August 23, 2015

The Rohingya Exodus

Yohannan Chemarapally

IT has been one of the biggest crises to hit the region since the exodus of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970's. The sight of helpless Rohingya refugees packed in rickety boats floating on the high seas with nowhere to go has finally grabbed the attention of the international community. In the first fortnight of May, hundreds of Rohingya refugees were found abandoned in the waters off the coast of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Thousands more remain unaccounted for. Unscrupulous human traffickers have been engaged for some years in smuggling people from Bangladesh and Burma to Malaysia through the porous border with Thailand. Illegal camps, housing the refugees were set up along the Thai-Malaysian border. In Thailand, many of the Rohingya were forced into servitude, especially in the fishing industry. The preferred destination of the Rohingya and other migrants was Malaysia, a Muslim majority country with the fastest growing economy in the region. In the last week of May, more than a hundred graves were found in a remote area in Malaysia, near the border with Thailand. Dozens of mass graves containing the bodies of Rohingya, Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants have also been discovered in Burma and Thailand. According to reports in the Malaysian media, 30 large graves containing hundreds of corpses were discovered near the towns of Padang Besar and Wang Kelian in the third week of May. 


The refugees were abandoned by the traffickers in the rickety boats after the Thai authorities belatedly decided to crack down on the lucrative smuggling network in April. Corrupt police and security officials in Thailand and Malaysia have been involved in the clandestine trafficking of desperate migrants for many years now. According to International monitoring agencies, 25,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Burma since the beginning of the year. Malaysian authorities have made many arrests after the discovery of mass graves on their territory. Malaysian Home Affairs Minister, Zahid Hamid, has admitted that the camps housing the migrants in the jungle had existed for more than five years. Around 100,000 Rohingya are said to be already in Malaysia.


The Indonesian and Malaysian governments, after initially adopting a tough stand, finally agreed to take in thousands of hungry and stranded refugees in the third week of May after a high level meeting in the Thai capital, Bangkok. The three governments had come in for increasing international criticism for the inhumane policies they were adopting towards the migrants. The other countries in the region like Singapore and Australia have refused point blank to accommodate any boat people,despite many of them dying of starvation stranded on the high seas. Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, said that the decision of the Indonesian government to accept the migrants was a “good solution” but he said that he expected financial aid from the international community as his government could not afford the cost of hosting the refugees. Indonesia and Malaysia have said that they would repatriate the limited number of refugees that they have accepted within a year. The Indonesian government also said that it would be repatriating 720 Bangladeshi refugees as they were “economic migrants”. Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has publicly criticised migrants from her country for “tainting our image in the international arena”.


Pope Francis compared the plight of the Rohingya to that of the Yezidi and Christian minorities under the Islamic State rule in Iraq and Syria. It was the disruption of traditional smuggling routes of migrants by the Thai navy that made the human traffickers to abandon their cargo on the high seas. After the agreement, the navies of the three countries are no longer engaged in driving away the boats carrying the Rohingya from their waters. Indonesia and Malaysia also announced that “they would provide humanitarian assistance to those 7000 irregular migrants that are at sea.” The agreement came after fishermen in Sumatra rescued more than 300 refugees from a sinking boat in the last week of May.




The government of Myanmar which is responsible for triggering the refugee crisis in the first place, has been unresponsive to international appeals and had refused to attend the regional conference in Bangkok that was convened to discuss the refugee crisis. Myanmar's foreign office confined itself to issuing a statement that it was “deeply concerned” with the problem and was making “serious efforts” to combat trafficking and illegal migration. The government is not doing anything to curtail the activists of Buddhist extremist groups which are openly targeting the Muslim minority. One such individual is a monk by the name of Ashin Wirathu. He has been dubbed as the “Buddhist bin Laden” for his activities by the regional media. He is allowed to freely spew venom and the radical group he heads was responsible for much of the communal violence in recent years. Wirathu claims that the Muslims in the country are on the verge of waging a jihad against Buddhists. Nine out of ten people in the country are Buddhists. The Muslims are a very small minority in the country. Successive governments in the country have been making strenuous attempts to make life unlivable for this minority in the country.


