Cambodia 2018 Election Report: ‘The Crackdown Continues’ – CBC The World this Hour

PHNOM PENH – July 29, 2018 was Cambodia’s sixth general election since the UN organized the country’s first free and fair elections in 1993.

For the last 25 years, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has used elections as a way to legitimize his rule (33 years and counting). In 2017, the main opposition party was dissolved and its leader thrown into prison on treason charges.

Two local journalists and one Australian filmmaker – alongside political activists – languish inside jail cells under pre-trial detention.

Independent media in Cambodia has been shut down and forced to use its online platforms to inform citizens, in the Khmer language. But 17 of these news websites were ordered offline for 48 hours during the election.

Cambodia Election Report ‘The Crackdown Continues’ aired on CBC The World This Hour Monday, July 30, 2018.

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Cambodia’s Election Targets Social Media – CBC The World this Weekend

PHNOM PENH – The government of Cambodia’s new ministerial decree bans “fake news” from social media.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed police will arrest and prosecute Cambodians spreading false information online – such as members of the banned opposition party’s plan to boycott the July 29th elections: dubbed “the clean finger” campaign.

Now it’s monitoring and filtering Cambodians online according to some of the country’s most prominent social media users. Featuring Catherine Harry from A Dose of Cath (pictured); Samoeurth Seavmeng from Politikoffee; and Mory Sar from Cambodia Youth Network.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, July 21, 2018.

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A Rohingya’s Pursuit for Justice in Myanmar – CBC The World this Weekend

YANGON –  Wai Wai Nu always wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps – famed Rohingya Muslim politician Kyaw Min – and end the injustice faced by minority groups in Myanmar.

Now, at 31, Nu is the country’s most celebrated Rohingya – calling on Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to uphold the rule of law. For seven years Nu was jailed along with her family. Her law studies were put on hold until being released in 2012 – when Myanmar’s democratic transition began.

Upon release from jail, Nu set up Women’s Peace Network – the first of its kind in Myanmar to represent and defend women from minority groups like the Rohingya. Nu wants to end impunity in Myanmar and hold its leaders accountable – starting with democracy icon and state councilor Suu Kyi.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, June 16, 2018.

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Thailand to Myanmar Refugee Repatriation Goes Ahead Despite Concerns

Children playing in Mae La Oon refugee camp, three hour drive from across the mountains from the town of Mae Sariang, Thailand

Children playing in Mae La Oon refugee camp, three hour drive from across the mountains from the town of Mae Sariang, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Burma Link.

BANGKOK – With the UN signing a memorandum of understanding in negotiations to repatriate nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees from camps in Bangladesh to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, its refugee agency has already begun facilitating returns from camps in Thailand to southeast Myanmar.

Ninety-three refugees returned in May from Thailand’s camps to Yangon, Bago and Sagaing regions as well as to Kayin and Kayah states, in Myanmar’s southeast bordering Thailand – where the majority of ethnic Karen and Karenni refugees originate.

“The Burma [Myanmar] army is fighting in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan and almost every day in Karen [Kayin] state,” said Naw Hsa Moon, a 32-year-old ethnic Karen refugee living in Thailand. “It isn’t safe for refugees to return, or else they risk becoming refugees a second time.”

To date, a total of 164 refugees have voluntarily returned to Myanmar from Thailand through the UN Refugee Agency since it began its repatriation program with the Thai and Myanmar governments in late 2016.

“In south-eastern Myanmar, conditions allow for UNHCR to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees from Thailand to that area. In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, however, UNHCR believes that the situation is not yet conducive for the return of Rohingya refugees,” the UN stated in a press release.

This second batch repatriated from Thailand had 20 ethnic Karenni refugees making a first return to Kayah state, where a fragile ceasefire agreement holds between the Myanmar army and a local rebel group.

But in neighbouring Kayin state, increased tensions and militarization has caused many refugees to opt out of the facilitated return – 2,400 ethnic Karen villagers are still displaced from their homes inside Myanmar because of conflict.

