After the Easter massacre, Sri Lanka nun heals religious tension

Sister Christine supports survivors in need and Muslims facing backlash following ISIL-claimed attack that killed 253.

Sister Christine supports survivors in need and Muslims facing backlash following ISIL-claimed attack that killed 253.

Sister Noel Christine stands in front of scaffolding set in effort to rebuild St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka – Katuwapitiya, a grief-stricken Sri Lankan village of 600 families, is in the coastal city of Negombo, about 30 kilometres north of Colombo.

On April 21, 149 Katuwapitiya residents died inside its St Sebastian’s Church, according to a recent count by community members, during the Easter Sunday massacre, claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group.

Almost four months have passed since the attack, which targeted three churches and three top-end hotels, killing at least 253 people and injured 500 – the bloodiest outbreak of violence to hit Sri Lanka since the end of the 26-year civil war in 2009.

Sister Noel Christine had rushed to the scene at St Sebastian’s Church that day to find chaos.

Now, she steps out of a white minivan in Katuwapitiya wearing immaculate blue habits to greet an armed Sri Lankan soldier on guard at the gate of the reopened church.

She is 69 years old and has arrived to gather for mass, hosted by Sri Lanka’s Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.

A large red cross hangs over the entrance to the church, one of the few items that remained unscathed after the bombing.

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People attend the funeral of a husband and wife who were killed in the Easter Sunday attack on St Sebastian’s Church, on April 25, 2019, in Negombo, Sri Lanka [File: Carl Court/Getty Images]

In the aftermath of the attacks, Sri Lankan authorities have used counterterror laws to arbitrarily arrest and detain Muslims. Threats of violence forced refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan to seek shelter at police stations and mosques in Negombo.

In the hours after the violence, Cardinal Ranjith advised Catholics to remain calm and warned them against seeking retribution.

But as they reflect on the period since the massacre, it appears to some Catholics that the Cardinal is not the reconciliatory figure he posed to be.

On June 3, he visited a Buddhist monk in the central city of Kandy who was on a hunger strike for the removal all Muslim ministers in the government. They all resigned promptly.

On July 21, at the commemoration of the bombing at St Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, the cardinal told congregants: “The current leaders have failed. They have no backbone. They must leave the government and go home.”

“It was a sad event. So many of our people have lost their loved ones. But the real tragedy is the way victims have been treated,” said Sister Christine, who provides psychosocial and financial support to Katuwapitiya families. “I’ve been seeing to their needs and many of them don’t want to hear the Cardinal talking politics.”

Sister Christine’s acquaintance in the diocese, Father Sarath Iddamalgoda, told Al Jazeera that some clergymen close to the Cardinal have ordered their congregants to distance themselves from the Muslim community. One allegedly went as far as telling Catholics to start rearing pigs.

“As clergymen or women we have one calling, and that’s to stand for justice. In the case of Sri Lanka we have to support minority rights,” Father Sarath Iddamalgoda said. “Unfortunately our church doesn’t do this nationally. But I’m happy we have sister Christine doing it for us.”

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was unavailable for comment.

As well as supporting attack survivors and victims’ families, Sister Christine now spends some of her time trying to heal divisions stoked by Sri Lanka’s religious and political leaders.

As well as talking to members of her own Catholic community in Katuwapitiya, she holds discussions with Buddhists, Muslims and other Christian groups.

“We are calling for justice for the victims of the bomb blasts, but the government isn’t doing anything to help them. These people need to be taken care of. The government still has no plan of action,” she said.

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A red cross still stands on St Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

The prime minister’s office has set up the Office of Reparation to compensate victims’ families. It has compensated them 283.3 million Sri Lankan Rupees ($106m) – one million ($5,650) to each of the 189 families who have made claims.

But Sister Christine said she is aware of cases where families feel forgotten.

“I visited one home where the lady died, and her husband and two children were now without a wife and mother. They had all lived in a small one-bedroom house,” Sister Christine said. “They told me that it was sad a bomb had to destroy the community for the world to know how poor their family is.”

Sister Christine relives the Easter Sunday carnage almost every morning. For two weeks after witnessing the bloodshed, she helped victims in hospital.

‘I wanted to work for justice’

Over the last 40 years, Sister Christine has built trust with every family in Katuwapitiya.

After the attacks, she heard that Muslim refugees from Pakistan, living in Negombo, faced the threat of “retaliatory” attacks and had to be relocated from their homes to local police stations for protection.

She mobilised her network to preach peace.

“We formed Negombo United People’s Alliance. We want Negombo to be safe,” she said. “We have to be good neighbours. If there is a problem arising in a shop or in the streets, we get a call and we go there to stop violence from spreading.”

But she said she now faces discrimination from local Muslims – who also faced threats of violence and arbitrary arrests.

Some Sri Lankan Muslims have refused to assist her, or even serve her in their shops or restaurants, because they disagree with her helping the Pakistani refugees – the majority of whom are Ahmadi Muslim, a persecuted religious minority.

“Some Muslims that we work with believe the Ahmadis are from a lower caste. But there are also certain Catholic nuns and priests who don’t agree with us giving support to any Muslims,” Sister Christine said. “The Pope says we have to be a contradiction to the world of injustice.”

