“We felt so sorry whenever we saw the people dead and thrown to the sea. The people are dying on the ground […] and they are dying in the sea too.”
This is a quote taken from a 15-year old girl by Amnesty International in August of this year. Along with thousands of other refugees she braved the seas in ill-equipped boats to escape horrific conditions in her homeland; suffering abuse from vicious people traffickers and rejection from the nations she hoped would help. She is not Syrian, but a Rohingya, a victim of South East Asia’s refugee crisis.
The majority of the 1.33 million Rohingya in Myanmar (formerly Burma) live in Rakhine state on the west coast, see map. They are a Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and have a complex and varied history.
There is evidence that Muslim communities have been present in Myanmar for over 200 years, but many Muslims are thought to have emigrated from Bangladesh following the British conquest of Burma in the 1820s and in more recent times. Indeed, it has been argued that the blanket term “Rohingya” is unhelpful due to the diverse background among the Muslim population of Myanmar (this is a debate for another time so for now we will stick with name Rohingya).
Since Myanmar declared independence in 1947, and especially since the military coup in 1962, nationalists have sought to assert their authority over the nation’s minorities, leading to several long-term insurgencies. In 1982 a citizenship law recognised eight national groups and 135 minorities, but the conditions were set such that the Rohingya were effectively denied any form of citizenship. The Rohingya must now register as “Bengalis”, a term consistently used by government officials to emphasise the otherness of the Rohingya and further deny their claim to citizenship.
The citizenship law was bookended by the terrifyingly named and even more terrifying in practice, Operation Dragon King (1978) and the much-better branded, but no less terrifying Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation (1991). Billed by the government as attempts to remove illegal immigrants, these were in effect exercises in ethnic cleansing and served to set the tone for future ethnic violence.
The most recent outbreak of violence began in 2012, allegedly sparked by the rape of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men. Local Buddhists initiated a series of revenge attacks, burning villages and beating people to death while the state looked on (and occasionally joined in).
During this period many Rohingya lucky enough to be left with their lives were displaced and now hundreds of thousands live in camps in Rakhine state and across the border in Bangladesh. While it is important to keep in mind that many Buddhists were also internally displaced, but they can leave the camps when they want, while the camps and ghettos that the Rohingya endure in Myanmar are nothing more than open air prisons. There is also a disparity in the availability of medical care, fresh water and safe shelter. When Saudi Arabia bother donate aid and Iran has to lobby the UN on your behalf you know you’re in trouble.
Since 2012, the popular hatred of the Rohingya has been maintained by a concerted effort on the part of the government, led by President Thein Sein, and nationalist members of the Buddhist monkhood. The power of the monkhood in Myanmar should not be underestimated, nationalist monk movements such as 969 and Ma Ba Tha are consistently (and successfully) pushing for a tougher stance on the Rohingya. Think less slap on the wrist and more Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws.
The persecution has been deemed so widespread and extreme that Human Rights Watch elected to label them as crimes against humanity and others (here and here) have called it genocide.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar summed up the situation in March:
“I witnessed how dire the situation has remained in Rakhine state. The conditions in Muslim IDP [internally displaced persons] camps are abysmal and I received heart-breaking testimonies from Rohingya people telling me they had only two options: stay and die or leave by boat”.
There is a kind of terrible irony in the fact that those that are falsely accused of being illegal migrants must emigrate illegally to escape their tormentors, but that’s exactly what 63,000 Rohingya did last year and another 31,000 followed them in the first half of this year.
The Rohingya head for South East Asia in hope of greater freedom and job prospects. The most common route is via Bangladesh, where they can connect with people traffickers who ferry them to larger boats in the Bay of Bengal which then ship them to their destination, usually Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia.
When interviewed by Amnesty International the statements of the Rohingya suggested that there were far more people attempting the journey than previously thought and that during the voyage the people traffickers abused, extorted and even killed passengers.
Previously, ships full of starving migrants have been prevented from reaching the shore in a morbid game of “human ping pong” and even when the boats did eventually reach the shore, the abuse continued unabated. In May dozens of mass graves were uncovered in southern Thailand, Rohingya have reported similar abuse in Malaysia and even hinted that the authorities were culpable.
Since these revelations, South East Asian authorities (with the notable exception of Myanmar) have cracked down on the people smugglers.
In a horrific parallel with the crisis in the Mediterranean, traffickers began abandoning ships full of migrants to save their own skins. The Arakan Project has warned that 8,000 migrants were stranded at sea and the International Organisation of Migration supports this number as credible.
Credit should be given though to the governments of SE Asia who have now agreed to take in the Rohingya, but what of the Rohingya’s own government?
Following Sunday’s not-so-free (the Rohingya could not vote) and not-so-fair (25% of seats in parliament and major government positions go to the military uncontested) elections in Myanmar, the suspicion is that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will form a majority government.
A human rights heavyweight with very few equals in the modern era, Mandela being one, the belief in Aung as a semi-messianic solution to all of Myanmar’s problems is perhaps misplaced. Her supporters pin the blame for the vast majority of the nation’s problems entirely on the lack of democracy, but it is short-sighted to expect democracy to make longstanding racial and cultural tensions to evaporate overnight.
Further to this, any Rohingya hoping that the NLD would show them any sympathy got a heavy dose of reality last Thursday. Aung warned western media not to “exaggerate” the plight of the Rohingya and that the whole country was suffering in a “dramatic situation”. This comment jars with the western perception of her as entirely virtuous, but Aung has claimed that being “[an] icon was a depiction that was imposed on me by other people.”
Hope that this was an effort to avoid antagonising the government was blown away when Aung, who cannot become president because she has British children, declared with authority:
Pretty bold, given that the current government is basically a retirement home for the former military junta, who annulled the NLD’s victory in the 1990 election.
At best, Aung is taking a painfully pragmatic approach to a difficult problem, trading the moral high ground as a defender of universal human rights for the votes of xenophobes that will catapult her party to power. Alternatively, perhaps she is not talking about helping the Rohingya because she doesn’t believe in the rights of minorities in Myanmar, after all her father was a leading Buddhist nationalist and perhaps she is very much her father’s daughter.
Here at Current Offence we like to think we know a thing or two about controversial Nobel Prize winners and having fought for change for so long, we’re inclined to give Aung the benefit of the doubt. The real test lies ahead and should the NLD gain power as expected without any unwanted intervention, we hope she finds enough support from her people to begin to resolve the issue.
For now though there is unlikely to be a quick fix to the Rohingya’s suffering. The monsoon has ended in the Bay of Bengal, the boats will sail again and the Rohingya will continue to vote with their feet and pay with their lives.