The Victims of Ethnic Cleansing
From the slums of Kenya and refugee camps of Lebanon to the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic and the far reaches of Myanmar, men, women and children across the world have found themselves living without citizenship rights. Rejected by their countries of birth and unwelcome everywhere else, they are called by international rights organizations as “stateless.” Thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims, in order to escape the state-sponsored persecution in Myanmar, are stranded at sea, caught between a home country that denies them citizenship rights and a regional neighbourhood seemingly indifferent to their suffering.
Over the past three years, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled the country by sea — a direct result of the systematic state-sponsored persecution in Myanmar, and many of them have fallen into the hands of human traffickers. In early May this year, mass graves of trafficked Rohingya and other victims were discovered in southern Thailand. This shined a spotlight on the failure of successive Thai governments as well as the ASEAN member states to seriously combat a full-blown human trafficking epidemic.
At present, the Rohingya Muslims, ironically called the boat people, are drifting at sea in their quest for peace and security, and it seems their efforts are likely to go in vain. Having endured years of ethnic cleansing in their homeland, they now face death at sea as neighbouring governments have opted to bury their heads in the sand and to avoid taking the initiative in tackling this dire crisis. The United Nations recently described the Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan state of Myanmar as the “the world’s most persecuted minority.”
The plight of the Rohingya Muslims continues to be an issue of insignificance amongst the international community. The starting point of their injustice has been the brutal persecution that they have suffered at the hands of local Buddhists. The two faith-driven groups have been in an uneasy coexistence for a while now as the Buddhist majority continues to enslave the weak Rohingya. Their suffering has been continually ignored by the Burmese government which denies them their basic rights, including freedom of movement. Meanwhile, religious extremists have fanned the flames of hatred in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, inciting deadly inter-communal violence that has left over 140,000 displaced. Even the so-called human rights campaigners such as Aung San Suu Kyi do not seem particularly interested in standing up for their human rights, an issue which was highlighted infamously in her interview with BBC’s Mishal Husain.
The persistent oppression they have endured has resulted in the situation we have today; as they attempt to escape the brutality they face in their homeland, the governments of Bangladesh and important ASEAN states like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia refused to allow boats dangerously laden with thousands of people to land on their shores. Risking death in the quest for some basic human rights, they find themselves faced with a terrible situation of being trapped between different lands unwilling to take them in. This further adds to their plight of being the stateless.
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia insist this burden must be shared fairly, and whilst this is understandable, there seems to be lack of impetus from all parties to address the issue.
The difficult question that arises from the situation is where do the stateless Rohingya go from here? Being sent back to Myanmar would only result in further torture and state neglect. Furthermore, there is an added complication that the Rohingya Muslims are not officially recognised as citizens of Myanmar, and instead they are identified as illegal immigrants of Bangladeshi origin. The Myanmar government began a resettlement plan, saying those that can identify itself as Burmese can stay, and those that cannot prove identification will be deported. But given that Myanmar has never recognised the Rohingya Muslims as citizens, how this persecuted group can prove itself to be Burmese remains a mystery and if anything, it seems to be a convenient way for the Burmese government to absolve itself of any responsibility it has towards the Rohingya.
It seems that for the foreseeable future they will be remaining at sea. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia insist this burden must be shared fairly, and whilst this is understandable, there seems to be lack of impetus from all parties to address the issue. Bangladesh has not opened its borders either, as Sheikh Hasina categorically stated that the Rohingya are not the problem of the Bangladeshi government.
Currently, the Rohingya Muslims are being played like a “human ping-pong” according to the Human Rights Watch, tossed between sealed off borders and unsympathetic states, drowning in despair. The plight of these people has not been chronicled with the detail it has deserved over the years but right now a terrible and tragic disaster is looming for them.
Where the governments of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have a valid point is in the fact that merely absorbing the refugees into their countries will not solve the problem; the root cause of the issue lies in the inability of Muslims and Buddhists to peacefully coexist in Myanmar. There is a brutal social rift entrenched by poverty and divisive politics that needs to be challenged; if we continue to ignore it, the cycle will only repeat, and it won’t be long before another stranded boat emerges amidst the shores of neighbouring countries.