Born into a poor family in the southern city of Galle, Sister Christine’s dream was to become a flight attendant until she met an Irish nun who changed her outlook on life.

She said her life’s work began when a young girl she loved and cared for died.

“I looked after homeless children. After this, I realised I wanted to work for justice,” she said, adding that she has faced a backlash for her activism.

In 2018, she joined protests during Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis – when President Maithripala Sirisena fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

A parliamentary select committee is investigating whether this instability in government contributed to a failure to take warnings of an attack seriously.

“A group of us came together to form an alternative women’s platform. We called it the Fifty Two Per Cent Force. Because we’re 52 percent of the voting population and we are only 4.5 percent in the parliament,” said Shreen Saroor, a Sri Lankan human rights activist.

“Sister Christine hasn’t only just been doing charity work, she’s also working on feminist issues and how to create an alternative way of questioning our political leaders.”

Back in Negombo, Father Sarath Iddamalgoda reflects on his 40 years of community outreach work alongside Sister Christine. The two have fought on behalf of the homeless and impoverished fishermen’s families in Negombo.

They have also been fighting for accountability – not just for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks but for all of those whose voices are being ignored by religious and political leaders.

“I don’t think she’s ever taken a holiday in her lifetime,” he said.

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Sister Noel Christine walks through St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, still being repaired, after the Easter Sunday bombings [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

“The kind of work she does can cause psychological harm. Every person has a limit to the suffering they can internalise. I always tell her she needs a holiday.”

Sister Christine climbs back into the passenger seat of her white minivan for the drive south from Negombo to Colombo. Her habits have a thin coat of dust from spending the day outdoors.

She credits the younger Catholic nuns and interfaith activists for giving her the energy to continue.

“The church has to tolerate me. I’m almost 70,” Sister Christine said. “In Negombo, we have come together as a united group. This will make it easier to reconcile while many are still dividing Sri Lanka.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Caught in Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim backlash, evicted refugees search for safe homes

NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka – Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers in Sri Lanka have spent the past three months searching for safety across the island nation after being swept up in an anti-Muslim backlash following the April terrorist attacks that killed more than 250 people.

More than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers were pushed from their rented homes after attackers struck six churches and hotels around the country.

In the aftermath of the suicide blasts, rights groups say mobs in the coastal city of Negombo – the site of one of April’s deadliest explosions – and elsewhere went door to door pressuring landlords to evict refugees, most of whom are religious minorities from Pakistan and Afghanistan, including members of persecuted sects.

Local rights advocates and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, describe a volatile situation where plans to temporarily resettle displaced refugees were met with protests. In some cases, refugee families have gone from safehouse to safehouse only to be pushed out by local authorities.

“Every effort that was made to relocate people was received with a lot of hostility,” said Menique Amarasinghe, the head of UNHCR’s Sri Lanka office.

Roughly 90 refugees and asylum seekers forced from their homes are now living at a government-run facility in Vavuniya, in northern Sri Lanka, where they are under armed military guard. More than 100 other refugees are still sheltering at crowded mosques in Negombo and in nearby Pasyala, afraid to return to the surrounding communities.

Ruki Fernando, a human rights advocate with the Colombo-based Inform Human Rights Documentation Centre, called the Vavuniya facility “a de facto prison”.

“We’ve never had this situation in our history that refugees have been so scared they’ve had to live in camps guarded by armed forces,” Fernando said.

Of the 1,000 people originally displaced, the UNHCR said 228 people are still looking for safe homes, including the 90 remaining in Vavuniya.

The threats facing refugees are part of a larger anti-Muslim backlash that has deepened ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka since the Easter Sunday attacks, which authorities blame on a small group of Islamist extremists claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State.

Sri Lanka’s bloody 26-year civil war ended a decade ago, but analysts say the failure to reconcile wartime abuses has produced a culture of impunity that allows ethnic tensions to easily simmer today. Sri Lanka’s multiethnic society includes the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority, mostly Hindu Tamils, as well as large Muslim and Christian communities.

Rights groups accuse Buddhist nationalists of stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment on social media, and Human Rights Watch says authorities have arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Sri Lankan Muslims using counterterrorism laws.

Mosques become shelters

In seaside Negombo, about 30 kilometres north of Colombo, a suicide bomber killed dozens of worshipers at the city’s St. Sebastian’s Church in April. The government declared days of curfews here in May after mobs attacked Muslim-owned businesses. Local landlords also evicted refugees and asylum seekers like Ahsan Mahmood, a 24-year-old Ahmadi Muslim from Pakistan.

Mahmood fled to Sri Lanka two years ago. Along with 100 others, he has spent the last three months living inside the city’s Ahmadiyya mosque, which sits a few kilometres from the damaged church. Ahmadis are part of a Muslim sect that faces persecution in majority-Muslim countries like Pakistan; about 1,350 of the nearly 1,700 refugees or asylum seekers in Sri Lanka are Pakistani Ahmadis or Christians.

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Ahsan Mahmood, a refugee from Pakistan, has been living at an Ahmadiyya mosque since being evicted from his rented home in Negombo. More than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers were displaced in an anti-Muslim backlash following April terrorist attacks.