The Rohingya, according to the United Nations, is “the most persecuted minority” in the world. They have been denied citizenship in a country in which their ancestors have been residing in for many centuries. Historical records show that they have been in the Burmese kingdom of Arakan since the 8th century. Colonial records also testify that the community, which had embraced Islam, was part and parcel of Burmese society since then. In the medieval kingdom of Arakan, the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya minority had a harmonious relationship. The suffering of the Rohingya started in earnest after Burma gained independence in 1948. The Rohingya who number around a million and a half were given full citizenship rights and recognised as a separate race only in 1959 when the country was experiencing a brief democratic lull under Prime Minister U Nu. But a military coup by the ultra nationalist Gen. Ne Win in 1962 brought things back to square one for the hapless Rohingya. Citizenship rights were once again summarily revoked and the Rohingya have since been marginalised and suppressed by the authoritarian regimes that have been ruling the country.


It was in 1978 that the community was first violently targeted by the military. Hundreds of Rohingyas were massacred and the first wave of forced migrations started. 250,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh where they have been languishing in squalid refugee camps. In overcrowded Bangladesh, the Rohingya despite cultural and linguistic similarities are not much better off. They remain a stateless community whose hopes of retuning back to their homeland are diminishing by the day. They have not been assimilated into Bangladeshi society. In 2011, a repatriation agreement was signed between Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina and the President of Myanmar, Thein Sein. The Rohingya were excluded from the repatriation pact as the authorities in Yangon refused to concede citizenship status to the community.




The marginalisation of the Rohingya in Burma was formalised when the military junta promulgated a new and arbitrary citizenship law in 1978 that deemed them a stateless community. In 1991, the army launched another anti Rohingya drive code named “Operation Clean and Prosperous Nation”. 200,000 Rohingya were forced to flee from the country. Most of them ended up in Bangladesh. Since then the Rohingya were subjected to even more abuses, including the arbitrary seizure of property, forced labour, torture and rape at the hands of the authorities and a fanatical fringe of Buddhist zealots. In their home state of Rakhine, the authorities have imposed a “two child” limit for Rohingya families. In 2014, the government in Yangon banned the use of the word “Rohingya” and decreed that they be called “Bengalis”.


Things have gone from bad to worse after the powerful military decided on political cohabitation with the mainstream opposition party, the National League for Democracy, led by the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Rohingya bashing has seemingly become a national pastime in the country. The government continues to label them as “illegal Bengali migrants” in the ongoing efforts to ethnically cleanse the country. All what the Rohingya are demanding is the restoration of their citizenship that was revoked under the authoritarian military regime of Gen. Ne Win. Many expected Suu Kyi to speak out in support of the Rohingya but her silence has been deafening. She has been completely focused on cultivating the Buddhist majority, whose support is essential if her party has to win the elections scheduled for 2016. In a rare interview in 2013 in which she agreed to talk on the issue, she blamed both sides for the violence. In 2012, riots in Rakhine had led to deaths on both sides of the ethnic divide but it were the Rohingya who bore the brunt. 150,000 Rohingya people were forced to flee from their homes after the 2012 riots. In Myanmar, it is the Rohingya who are confined to “camps” and subjected to “ethnic cleansing”. The United Nations as well as human rights organisations have said that situation in the country is grim. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar has said that actions against the Rohingya orchestrated by the government in Yangon “could amount to crimes against humanity”.


The US and its allies in the region have all been publicly sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya refugees but have not done anything meaningful to pressure the government in Myanmar to take action. The Obama administration has forged very strong links with the military dominated government in Yangon and is not interested in raising the issue of “human rights” in the country in international forums. Malaysia and Indonesia want the Asean grouping of which Myanmar is a member to discuss the issue. Myanmar on its part has refused to attend any meeting to discuss the issue if the word “Rohingya” is mentioned. “If we recognise the name, then they will think that they are citizens of Myanmar”, the spokesman for the country's president said. Asean has a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries.


By the end of May, the government has decreed that all Rohingya will have to surrender their temporary “white cards” which are their only identification papers now. This will further curtail their freedom of movement. Meanwhile people like the Buddhist monk, Wirathu, are being given a free hand to propagate their message of hatred and venom. A US based human rights group said in a report released in March that “almost every major outbreak of violence since October 2012” has been preceded by activities of Wirathu and his group. And Aung San Suu Kyi has not spoken yet on the dire situation facing the Rohingya despite pleas from her fellow Nobel Peace laureates like Desmond Tutu to take a stand.