Many view the UNHCR refugee repatriation as not being safe, secure and dignified return at the moment, as promised by the UN.

“The initial number to return was 161. The actual number who went back this time was 93. That’s a huge drop, nearly 50 per cent,” said Leena Zieger, director of Burma Link, an organization based across the border in Mae Sot, Thailand.

Nearly 100,000 refugees live in Thailand’s nine camps established 30 years ago to provide safety and security to those fleeing attacks by Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw.

Thailand isn’t a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention but refugees from Myanmar are allowed to remain in the country legally if they are registered with UNHCR at one of the nine refugee camps along its border.

Refugees inside Thailand are restricted from leaving the camps, and are not allowed to work. Humanitarian assistance is provided. But refugees and agencies argue food aid has been reduced significantly in recent years because of budget cuts by donor countries.

“I don’t know how [the] UNHCR can say that it’s a voluntary return. Refugee repatriation needs to be genuinely voluntary and it should not be reinforced by these outside factors like cutting rations and assistance in the camps,” Zieger said.

The Border Consortium provides aid to refugees in Thailand. The TBC states over the last six years 18,000 refugees have left the camps in Thailand to Myanmar without any form of UN or government assistance.

TBC Executive Director Sally Thompson told The Irrawaddy News that 4,095 of them returned in 2017, making the UN repatriation program seem like a drop in the bucket in comparison.

But the reason why so many refugees leave the camps without going through official channels, like the UNHCR repatriation program, is so they may be able to keep their status as refugees and return to the camps if fighting resumes in their communities along the border.

“If someone asks me to go back I have no place to stay. I have no land,” Moon said. “We have nothing. My parents left Burma [Myanmar] when they were young and I was born in the refugee camp.”

The UN, Thailand and Myanmar require all refugees being repatriated to give up their status. The UN provides cash for reintegration and an assistance package including food, mosquito nets, travel bags, family hygiene and sanitary kits for women, along with transportation.

But the UNHCR promises it will monitor those repatriated for up to one year.

In Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, the UNHCR gives cash to Somali refugees to facilitate voluntary repatriation. Some have accepted to return out of financial necessity, to pay off debts, rather than return in a safe, secure and dignified manner as reported by The Washington Post newspaper.

“It breaks my heart. We can’t stop refugees from leaving the camps to return,” Moon said. “But the situation in the refugee camps continues to worsen forcing many to consider leaving because there’s not enough food available.”

Last April, clashes between the Myanmar army and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan states forced 8,000 people out of their homes and into several of the 165 displacement camps established in the north of Myanmar.

This adds to the 99,678 internally displaced people in Myanmar’s northernmost states, according to UN figures. Humanitarian organizations are unable to assist those displaced inside Myanmar because of tight security restrictions placed on groups providing aid by Myanmar’s government.

A group providing humanitarian assistance to those displaced from their homes by the fighting in Kachin state, between the Myanmar army and Kachin Independence Army, has now been banned by the military from doing its work in conflict-affected areas.

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Thailand’s New Media Protest Leader – CBC The World this Weekend

BANGKOK – Bow Nutta Mahattana wears a cartoon t-shirt mocking Thai Prime Minister, and junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha with a nose like Pinocchio.

The 39-year-old mother and teacher is facing a lengthy prison sentence for staging anti-junta protests – and harnessing the power of Facebook Live – to demand elections in Thailand.

“The message is because he has told lies so many times he’s become General ‘Yuth-nocchio,’” Mahattana said with a smile.

The former military general-turned-prime minister recently postponed the election for the fourth time since his ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order, came to power in 2014 coup. This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, May 12, 2018.

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Rohingya Refugees are Rushing to Escape Monsoon Season

Haji Ismael

Haji Ismael, 49, is managing director of Rohingya Peace Network of Thailand

Experts fear a return of the kind of desperation that fed the 2015 boat crisis as the storms hit Bangladesh’s coast.

BANGKOK, Thailand – Torrential rains along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border are threatening to make an already grim situation for the nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled genocidal violence back home even worse as the monsoon storms hit the overcrowded, makeshift camps.

