VOLUME 28 NO. 9 | FEBRUARY 21 - 27, 2009

Jolie’s refugee comment stirs debate

Last updated 2-19-09 at 12:42 p.m.

By Ambika Ahuja
The Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s government may still be miffed at Angelina Jolie for speaking out on behalf of impoverished boat people, but the actress has prompted soul-searching among some in the Southeast Asian country.

For the second time, Thai officials rebuked the globetrotting actress for calling on the country to respect the rights of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are fleeing nearby Myanmar’s military dictatorship.

“It was not her role to comment on the matter,” Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat said. Jolie was in Thailand the week of Feb. 8 as a United Nations goodwill ambassador, touring a northern camp for other refugees from Myanmar.

Thai authorities have been accused of routinely abusing Rohingya refugees, including towing more than 1,000 out to open sea late last year and leaving them to die in boats with no engines. Some drifted to the shores of India and Indonesia weeks later, but survivors said hundreds of others died. Thailand has denied any abuse, but the goverment says the boat people are economic migrants, not refugees.

Local newspapers seized on the controversy — but not all took the side of the government.

“Instead of blaming Jolie … why don’t we start talking about the root cause of the problem?” an editorial in English-language The Nation asked, calling on the government to re-examine its policies based on “humanitarian principles.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who is a Thai research fellow, wrote in the Bangkok Post that a “particular brand of Thai-ness has successfully impeded society’s responsibility to nurture human rights.”

Jolie — who has visited refugees in many hotspots including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan — did not directly criticize Thailand’s actions. Her comment merely expressed hope through a U.N. statement that authorities would respect the rights of Rohingya and all refugees.

Still, her star power has helped highlight the long-overlooked plight of the Rohingya, a stateless minority who live mostly in Myanmar but are not recognized as citizens by its military rulers.

Myanmar’s consul-general to Hong Kong defended the junta’s policy this week by telling the South China Morning Post that the Royingya are “ugly as ogres” whose “dark brown” skin is in contrast with the “fair and soft” ethnic Burmese majority. (end)


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