Mahmood said he’s now too afraid to leave the mosque because his unkempt beard may raise suspicion. Like the others here, he relies on food donated by religious organisations and humanitarians.

“When I go outside of the mosque I fear what will happen to me,” he said. “If the police stop me I have only two things to show them: my passport and refugee identification. If they don’t accept it, what would I do?”

Refugees search for new homes

With refugees like Mahmood evicted from their homes, the UNHCR said it had no option but to help relocate about 200 of the 1,000 displaced people to Vavuniya in mid-May. More than half have since returned to their communities or gone elsewhere.

“We asked the government to provide a location with security to ensure they were kept safe during this time, with a clear understanding we weren’t looking for a place for them to be kept indefinitely,” Amarasinghe said.

But finding more suitable refuge has been difficult.

Amarasinghe said Vavuniya residents at first protested the decision to move refugees to the area until the UNHCR offered assurances it would be temporary. The government also guaranteed the facility would be under armed guard.

The UNHCR is providing food and healthcare through a local NGO. But the refugees can’t receive visitors or move freely.

Fernando said he tried to help evicted refugee families in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, move to safer areas in May, intending to place them with volunteer hosts in Jaffna in the north. But an attempt to move a single family was met with hostility there as well.

“The host family registered them at the police on the day of the arrival, but the next day senior government officials opposed this,” Fernando said. “The distraught and exhausted refugee family was compelled to travel back to Colombo.”

Rights activists and faith groups are still trying to protect refugees caught up in the backlash. Fernando said the Vavuniya facility is closed to visitors, but he’s trying to help a handful of residents there find better homes elsewhere in the country. In the last month, he said, a number of Sri Lankan families and a church have offered to host refugee families.

The UNHCR is also meeting with police and local government officials in communities that had previously refused to register refugee families. It’s also meeting with local landlords to help more refugees return home or find new housing. The New Humanitarian was unable to reach government officials to comment on the issue.

In Negombo, Sister Noel Christine, a Catholic nun, has become a defender of her hometown’s displaced asylum seekers and refugees.

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Sister Noel Christine walks through Negombo’s St. Sebastian’s Church in early July. An April bombing killed dozens of worshipers who had gathered for Easter Sunday mass.

“These refugees have faced violence in their home countries and have come to Sri Lanka to seek asylum. Now they’ve had to leave their homes again,” Christine said.

Each week, she brings food to dozens of men sheltering at the Ahmadiyya mosque, including Mahmood.

The nun is also trying to heal the divided communities in Negombo. St. Sebastian’s Church re-opened its doors in late July, but the damage lingers for the city’s residents.

“We’re all traumatised,” Christine said.

She’s part of a local group – the Negombo United Citizens Alliance – created to help quell the hostility that followed the attack. “We come to the streets and we tell everyone not to resort to violence,” she said.

But refugees like Mahmood describe a sharp contrast in their lives before and after the April attacks. He said local police and soldiers would occasionally harass him, but life was peaceful compared to the persecution he faced back home.

Mahmood used to worry about his family still in Pakistan; now they fear for his safety as a refugee.

“I pray for Sri Lanka,” he said. “I want it to be like it was before Easter Sunday.”

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Sri Lanka’s Tourism Bounces Back After April Attacks – CBC The World This Weekend

COLOMBO – Three months after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, the country’s tourist industry is struggling to rebuild. It has survived tsunamis, civil war and communal violence. 

Many Sri Lankans, whose livelihoods rely on tourism, are hoping they can come back from this too. This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Sunday, July 21, 2019.

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Is Sri Lanka using the Easter attacks to limit digital freedom?

Sri Lanka has drafted a new cybersecurity bill but experts warn country could be using political turmoil to pass laws.

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The coordinated Easter bombings that ripped through Sri Lankan churches and luxury hotels were carried out by suicide bombers which killed and injured hundreds of people [Chamila Karunarathne/AP]

COLOMBO — Hours after the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, rumours started to circulate online that Colombo’s water supply was poisoned and that there was a truck full of explosives driving down the capital’s traffic-lined Galle Road.

This caused panic. But Yudhanjana Wijeratne, a data scientist for public policy at Colombo-based think-tank LIRNEasia, got to work debunking.

Along with a few friends, Wijeratne began fact-checking rumours submitted to them by verifying the information with calls to police, journalists or people they knew living in the areas where the stories originated.

“We got drawn into what I would describe as low-level information warfare,” he said.

In the weeks after the attacks, carried out by a small group of fighters pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), there were Facebook posts calling on Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and restaurants, even going so far as threatening to kill them.

These social media posts in the online world led to violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community. Facebook’s response was that several of these posts didn’t violate its community standards.

Sri Lanka’s social media watchdog group Groundviews cited six million people using social media – out of a population of 21 million. The National Information and Cybersecurity Strategy stated there are 4.2 million Facebook accounts in Sri Lanka.

The social media giant has promised to hire more Sinhala and Tamil language content reviewers as most of the hate speech on the platform is posted in local languages.

Since April 21, the government has blocked social media applications three times. This has forced many Sri Lankans to download Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access their accounts.

“The ban prevented people from accessing information about what was happening. It may have simply exacerbated panic. The hateful actors continued to spread hate,” said Raisa Wickrematunge, a social media researcher at Groundviews.