Now, regional governments and human rights groups are bracing for an influx of new refugee boats as Rohingya flee rapidly deteriorating conditions in coastal camps and continued danger back in Rakhine State.

“I can say that in a very short time more Rohingya boats will come [to Thailand],” said Haji Ismael, the director of Rohingya Peace Network of Thailand. “What is our future? It’s hopeless.”

In late April, 76 Rohingya Muslims arrived in Aceh, in northern Sumatra, on a boat that was set adrift for nine days after it left Myanmar. Earlier that same month, five Rohingya refugees were rescued at sea by Indonesian fishermen in East Aceh, although it’s unknown if they set sail from Myanmar, Bangladesh, or elsewhere in the region.

Another boat, this one carrying 56 Rohingya refugees, most of them women and children, also docked at the Thai island of Koh Lanta in early May. There, the refugees were given food, water, and fuel before being told to continue on toward Malaysia, their intended destination, according to Thai authorities.

Despite sharing a land border and maritime boundary with Myanmar, Thailand doesn’t officially recognize the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. The country is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, but refugee camps along its border with Myanmar have existed for more than 30 years.

The Thai government still refuses to allow boats to enter Thailand and orders its navy to push boats back to sea, even as neighboring countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have taken some refugees in since the 2015 Andaman Sea boat crisis. Thai authorities now provide what they call “humanitarian consideration” to boats at sea, hoping to persuade them to continue their journey to elsewhere.

“While Thailand is not a signatory to the refugee convention, they are still bound to the duty to rescue persons in distress at sea [that] is enshrined in international maritime law,” said Lilianne Fan, an expert on Myanmar and director of Geutanyoe Foundation, an Aceh-based group dedicated to helping rescue refugees at sea.

Ismael's documents

Ismael shows his Thai certificate of residence. He has lived in Thailand for 24 years

Thailand has defended its resistance to accept refugees into the country by claiming that the boats carrying Rohingya Muslims are destined for Malaysia, though Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told the press in 2017 that Thailand was ready to “receive various displaced people” and “send them back when they’re ready.”

“Thailand should help these people,” said Puttanee Kangkun, a Thai human rights specialist at the nonprofit Fortify Rights. “We don’t know what they face at sea or if they can make it to their destination safely. They have to be treated and interviewed to see whether they have come voluntarily or not. We must investigate what’s going on. It’s not [right] to give food and push them away.”

About 5,000 Rohingya currently live in Thailand permanently but half of them are undocumented, or living illegally, according to estimates by Haji Ismael. This makes advocacy by Rohingya in Thailand on behalf of new Rohingya arrivals, by land or sea, difficult. Today, undocumented Rohingya refugees in Thailand are treated like all other immigrants subject to arrest and deportation, not as asylum seekers and refugees in need of protection.

Thailand signed the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children in November 2015. This means it is obliged by this convention to help victims of human trafficking. If the Rohingya Muslims declare they have been trafficked to Thailand, their only option is to live in government-run shelters rather than the immigration detention centers they would be sent to otherwise.

“It is critical that ASEAN takes steps to develop a dedicated policy for refugee protection that includes rescue at sea, admission to territory, safe reception, access to humanitarian assistance, and alternatives to detention,” Fan told VICE.

And while the international attention remains on the plight of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, rights groups say not enough is being done to help Rohingya Muslims remaining in Myanmar, who are also facing the risks of extreme weather and continued violence.

“With the monsoon season fast approaching, there has been a race against time for Rohingya to escape Rakhine,” Fan explained. “There’s an entire population of displaced people in Rakhine state with no solution to their situation.”

Published @VICE

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Rohingya Refugees Face New Threat in Bangladesh camps

2018-03-29 12.34.23

Zahida Begum speaks to Rohingya women at a community meeting in Kutupalong camp

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – Inside the sprawling Kutupalong refugee settlement, dust swirls around the barren hills where over half a million Rohingya Muslims have taken shelter after fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

“Before this entire area was covered with trees,” said Zahida Begum as she swept her arm across the vista of Kutupalong’s newest camp extension. “But families have cut down the trees for firewood.”

