Major headlines in the international media captured boatloads of people reaching the shores of Indonesia and Malaysia after being at sea for several days. They are the Rohingya Muslims, an unwanted community in Myanmar. About 800 boat passengers left home allured by human traffickers to escape persecution at home. They were also assured of jobs that would enable them to make a living. These human traffickers abandoned them on the high seas when they were chased by the naval forces of neighbouring countries. They were the first batch but not the last; the number quickly soared to over 2,500. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) warned that over 100,000 people had been on the move in recent weeks and urged neighbouring countries, on humanitarian grounds, to grant temporary stay on their lands. The governments of Indonesia and Malaysia held an emergency meeting at the foreign ministers level last week, reversing their earlier decision and agreeing to grant the ‘boat people’ temporary stay on their land. The Australian government warned that it would not allow the boats to anchor on its shores. Australia, as a member of the US-led coalition, invaded Iraq and caused havoc in a stable country. It has little exuberance to be a partner in a humanitarian mission.
This is not the first time the Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to persecution and expelled from their homeland. In 1978, about 300,000 Rohingyas left Myanmar and crossed over to Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government allowed them to stay in the southeastern part of the country adjoining its border with Myanmar. The World Food Programme (WFP) and UNHCR provided food and shelter to the refugees. Following a series of negotiations between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, the latter agreed to allow the refugees to return home. It took more than five years before the bulk of them did. But more than 30,000 refused to leave Bangladesh for fear of persecution back home. Many of them reportedly secured Bangladeshi passports and migrated to a third country. In the early 1990s, again there was an influx of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. They stayed for several years but this time they resisted going home due to their previous miserable experiences. Many sneaked into the local community and moved deep inside Bangladesh.
Who are the Rohingyas and why are they subject to persecution? The Rohingyas are a predominantly Muslim, ethnic minority group. About a million Rohingyas live in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state and an additional million are scattered across Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere. In 2012, about 140,000 Rohingyas were pushed to dire displacement camps amid regional conflicts. Over 120,000 have since fled to escape violence, persecution and economic hardship.
The Rohingyas have been singled out for excruciating persecution by their masters in Rangoon due to their Islamic orientation. Myanmar’s overwhelming population practices Buddhism. Nevertheless, many believe in a scripturally wavering prophecy that their faith will disappear in the coming millennia. They also point to the number 786, a common numerological abbreviation for the Arabic phrase Bismillah hir-Rahman nir-Rahim (in the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful), as evidence of a plot for Muslim domination in the 21st century. The number 786 is posted on the doors of their homes and business outlets as a symbol to seek blessings from Allah. Karen, Shan, Kachin and Mong are amongst other ethnic communities subjected to oppression by the regime. Many Karen refugees are settled along the Thai-Myanmar border.
Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar for generations even prior to British colonial rule. Government officials unjustly categorise the Rohingyas as Bengali, implying that they came illegally from Bangladesh. The government passed a law in 1982 disqualifying Rohingyas from citizenship, leaving them stateless. They are denied access to basic public services, education and healthcare. Restrictions have been placed on their travel, marriage and childbearing rights. The government has even debarred them from receiving humanitarian aid. The UN has called the Rohingyas one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Myanmar has been a barbaric state since the Cold War era. The military has been in power since 1962, suppressing all dissent and wielding absolute power in the face of international condemnation. China and North Korea were its allies. China, over time, opened its economy to foreign investment retaining the one-party communist system in place and became a responsible partner in the international community establishing commercial relations with industrialised and developing countries. But Myanmar continued to remain isolated. In the mid-1980s the South Korean president and his senior ministers, during an official visit to Rangoon, became victims of a bomb blast. Though North Korean agents were accused of the assassination, the Myanmar government’s complicity was never ruled out.
The junta initiated the democratisation process on its own terms. It introduced a constitution in 2008 carving a permanent role for the army in the governance of the country. Two years later, general elections took place but the opposition groups boycotted. General Thien Sein was installed as the president of a so-called civilian government. The ill-advised visit of President Obama in November 2012 sent an egregiously flawed signal to the junta that its whirlwinds of democratic experiment had been acclaimed by the US. Obama was wrong to presume that his visit would encourage the junta to accelerate the democratisation process. During the past two and a half years the junta has neither relaxed its grip on power nor improved the dismal human rights record. Meanwhile, the US and EU have terminated non-military sanctions and the US has granted $ 100 million as development assistance. What a fantasy!
Australia has reiterated its refusal to allow boats to anchor on its shores but Malaysia and Indonesia have deployed their naval vessels to search out the boats, rescue the stranded people and bring them to shore. In the past three weeks, more than 3,000 Rohingyas have landed on shore and many more are expected. The UN says that over the past few years Rohingyas have undergone increasing state-sanctioned discrimination at home. At least 12,000 have fled to sea and an unknown number have died along the way. The US, meanwhile, has offered to take some Rohingyas as part of international efforts to cope with the crisis.
Granting asylum to a selected number of Rohingyas is not the solution. The responsibility squarely rests with Myanmar whose reprehensible actions have triggered the crisis. The international community must urge the junta to grant fundamental rights to one of its ethnic groups. The government should create a conducive and safe environment for the people to return home. If necessary, economic sanctions should be re-imposed to compel the government to repeal the 1982 law that scrapped citizenship for this minority. Until this is done, boats will keep floating on the high seas loaded with people desperate to escape persecution at home.
The writer is a former official of the United Nations