The Sri Lankan government revived the idea for a new anti-hate speech bill late last year. It has now drafted a new cybersecurity bill to combat online threats to citizens and the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Technology experts believe the definition of what constitutes hate speech and critical infrastructure is too broad and that existing laws to deal with these issues are not being implemented properly by authorities.

According to the Center for Policy Alternatives, no Sri Lankan has been prosecuted for perpetrating hate speech or hate crimes under the country’s laws.

The ICCPR Act, adopted in 2007, states: “No person shall…advocate national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.”

Legal experts say this offence is not the only speech-related law in Sri Lanka’s penal code.

“The ICCPR is a mechanism to protect human rights, our civil and political rights. But in Sri Lanka it’s a different picture,” said Viranjana Herath, president of the Free Media Movement.

This law has been used to arrest 10 Sri Lankans for various offences – three of which were charged because of Facebook posts – with one Muslim woman arrested for wearing a shirt with a ship’s helm thought to resemble a Buddhist dharma wheel, stated Herath.

A Sri Lankan writer is now in jail for allegedly violating this same law. He published a short story to Facebook that dealt with themes of child abuse in the Buddhist clergy.

Herath believes that the law is being used to stifle fundamental freedoms in Sri Lanka.

Hate speech and misinformation

The phenomenon of hate speech and misinformation is not new to a country that ended its three-decade-long civil war in 2009. Both the government and the Tamil Tigers disseminated lies and propaganda to win the hearts and minds of Sri Lankans.

Political and religious leaders in Sri Lanka who have instigated communal violence using the mainstream media are increasingly turning to social media platforms like Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber – the three most popular messaging applications.

A Muslim doctor in Kurunegala – 90km northeast of Colombo – was arrested and accused of sterilising Buddhist women. The Criminal Investigation Department told the local court last week that it had no evidence to submit, nor did it believe this doctor was linked to any terrorist groups.

Wijeratne said these allegations were made on social media and have popped up several times in the last five years. This is an example of how hate speech and misinformation spread online can lead to actual harm.

Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency for two months. The threat of violence against the Muslim community continues but no charges have been laid.

“This particular government has spread misinformation, fake news and hate speech to the fullest. They’ve had almost four years to bring in these laws, why now?” asked Eranda Ginige, founder of Social Enterprise Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s government appears to be using the political turmoil to pass laws that they have been unable to since beginning its reform agenda in 2015.

President Maithripala Sirisena is not only refusing to participate in a parliamentary committee investigating security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday bombings, but he also wants to reverse the 2015 amendments to the constitution that curbed the powers of the executive.

This move has led to calls for him not to run in the 2019 presidential election scheduled for December.

“They don’t have a legitimate right to bring any laws at this stage,” Ginige added. “The right thing for the government to do is resign.”

Governmental watchdog groups such as Groundviews and the Centre for Policy Alternatives decry the fact that there has been limited engagement and public consultation on either the anti-hate speech or cybersecurity draft bills.

Wijeratne has developed a smartphone application, Watchdog, in the wake of the attacks to help his team track all the rumours and misinformation being spread online.

“Right now I’m sitting on three million words of hate speech created on Facebook,” Wijeratne said. “We can study or analyse it. We can use it to teach Facebook content moderators. They can use it for their machine learning tools to actually make a difference.”

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A Muslim woman reacts next to a burnt motorbike and her house after a mob attack in Kottampitiya, Sri Lanka May 14, 2019. [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Wijeratne is no longer alone. There is also Hate Speech Monitor, Sri Lanka Unites and the AFP Sri Lanka Fact Checking service. Hundreds of volunteers are working day and night to identify hate speech and verify rumours originating online.

If the draft cybersecurity bill becomes law, it will give sweeping powers to two new monitoring bodies, the Cyber Security Agency of Sri Lanka and the National Cyber Security Operations Centre.

But an existing body, the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team, has been providing protection to critical infrastructure against hackers and malware.

It has requested more powers to deal with cyber threats in advance.

“The Cybersecurity bill was published online in English because some of these words don’t exist in our language. Lots of laws go through in this country without consultation,” said Rohan Samarajiva, a consultant to the Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology.

Groundviews’ Wickrematunge has documented a shift in tactics by groups spreading hate online in Sri Lanka. She said they are growing in sophistication since the bans and Facebook’s new local language moderators.

“They know how to get around community guidelines to make sure their content won’t get taken down,” she added.

Sri Lanka’s cybersecurity has been put at risk every time the government blocks social media, stated Wijeratne. It justifies the temporary bans as a measure to stop hate from spreading from online into the community. But this action may do more to hurt the economy than get Sri Lankans to put down their smartphones.

“The data basically says the block was ineffective. In fact, it was counterproductive at every front,” said Wijeratne.

“All of this thinking is predicated on the idea that the government holds the legal monopoly on wireless. They can inflict this on a geographical area. But computer networks don’t function like that.”

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Rohingya Refugee Voices Amplify Across Southeast Asia

BANGKOK — The 2017 Rohingya humanitarian crisis caused by Myanmar is not only affecting Bangladesh, which has taken in 740,000 refugees, but it’s also causing strife in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Despite Myanmar’s alleged attempts at repatriation, Rohingya have stayed put in camps and cities fearing the security situation in their villages and towns of Rakhine state.

