Key issues in the Rohingya crisis

Key issues in the Rohingya crisis include forced migration, human trafficking and regional resistance to engage, say two academics.

Sriprapha Petcharamesree and James Gomez

Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree (left) and Dr James Gomez.

No access to legal documentation 

Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree (Mahidol University, Thailand):

“[In the past] some of them had Burmese nationality – even in the Burmese Parliament, there were Rohingya MPs – but because of the Nationality Law in 1982, some were rendered stateless. So you’ve got a large number of Rohingya who are stateless within their country, and also outside of their country of origin.”

“Currently there are between 1.2 and 1.5 million Rohingya in Bangladesh [living in 26 refugee camps]. It’s very serious when a human being does not have a legal identity.

“We learned that Rohingya children in the camps were not allowed schooling – no access to primary education – and Rohingya lack access to birth registration. This is basic human rights. Without birth registration, they will not get access to legal documentation – the basic foundation to all other rights. From a legal perspective, they don’t exist.

“UNICEF works around the issue of ‘no schooling’ by providing ‘learning centres’  and there is solidarity among the 26 refugee camps – but it is impossible for Rohingya to return to their homes, to their land. To be allowed to return, they need documents.”

ASEAN non-interference policy stymies regional solution

Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree (Mahidol University, Thailand):

“In order for ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] to address this issue, it’s important for ASEAN to reflect and review the working principles of ASEAN, which includes the respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs of member-states.

“When the issue is affecting other member states, it cannot be considered internal affairs any longer. It’s a regional problem.

“Currently the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration (ADFM) is looking at the issue of ‘trafficking risk’ assessment. Millions of people – especially women and children – are at high risk of being trafficked. Trafficking networks through Southeast Asia are very active.

“ADFM and other NGOs have been trying to push ASEAN to put this issue of forced migration into the agenda. If this crisis is not dealt with – and it is already protracted – it will be much more difficult to deal with later if you don’t find a regional solution now.”

Gathering evidence on ‘genocidal intent’

Dr James Gomez, chair of the Asia Centre:

“The fact-finding mission [for the UN] has called out the Rohingya incident as ‘genocide’. Some classify it as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘crimes against humanity’. This is now on the table.

“From here, the language/talk is on how we set up mechanisms to gather and archive evidence on genocidal intent. We need clear evidence that can stand up in a national, regional, international court of law.

“The Asia Centre has been working on this for the last four years.”

Regional resistance to engage

Dr James Gomez, chair of the Asia Centre:

“The non-interference policy means ASEAN countries affected by the Rohingya crisis cannot speak out. 

“China, India and Japan have interests in Myanmar and want to be neutral. ASEAN has some members wanting to get into Myanmar for resources. Myanmar nationals want to provide labour  some formal, some informal and illegal. They want to benefit commercially.

If we are well informed on all the play, then we have a better handle on the pulse of the issue and the stakeholders, and how they approach this issue.

“There is also xenophobia [towards Rohingya Muslims]. China will attend meetings for commercial interests, not human rights. This is the dynamics of power play in the region.

– Asia Media Centre


Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree is Director of the PhD programme in Human Rights and Peace Studies (International), Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University, Thailand. She was appointed by the national government to act as the Thai representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (to 2012). She is currently the co-chair of the working group for an ASEAN human rights mechanism advocating for effective regional human rights systems in the ASEAN region.

Dr James Gomez is chair of the Asia Centre, a not-for-profit think tank, project partner and social enterprise organisation that aims to create social impact in the region. First established in Bangkok, Thailand in 2015, a second Centre was established in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. In 2017, he was chair for the Global Committee on the Rohingya issue for Amnesty International. He was ‘Activist in Residence’ at Massey University, Palmerston North, and is also involved with CARE.