Boat people or quake victims; all need help

Boat people or quake victims; all need help

After a family lunch at a Bangkok mall over the weekend, my daughter and I noticed a big crowd at a booth raising funds for Nepal earthquake victims.

"If there was another booth asking for help for Rohingya boat people, would it get the same support?" my daughter asked.

We both knew the answer. Early that morning, we were talking about how our Facebook news feeds were overwhelmed with hate speech against the Rohingya and those who think the government should push them back out onto the open seas, which is tantamount to letting them die. 

Our pages were also flooded with shared articles stating the Rohingya were foreigners brought to Myanmar during British colonial rule; that they are aggressive Muslims, only good at breeding; and that antagonism against them in Myanmar only started after Rohingya raped Buddhist women.

The sharers agreed that Thailand should never help the Rohingya because we should not shoulder problems not of our own making. Among the arguments against government assistance are: Why help the Rohingya when a lot of poor people here still need help? Why kowtow to the US to give Rohingya shelter? Why doesn't the US help them, instead of telling Thailand what to do?

Unsubstantiated claims of links between the Rohingya and southern violence have also been made. Many shared their fear that helping the Rohingya would not only strain our scant resources and increase crime, but would pose a threat to "our" Buddhist identity. 

In short, the voices are in unison with Myanmar's hatred for the Rohingya people; more specifically, hatred for Muslims.

How can we be so charitable to victims of Nepal's earthquake so far away, while we can be so heartless towards the Rohingya boat people who are knocking at our doors, desperate for help?

Is it because it's much easier to reach into our pockets than to open our hearts?

Last month, Channel 3's veteran reporter Thapanee Ietsrichai was hailed as a heroine for helping Thai slave workers return home from Indonesian islands. Today she is chastised and ridiculed for her sympathy for the boat people and has been accused of trying to "bring the enemies into our home".

Journalist Vanchai Tantivitayapitak wrote about his father, who 60 years ago, was part of the influx of Chinese boat people fleeing wars at home to resettle in Thailand. We, too, were once refugees, he wrote. He, too, felt the sting of harsh words and ridicule.

Is there any reason to help the Rohingya, without doing compassion and human rights to death?

"There are so many people who need help from us. Give me a good reason why we should help the Rohingya," a colleague demanded of me. "Give reasons, not emotions."

"They are victims of human traffickers," I said.

"Then punish the traffickers. That's what we should do. But why help the Rohingya?" he continued.

Here's why: If we want to stop the slave trade, we cannot push away the boat people. Rohingya are key witnesses. With their testimonies, we can take down the trafficking networks. By equipping the boats with food and water to continue the journeys, we are helping the traffickers.    

By giving the boat people proper temporary shelter, we can interview and separate them into economic migrants and victims of persecution, and process their cases accordingly. Many want to return home. We should learn from what we did in 2008. 

That year Thailand was under fire after CNN published reports of the navy pushing boats of Rohingya away. To rescue its image, the government helped the next batch of boat people by taking them in. From in-depth interviews with the victims, the Lawyers Council produced the names of traffickers and slave trade routes. It also helped Rohingya from Bangladesh return home. 

Following the disruption of the trade, the number of boat people trying to reach Thailand plummeted from nearly 5,000 in 2008, to about 90 the following year.

Then it was business as usual. The boats stopped in Thailand to get free food and water, then continued on their way. The trafficking networks expanded and the number of victims rose, until the problem exploded.

We should help the boat people because their information will lead to more arrests and bring us closer to wiping out the trade in humans. If we push them back out onto the open sea, we support the slave trade and betray our own consciences.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.


Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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