More Rohingya are returning to the seas, retracing the migration route of the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis from ports in Myanmar and Bangladesh across the Andaman Sea to the Strait of Malacca.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo mentioned the need to end the Rohingya refugee crisis and begin voluntary repatriation to Myanmar, at the recent 2019 ASEAN Summit in Bangkok.

Survivor: A Rohingya’s Journey is the title of Ziaur Rahman’s autobiography, to be published later this year.

Rahman – a married father of two – has lived in his adopted city of Kuala Lumpur for the last six years. But his story of displacement and asylum reflects the reality facing many Rohingya.

The United Nations Global Trends released in June states 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced globally, exceeding the entire population of Thailand.

“I was born in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. My father was tortured by soldiers and my family was targeted so we [fled] to the refugee camps in Bangladesh,” said Rahman. “I was living [in a refugee camp] for 20 years before I was kidnapped by human traffickers in Bangladesh.”

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The United Nations Global Trends released in June states 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced globally, exceeding the entire population of Thailand. (Courtesy of Ziaur Rahman/File)

Thailand and Indonesia have become wayward stations for Rohingyas seeking refuge in Malaysia. The Rohingya community in Thailand states 5,000 Rohingya are living in the country, fearful of arrest and deportation by Thai authorities.

Thailand views all refugees as a security threat. There are 95,644 registered refugees living in nine camps along Thailand’s border with Myanmar, according to the UN Refugee Agency. The UNHCR in Bangkok estimates there are 4,779 urban refugees living in and around Bangkok.

Many countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have never ratified the UN Refugee Convention so they’re not obliged to provide protection to asylum seekers and refugees. But all three have signed regional frameworks to halt the flow of migrants fleeing war and persecution in Myanmar.

Thailand and Indonesia’s governments allow the International Organization of Migration to provide support to Rohingyas detained in immigration detention centers. In 2017, a 16-year-old Rohingya girl died in a Thai detention center in Songkhla. She had been held there for three years.

Regional human rights group Fortify Rights documents human rights violations faced by Rohingya refugees. It has called on the Thai authorities to investigate deaths inside immigration detention centers.

In Malaysia, there are 170,460 registered refugees; yet human rights groups believe many are left unregistered. Most Malaysia’s refugees are Rohingya – many trafficked by sea or land to the country from Myanmar or Bangladesh, via Thailand.

A childhood friend of Rahman’s from the same refugee camp in Bangladesh ended up abandoned at sea, in a boat, until he was rescued by Acehnese fishermen.

Indonesia houses 800 Rohingya refugees living in government shelters in the cities of Medan, North Sumatra and Makassar in South Sulawesi according to The International Concern Group for Rohingya. Indonesia’s president signed a decree allowing for more community shelters to be built to house refugees. But no country in the region has a plan to assimilate their refugees.

In 2017, ASEAN adopted the Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children, responding to the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis where 25,000 fled on boats to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Hundreds died at sea.

“I was forced to stay in a [human] trafficking camp in Thailand. There was no food or water. Life became unbearable,” said Rahman, referring to the time his boat came ashore in Thailand’s south.

“When I was transferred from one camp to another I was rescued by Thai police. They brought me to the police station. I spent one day there before I was transferred to a Ranong court. After a few days I was declared a victim of human trafficking,” he added.

Rahman still carries the paperwork stating this, given to him by Thai authorities upon his release. A human smuggling syndicate active in the south was monitoring the shelter he was being housed in. He and another boy were sold, again, to smugglers.

“I was trafficked four times,” Rahman said. “They forced me to call my mother and demand 7,000 [Malaysia] ringgit [US$1,684]. I told them we didn’t have any money, so they handed us over to uniformed border guards.”

Rahman landed in Malaysia. From a safe house in Penang for human trafficking victims, he was able to make his way – with a friend’s help– to Kuala Lumpur. Here, there is a large Rohingya community living in Ampang, a suburb of the city.

Rahman was able to bring his wife and child from Bangladesh to Malaysia. Human rights groups have accused refugee men of risking women’s lives, attempting to bring brides purchased from desperate families living in Myanmar or in the camps of Bangladesh to cities in Malaysia.

Rahman was forced to make the decision no son ever wants to make – opting to give a better life to his family in Malaysia, but leaving his mother in Bangladesh.

Yet refugees in Malaysia have no legal right to work or study. The costs needed to visit a doctor or a hospital is too high for families with no income, reliant on assistance from local faith-based groups.

“I’ve been a refugee for 25 years and I haven’t received any support. I lobby the [Malaysian] government to tell them that we’re all human beings and our voices need to be heard,” Rahman said. “The UN doesn’t provide us with anything.”

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Many countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have never ratified the UN Refugee Convention so they’re not obliged to provide protection to asylum seekers and refugees. But all three have signed regional frameworks to halt the flow of migrants fleeing war and persecution in Myanmar. (Courtesy of Ziaur Rahman/File)

Rahman’s advocacy on behalf of the Rohingya worldwide led him to meet Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak, as documented in the 2017 film Selfie With The Prime Minister.

