From Vietnam and now Burma
Some years back, during a visit with family in Virginia in the United States, we were eating at a Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall when the waitress interrupted our lively exchange. “Excuse me,” she said, “are you from the Philippines?” When we replied in the affirmative, she clapped her hands delightedly and said: “I, too, have been in the Philippines! I stayed for a few years in a refugee camp in Palawan until I became qualified to immigrate here.”
Even after a few years of settling in the “melting pot” of the United States, our waitress still kept fond memories of her stay in Palawan, in the Philippines’ Refugee Processing Center in particular, and of the friends—Vietnamese and Filipino—she made there. They included the Filipino officials in the camp and the teachers who helped her gain her immigrant status by teaching her conversational English and American history.
If you will recall, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries agreed to host the “boat people,” numbering almost a million, fleeing the “reeducation camps” imposed on the residents after the fall of South Vietnam to the communist North. For 20 years, from 1975 to 1995, boatloads of refugees risked the high seas and pirate attacks to seek asylum in third and even fourth countries. With funding from United Nations agencies, the Philippines agreed to set up a camp in Palawan where the refugees were “processed” before moving on to other countries where they sought a more permanent status.
While refugees like the waitress we met at the restaurant were profusely grateful for the hospitality they enjoyed in the Philippines, the Vietnamese also left valuable “souvenirs” in their host country. Among these were the many bakeries they set up in Puerto Princesa and on the road to the Processing Center, creating an unlikely spot for reputedly the best French bread in the country. I’m told, however, that the quality of the bread invariably deteriorated as the Vietnamese cooks and bakers left for the United States and Europe.
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Today, the Philippines faces a similar situation with regard to the Rohingya, who have been fleeing Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh amid heightened incidents of persecution.
The Rohingya trace their arrival in Myanmar to the 19th century, when British colonial authorities transported them from India as menial workers. The Rohingya have long been marginalized in largely Buddhist Myanmar since they profess the Muslim faith. Fleeing prosecution, thousands have since crossed the border to Bangladesh where they have likewise been expelled.
In the eyes of the government of Myanmar, the Rohingya are “stateless people,” and according to the United Nations, they are “among the most persecuted refugee groups in the world.” The crisis involving the Rohingya has been steadily growing, but gained international attention after boatloads of refugees and migrants were turned away by the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
The Rohingya, it’s been said, would prefer to be granted asylum in Malaysia or Indonesia, which are both Muslim-majority countries, but the governments of these countries have made it a policy to turn away the boats bearing them. At least the Thais have supplied the refugees, some of whom have been afloat on the Pacific for months now, with food and water and even some fuel for their boat.
But in what the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has decried as a game of “maritime ping-pong,” the boat of Rohingya refugees was “pushed back and forth between Malaysian and Thai waters.”
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At first the Philippine government seemed reluctant to involve itself in the Rohingya crisis, but in the last few days, officials led by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma have been speaking out and making sympathetic noises about possibly taking in the refugees.
Indeed, Bernard Kerblat, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has praised the country for its “willingness” to take in foreign refugees.
De Lima cited international conventions, to which the Philippine government is a signatory, on the status of refugees and the status of stateless persons.
Coloma cited the country’s experience with the Vietnamese boat people, but De Lima reached farther back in history, citing the grant of visas to Jewish migrants fleeing Nazi persecution in the years leading to World War II.
To be clear, I don’t think a single Rohingya refugee has set foot on Philippine territory yet. But isn’t it time, if we’re serious about taking in the migrants from Myanmar, we started to prepare processing centers and refugee camps for them?
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There is one difference, though, between the Vietnamese boat people and the Rohingya refugees. The Vietnamese were fleeing persecution, since their loyalties were suspect, with many seen as collaborating with the United States and other allies during the war. Thus, there was the American “guilt trip” working in their favor, and the assistance given them was seen as simply a way of repaying their loyalty or compensating for their losses.
But the Rohingya have been longtime residents of Myanmar, with some reluctant to renounce their ethnicity and faith in exchange for recognition as legitimate residents of a land where they and their ancestors were born. There is also the current geopolitical situation with many governments leery of any large, organized group of Muslim migrants who just might pose a threat to their own security.
Is it just their own bad luck that the crisis reached the boiling point just when discrimination against Muslims has run rampant in the rest of the world?
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