Begum, 28, is a mother of four living in Kutupalong. Her family fled Buthidaung, Myanmar across the river to Teknaf, Bangladesh in 1992, when she was eighteen-months-old.

She has lived almost her entire life in Kutupalong and fondly remembers the forested landscape and wild elephant encounters of her youth.

The UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR – states nearly 700,000 Rohingyas have arrived in Bangladesh since Myanmar began its latest military crackdown last August in Rakhine state.

Several makeshift camps have sprung up around Begum’s home in Kutupalong to accommodate the rapid influx of refugees. She jumped at the chance to help them.

Most Rohingyas have shared stories of unimaginable violence labeled “ethnic cleansing” by the U.S. and UN. But international observers say these crimes perpetrated by Myanmar could amount to genocide.

With her fluency in both Bengali and Rohingya, Begum leads a group of 60 refugee volunteers in Kutupalong. She visits new arrivals to the camp and finds out what they need and how she can help.

According to the Bangladesh government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, or RRRC, Begum’s work is invaluable.

RRRC camp leader Shamimal Huq Pavel praises Begum’s ability to communicate Rohingya womens’ and families’ needs to aid organizations. He added that she has built trust with both women and men in the camp.

Pavel sends Begum out every day to meet with Rohingya women. She reports back to him about any issues they face in the camp. He takes Begum’s reports seriously because women are often left out of the decision-making process in the conservative Rohingya Muslim community.

“I work with majhis [community leaders] on resolving family disputes,” Begum said. “If a man beats his wife, we can take action.”

In 2017, Begum heard about the attacks on Rohingya villages in Myanmar. She raised thousands of dollars to coordinate an evacuation of women and children from Buthidaung to safety in Bangladesh.

“I met Zahida when I was doing a Human Rights Watch interview. We were interviewing her family members,” said Nafessa Shamsuddin, spokesperson at BRAC, Bangladesh’s largest aid agency.

“What impressed me the most was the fact that she rescued 400 people,” Shamsuddin added.

Zahida Begum.jpg

Begum speaks to volunteers after a coordination meeting with aid groups at Kutupalong

The newest threat facing Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong settlement is living in flood prone or unsuitable hillside areas.

In the coastal Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh, where both Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps are located, rains may cause a catastrophe, states the UN.

“They know the monsoon is coming but they don’t understand how serious it can be,” Begum said. “Those living at the top of the hill will have shelters destroyed by cyclones. Those living at the bottom will be flooded.”

The UN has identified more than 150,000 refugees living in Kutupalong at risk of flooding and landslides.

Begum has joined an initiative set up by the Bangladesh government and Red Crescent Society called Cyclone Preparedness Program, or CPP. She leads local volunteers, both from the host and refugee communities, to help relocate the most vulnerable.

“We’re working together to train the community [on] how to upgrade their homes and what to do in this situation,” Begum said.

UNHCR spokesperson Caroline Gluck said CPP and other volunteer programs are an effort to protect families most likely to be affected by floods and landslides during the coming monsoon season.

“We’re trying to make these volunteers help empower Rohinyga. It’s important for us to find women to take part in these roles as much as men,” Gluck added.

Ajam Khatum, 28, is a mother of three living in Kutupalong. She comes from Rathedaung, Myanmar and volunteers alongside Begum.

“I enjoy working with Zahida [Begum]. Whenever we have meetings together, she is very helpful,” Khatum said. “I follow her lead.”

Begum looks a bit embarrassed by all the praise heaped on her from Pavel, Shamsuddin and Khatum. She knows her education sets her apart from other Rohingya in the camp and wants to give back to her community.

“Now women have the opportunity to receive an education,” Begum said. “Very few people in the Rohingya community are educated. NGOs are paying women to work, giving us opportunities to provide for our families. This changes our lives.”

Published @Medium

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