Now Rahman and other refugees are asking the new Pakatan Harapan government to stick to its election pledge to sign the UN Refugee Convention. This would give all refugees the right to work and earn much needed income to support their families in Malaysia, and as far as Myanmar and Bangladesh.

“When the new government came to power I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad,” Rahman said. “I’m requesting a change of policy towards refugees in Malaysia. We’re lucky to be here, but […] I hope we can do something, otherwise our lives will remain hopeless.”

Just like President Jokowi, Mahathir pledged commitment to help Rohingya refugees find safe haven in Southeast Asia.

Leaders from Thailand’s Rohingya community attempted to submit a statement listing their demands to the leaders at the ASEAN Summit. But Thai police denied them entry.

The UN Refugee Agency states 92,400 refugees were resettled to a third country in 2018. That’s less than seven per cent of those awaiting resettlement globally. Nearly 593,800 refugees could return home, while 62,600 became naturalized citizens in the country they sought asylum.

But Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia or Thailand will unlikely allow refugees to become citizens. Official policy is to deny asylum seekers and refugees the basic protections they deserve under international law.

The Philippines is the only ASEAN country to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and provides a path to integrate them into society. President Rodrigo Duterte has even offered to resettle Rohingya refugees to the Philippines.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, wrote in the “Global Trends” report: “There has to be an enduring emphasis on solutions and removing obstacles to people being able to return home …It is one of the great challenges of our times.”

This article is part of the “Displaced and Uprooted in Southeast Asia” initiative by SEA Junction, Bangkok and the TIFA Foundation, Jakarta. The first two stories in this series were published in the Bangkok Post. Adam Bemma is a Canadian journalist and media development advisor, trainer and mentor based in Thailand.

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The Conscientious Objectors of Thailand

BANGKOK — Every April, Thailand begins its annual draft lottery to conscript Thai males, aged 21 and above, into military service. The young men line up to draw slips of paper; a red slip means one has to serve for two years, while a black indicates an exemption. Those who proactively volunteer will be spared this ritual, and will only be required to complete a six-month service.

Although Thailand’s 1954 Military Service Act states that all Thai males are required to serve in the military at the age of 21, there are exceptions to this rule. Methods of draft-dodging have triggered accusations of privilege and unfairness, and some have begun to argue that conscription should either be drastically cut down, or maybe even abolished completely.

A duty to nation, religion, and King

According to a recent survey, it’s believed that many Thais still feel obliged to serve in the military as their duty to nation, religion, and King. Military slogans are displayed in school textbooks. Soldiers are often portrayed positively in television and cinema.

But this deeply conservative institution is seeing challenges as the political scene shifts and evolves. For the first time, several political parties that contested the election in March campaigned to end military conscription.

“Our main purpose is to make the army as small as possible while still keeping them running effectively and efficiently. We compared with the neighbouring armies and we find that the Thai army is the largest compared to others,” says Sunisa Diwakorndamrong, a former officer in the Royal Thai Armed forces and secretary of Pheu Thai Party’s military reform committee.

In a context where the Thai military has seized power in 12 coup d’états since the beginning of constitutional monarchy in 1932, opposing conscription is far from an apolitical move. Ahead of the election, General Prayuth Chan-ocha—who’d served as prime minister in the military junta’s government—shed his stripes to stand for election under the banner of the Phalang Pracharath Party. The party went on to win the popular vote, and Prayuth now remains prime minister. It’s thus in the interest of other parties to call for reforms that might check the military’s might.

One example is the Pheu Thai Party—backed by the exiled-yet-influential former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra—which had won the most constituency seats in the 2019 election.

“The underpinning concept of Pheu Thai Party’s military reform policy is that the Thai armed forces should be resized,” says Sunisa.

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon; the new Thai government is still led by military junta members elected to the lower house, while 250 senators in the upper house were handpicked by the junta under their 2017 Constitution. But proposals such as those raised by the Pheu Thai Party mean that the issue of conscription is now up for debate in the public sphere.

Thailand’s military might… and how to avoid it

Thailand has roughly 440,000 military personnel. Compared to European countries of similar population size, such as the UK and France, Thailand’s military seems disproportionately large, especially since its only threat is an insurgency in the “deep south” states of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. According to Global Firepower’s 2019 Military Strength Ranking, Thailand ranked 26th in the world.

Sunisa wants conscripts to be replaced by volunteers. As Thai women aren’t conscripted, she herself volunteered to join the military and spent 10 years in service, reaching the rank of lieutenant before retiring and joining the Pheu Thai Party.

“At present, the Thai armed forces recruit around 104,000 conscripts each year. If the size declines by 50%, the desired number of conscripts will match the number of those voluntarily applying to serve the army annually,” Sunisa says.

Young men at a recruitment exercise in Serm Thai Complex, Muang, Mahasarakham, Thailand. netsuthep / Shutterstock.com

As it is, there are already different ways to dodge the draft. There’s drawing a black slip in the lottery, of course, but there are other possibilities.

If you’re still in school you can delay conscription until you’ve completed your studies, up until the age of 26. Then you must serve or face possible jail time.

