Wednesday, February 11

From the Thai Border

[The Nation] The Thai Foreign Ministry’s permanent secretary Virasak Futrakul yesterday told US actress Angelina Jolie to mind her own business and demanded an explanation from the UN agency for refugees why it brought her to a refugee camp here in the first place. The Interior Ministry supervises refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border and the UN refugee agency has stepped out of line by taking the Hollywood star there, Virasak said. He also reminded the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that the UN has no mandate in these camps and therefore should not be saying anything. The agency said that Jolie and her partner Brad Pitt visited the camp on the Thai-Burmese border after receiving permission from the Interior Ministry.

So much for the diplomatic jargon and necessities, but excuse us for reminding the world that the international community has a major problem on its hand. It concerns the Rohingyas, a stateless people who reside in Burma’s Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.

But while no one can fully control the words and actions of Hollywood celebrities, the fact of the matter is, when they speak, just about everybody listens.

Thailand’s claim of sovereignty over this matter is understandable given the fact that the country is not a signatory to any refugee convention. But hiding behind diplomatic protocol doesn’t hold water, especially when the country is in a public relations mess following reports that our security forces have pushed hundreds of Rohingya boat people back out to sea. Some have been left unaccounted for while others have given heartbreaking accounts of mistreatment by the Thai military, which towed them back out to sea in ill-equipped boats with little food and water. Another blow to Thailand’s image is the fact that the Indian navy, which has rescued Rohingyas, repeated their stories to the world.

We don’t need to dance to Jolie’s tune just because she is a Hollywood superstar. What we need to do is come up with a sound policy that is based on legal and humanitarian principles. Instead of blaming Jolie, who has the luxury of walking away from this after a few days of photo ops, why don’t we start talking about the root cause of the problem? Or is that against the unwritten rules of Asean when it comes to “domestic matters” in a neighbouring member country?

This particular problem is caused by the Burmese junta - a source of headaches and heartache for Thailand, all Asean members and the international community.

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