The bleak reality of the situation is that the Rohingya Muslims face death whether they stay or flee. In Myanmar right now, they are living in squalor and segregation, walled off from the wider Burmese community. Take the example of the 4000 Rohingya Muslims living in a cramped ghetto called Aung Ming Lar where police checkpoints and barbed wires have restricted their access to the outside world. Those who try to use local hospitals are warned that there the doctors will not try to save them, but will kill them instead. It is this sort of hostility that greets the Rohingya. Sadly this is not the escape to freedom and safety that they envisioned, but a frightening possibility of dying out at sea.
One can hope that the global community builds pressure on Myanmar to formally recognise the millions of Muslims living within their state. A silence towards the depraved circumstances the Rohingya Muslims find themselves in is a cruel and cold damnation that a persecuted group deprived of hope, dignity or security for decades does not deserve.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman recently took up calls from the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights for ASEAN to work to find a regional solution to the unfolding crisis, saying that the Rohingya problem was indeed a matter for ASEAN to tackle. But no concrete action has come from that talk. At a minimum, ASEAN member states should grant refugee status to Rohingya feeling the horrors in Rakhine State. They must commit to protecting asylum-seekers, rather than driving them into the hands of abusive thugs or leaving them to die at sea.
The tragedy in Myanmar continues to develop as an issue that directly impacts the wider ASEAN region. The need for effective regional action to combat the crisis is clear, yet our leaders have consistently failed to act.
Who are Rohingya Muslims?
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, live predominantly in the isolated North Rakhine State of western Myanmar. There are about 800,000 of them in Myanmar, while an additional million are scattered across Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia. The name Rohingya is taken from “Rohang” or “Rohan,” which was the name used for the Arakan region during the 9th and 10th centuries. The Rohingya language, an Indo-European language related to Bengali, is known as Rohingyalish and is linguistically similar to the Chittagonian language spoken in the southernmost area of Bangladesh bordering Burma.
Rohingya origin is disputed; some say they migrated from Bengal, while others say they are from the Rakhine State in Myanmar. However, most historians agree that they have been living in Myanmar for seven centuries, with early evidence of Bengali Muslim settlements in Arakan dating back to 1430.
The Rohingya were promised a separate Muslim state when the British reclaimed Burma from Japanese occupation during World War II as a reward for their loyalty. But instead, only those Rohingya that had collaborated with the British were appointed to official posts within the British-controlled colony.
By 1947, the group had formed an army and had approached Pakistan’s Governor-General Jinnah of newly-formed Pakistan to incorporate northern Arakan into a part of the country that would later form Bangladesh. Experts believe that it was this action that led to eventual problems between the Rohingya and the Burmese government, who saw the group as untrustworthy.
When Burma declared independence in 1948, most Rohingya officials were replaced with Buddhist Arakanis who began to institute policies that many of the Muslim group considered unfair. Since that time, ethnic tensions have divided the two peoples.
Prior to 1962, the Rohingya community was recognized as an indigenous ethnic nationality of Burma, with members of the group serving as representatives in the Burmese parliament, as well as ministers, parliamentary secretaries, and other high-ranking government positions. But since Burma’s military junta took control of the country in 1962, the Rohingya have been systematically deprived of their political rights.
Over the course of only a few months in 1978, many Rohingya fled Myanmar when authorities launched Operation Naga Min (Dragon King), to root out people who lived in Myanmar illegally. In North Rakhine, the operation resulted in violence, arrest, harassment and the exodus of 250,000 Rohingya. Under pressure from the international community, Myanmar agreed to “take back” the Rohingya in a repatriation agreement with Bangladesh. But less than three years later, the Rohingya were declared “non-nationals” and “foreign residents,” according to a citizenship law established by the regime in 1982, and were denied the right to participate in multiparty elections held in 1990.