A deferment is possible if you join the monkhood as a novice but an exemption will only be granted if you actually become a member of the Buddhist clergy. It’s believed, according to the paper The military draft in Thailand: a critique from a nonkilling global political science perspective, that many Thai males have sought refuge in the monkhood to escape the military.

Being rich helps, too. According to the researchers of The military draft in Thailand, estimates suggest that there have been 30,000 Thai draft avoiders, mostly the sons of wealthy families.

According to CJ Hinke, one of the paper’s authors, Thailand’s elite have been exploiting loopholes to evade conscription since it first began in the 1700s. A common practice is to bribe an officer to take a young man’s name off the conscription list and replace it with another’s name. This is illegal—but it happens.

This practice has drawn flak. “It’s corrupt, so I have to protest it,” says student leader Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal. “If I can pay under the table—my father and many people also did this in the past—it’s corruption.”

De-militarising Thai society

For the last three years, the 23-year-old Netiwit has delayed his conscription. He’s the author of I Can Love My Country Without Having to be Drafted, an 88-page manifesto published by the same publisher who has printed works by Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo and Timothy Snyder’s tract against authoritarianism, On Tyranny, in Thai.

“It’s an overview of [Thailand’s] history of conscription,” Netiwit says of his book. “It comes from a critical feminist and non-violent perspective.”

Netiwit documents the history of compulsory military service in Thailand beginning with the 1905 Military Conscription Act. This edict was meant to match Thailand’s military might with those of western nations. The compulsory system only ended in 1954 with the introduction of the draft lottery.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal Adam Bemma

Over the last two years, Netiwit has challenged more than Thailand’s military tradition. As Chulalongkorn student council president, he refused to kowtow in front of the King Rama V statue. This led to his removal from council and a public spat with Prime Minister Prayuth.

Following the election results—unfavourable to Thailand’s pro-democracy camp—Netiwit is now focusing his attention on overturning military conscription. He hopes this will help “de-militarise” Thai society.

“I will go to jail when I turn 26 because I refuse to be conscripted. I realise this country has become like a jail, especially for poor people who don’t have an opportunity to run away [from military service],” Netiwit tells New Naratif.

“Many in this government are former military officers and favour conscription. I must do something [about this].”

Objecting to conscription

Netiwit is one of only two declared Thai conscientious objectors—individuals refusing to perform military service due to freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. Inside Thailand, he’s the only voice publicly objecting to military conscription.

Puey Ungphakorn, a Thai economist and former Governor of the Bank of Thailand, first tabled the option of conscientious objection in Thailand’s parliament in 1974. He also proposed a non-military service to replace conscription. Both were rejected.

“As a legislator [Puey] put up the idea of conscientious objection. He wasn’t necessarily opposed to conscription but he put up conscientious objection as a fundamental human right,” says CJ Hinke, who also wrote the book Free Radicals: War Resisters in Prison.

Thailand is a signatory to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is outlined in it. But it does not refer to conscientious objection as a right.

In 2002, Thailand abstained from a vote in the UN Security Council on the issue and signed a joint letter stating it was “rejecting the universal applicability of conscientious objection to military service.” According to Amnesty International, Thailand is one of 30 UN member states that has mandatory military conscription but does not recognise conscientious objection.

Netiwit’s newest recruit to his anti-conscription movement is 16-year-old Rew Worachit. Rew is currently enrolled in the territorial defence curriculum. It’s a programme that offers an alternative to conscription, since those who complete it are exempt from the draft at 21. But it involves field and weapons training and takes five years to complete—three of which are spent in the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

“I’m studying the military programme in school. I don’t have to be conscripted. This is an alternative for students who can’t reach a [post-secondary] level education,” Rew says.

Netiwit doesn’t support this programme and views it as an attempt at providing a career path in the military to Thai teenagers without the fear of conscription.

Contemplating change

Since Puey Ungphakorn’s failed attempts in parliament, no concrete steps have been taken by legislators to reform the conscription system, either to reduce the number drafted or to introduce other forms of national service beyond military duty. But Thai academics have been discussing alternatives.

Conscript deaths have also prompted further reflection. After Private Noppadol Worakitpan’s collapse from cardiovascular failure prompted a police investigation in 2017, Siwach Sripokangkul and John Draper, researchers on Thailand’s military at Khon Kaen University, co-wrote an op-ed in the Bangkok Post calling for conscription to be changed to explore non-military avenues of serving one’s country. They argued that a “universal national service would revolutionise the economy. It also promotes a civilian government which stands above the military, a fundamental principle for eventually demilitarising Thailand and consolidating Thai democracy.”

The May 2019 death of a 22-year-old volunteer serving in the Royal Thai Armed Forces headquarters in Bangkok has also made Sunisa more vocal about ending conscription. According to reports, a military panel has been set up to investigate the death. But Sunisa believes that, as in the past, the military will not provide answers to the family of the deceased conscript, as they cite deaths as internal matters.

“It’s hard to say whether the problem is common or not, but it’s happened several times and we have demanded investigations,” Sunisa says.

Netiwit has studied Puey Ungphakorn’s attempt 45 years ago to seek recognition of conscientious objectors and present an alternative to military conscription. “I think Thai people should serve their country. But you should have a choice how best to serve it,” Netiwit says, suggesting how a national service would be a better option.

But CJ Hinke disagrees with a Thai national service.

