and Cambodia) have established a duty-free trade zone with Australia and New Zealand, believed to have the potential of expanding the economies of the 12 countries by more than 48 billion dollars by 2020. A similar agreement already exists among the ASEAN countries, and between them and Japan, China, and South Korea.

The objective is the creation of a single market in ASEAN by 2015, similar to the one in the European Union, in order to compete with China and India.

But the emergency over the global financial crisis, which has also hit developed economies like Singapore, has pushed human rights out of the picture. The summit, being held at a well-known beach resort area south of Bangkok, is expected to issue a concrete decision on the drama of the Rohingya, the population that has fled from Myanmar, where it was persecuted, and has taken refuge in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In December, the Thai army prevented hundreds of them from landing on the shore, putting them on boats without motors to die on the open sea. In this period of crisis, there is no country to welcome them.

Today, Myanmar has said that it will accept the return of the refugees, but only if they are recognized as Bengalis living in Myanmar, instead of Burmese citizens. The government refuses to acknowledge that a Rohingya ethnic minority exists, even though they have been living in the country for more than a thousand years. But of course the refugees do not want to return to a place where they are persecuted, stateless, unable to marry, establish legal residency, or work.

Mamut Hudsen, 50, explains to AsiaNews that he, his wife, and their four children, in northern Myanmar near Bangladesh, "were working in the rice field, which is the main occupation in the region. Life is very tough there, we rarely have anything to eat. We live without hope."

The young Hamit Dusun recalls that "we have no rights [in Myanmar], no access to education or health care. I was born in Aragan with Bangladesh origin, but the country of my birthplace denies me citizenship."

Their desperate flight is good business for many. Pakorn Pungnetre recounts that Thai middlemen ask for about 250 dollars per person for the trip (boat, food, water, medicine, and fuel) from Bangladesh (where they escape over land) to Thailand or Malaysia, on boats that take at least 15 days to cover the more than 1,000 kilometers.

Experts observe that ASEAN has always practiced noninterference in the domestic affairs of other countries in the matter of human rights, seeking consensus solutions instead.

Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary general of ASEAN, has confirmed the stalemate over the problem, saying that in these days there will only be "the beginning of a serious search for a solution."

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ASEAN members fear Chinese juggernaut
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