“I think that substituting alternative service for military makes it stronger. Just because you don’t have to serve in the military, in a historical context it doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t serve in your place.”

Hinke argues that it’ll only work if there’s recognition of conscientious objectors joined by an alternative service, followed by the abolition of conscription.

“The whole point to conscientious objection is conscience. Everyone draws a line in the sand at some point,” Hinke says.

“You’ve got to pick your fights and you’ve got to know which fights you can win,” Hinke adds, referring to Netiwit’s movement. “We can win this. We can end the draft in Thailand.”

FURTHER READING

Research on Thai military conscription by iLaw (link in Thai)

Published @NewNaratif

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Southeast Asia’s pledge to end statelessness gathers steam

A firm promise to grant citizenship to all born in a country is crucial to halt the cycle of displacement, writes Adam Bemma
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Namphueng Panya, centre, a former stateless student in Chiang Rai, poses for a picture with her team, which won an award at a science and engineering fair in the US last month.

BANGKOK — The Moo Paa or Wild Boars football team captured the world’s attention this time last year after they became trapped inside Tham Luang cave for 18 days. In addition to the dramatic rescue that followed, the media soon also discovered that three of the 12 boys on the team, along with the coach, were stateless people — living in Thailand without any form of citizenship.

In neighbouring Myanmar, the persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine state has led to the rise of people who are deprived of their citizenship by the government. At least 723,000 Rohingyas have been chased out of their homes and into refugee camps in Bangladesh and Thailand. They have relatively little hope of ever returning to their homes and regaining citizenship.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants every person the right to nationality. The UN Study on Statelessness cites that “every child must receive nationality at birth … No person throughout his life should lose nationality until acquiring a new one”.

Moreover, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are 2.8 million stateless people worldwide — 40% of them in the Asia-Pacific region alone. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam is home to hundreds of thousands of stateless people, making it one of the most afflicted regions.

So, what’s being done?

Last month, 16 countries across the Asia Pacific region reaffirmed their commitments to end statelessness by 2024 at the UNHCR “I Belong” event in Bangkok — marking the half-way point of a 10-year pledge. However, not one country used this opportunity to make any specific commitments.

“There has been progress. The Thai government has done a lot in this regard. I think almost 100,000 people have been given Thai citizenship in recent years,” said Caroline Gluck, the UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok.

A number of countries in the region have committed to taking specific steps to achieve universal birth registration and target hard-to-reach populations. Some of the representatives also highlighted the need to tackle legal reforms, most importantly on how to end childhood statelessness.

The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines statelessness as “a person who is not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law”. The Philippines is the only country in the region to ratify and adopt this framework domestically.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) codifies the right to nationality but several countries in Southeast Asia, including Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore are not signatories.

Is Thailand leading the way?

Thailand has ratified the ICCPR and has two domestic laws which give undocumented migrants and stateless children the right to attend Thai public schools.

In Chiang Mai, Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project has been working with indigenous, ethnic minorities, and stateless communities for the last 12 years.

Sangsan’s founder Matcha Phorn-in said her organisation provides human rights education and supports young people to go to school since the costs associated with Thai public schools may make them unaffordable for kids from many stateless families. Moreover, many of the schools are located far from their rural communities.

“The issue of stateless people hasn’t really been a concern in Thai society. There are 400,000 reported stateless people by the UNHCR in Thailand. These people need Thai citizenship,” she said.

Over the last six years of working in northern Thailand, Ms Matcha said the human rights situation has worsened despite claims by the UN and government agencies that there’s been an overall improvement on cross border coordination with Myanmar.

“We focus on one village. So far, 60 children have received our support and are studying. All their family members are stateless,” said Ms Matcha. “We’re working with 3,000 to 4,000 stateless people. We have given scholarships to 70 young people who are stateless.”

Ms Gluck cites the case of an 18-yearold from Chiang Rai — where the Wild Boars are from — who received her Thai citizenship last month. This allowed her to travel to the US to compete at a school science and engineering fair.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” the teenager told the UNHCR in Bangkok. She is now able to attend university and seek future employment.

The UNHCR believes this teen’s success story reflects the hope for children born as stateless in Thailand today.

“I was inspired by states that say they will not allow children to become stateless,” Ms Gluck said. “We owe it to every person to fulfil their basic human rights by providing them with a nationality.”

The UNHCR and Thai community groups like Sangsan hope all children born in Thailand will receive citizenship rather than being bestowed it retroactively. Without it, families are unable to earn income or health care to help lift them out of poverty.

A firm commitment to grant citizenship to all born within the country’s borders is necessary to end the continuous cycle of statelessness, Ms Matcha added.

“People agreed in today’s world we shouldn’t have to have stateless people. They lose out on so much, like birth registration, accessing health care facilities. They also can’t receive marriage or death certificates,” Ms Gluck said.

“It affects them from birth until death.”

The UNHCR regional Asia-Pacific “I Belong” event in Bangkok last month was billed as an introductory meeting. In October, countries from around the world will meet in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss further action on how to end statelessness by 2024.

This article is part of the Displaced and Uprooted in Southeast Asia initiative by SEA Junction and the TIFA Foundation.

Published @BangkokPost

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