The Rohingya people comprise a Muslim minority population who have lived in the state of Arakan in Myanmar for centuries. A relatively small indigenous population, it has dwindled to about 800,000 in recent years. Widely referred to as a ‘people without a state’, the severity of their situation has its roots going back to times of British rule in the Indian subcontinent, though it has increasingly been in the spotlight in the last 5 years or so.
To gain a holistic understanding of the crisis, one must go back to 1785 when Buddhist Burmese from the south of the country conquered Arakan. They drove out or executed all of the Muslim Rohingya men they could find, leading to some 35,000 of Arakan’s people fleeing into British dominated Bengal. However once the British gained control of Arakan after the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26), they encouraged farmers from Bengal- both Rohingyas originally from the area and native Bengalis- to move to the depopulated area of Arakan. The Buddhist-Rakhine people living in Arakan at the time reacted very strongly to this sudden influx of people, thus sowing the seeds of a long-lasting ethnic conflict.
When World War II broke out, Britain abandoned Arakan in the face of Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia. In the resulting chaos, both Muslim and Buddhist forces were able to inflict violence on one another. As for the Rohingya, many of them still looked to Britain for protection, and served as spies behind Japanese lines for the Allied Powers- a move that ultimately worked against them when the Japanese discovered this connection and embarked on a hideous spree of torture, rape and murder against the Rohingyas in Arakan. Now tens of thousands of Arakanese Rohingyas once again fled into Bengal.
Between the end of World War II and General Ne Win’s coup d’etat in 1962, the Rohingyas started advocating for a separate Rohingya nation in Arakan; however the newly instated military forces in Yangon cracked down hard on Rohingyas, separatists and non-political people alike. It also denied Burmese citizenship to the Rohingya people, which became the start of the Rohingyas’ plight as a stateless people.
The loss of citizenship and land culminated in the loss of a huge part of their identity. As a people they have faced an alarming amount of adversity in the form of persecution and attacks. While this problem isn’t new, it’s gotten demonstrably worse in recent years.
The most recent flare-up began with an outbreak of sectarian rioting in 2012, in which hundreds of Rohingya were killed and dozens of their villages burned to the ground by radical Buddhists. About this time close to 100,000 Rohingyas attempted to escape out to sea, and more than that number have been confined to ill-maintained, squalid camps. Both these groups of people face an equally uncertain fate.
But why are the Rohingya so desperate to flee Myanmar?
Not only do they face violence and persecution, they also lack basic rights such as access to healthcare, education and employment. They live in “apartheid-like conditions” due to, among other things, Myanmar’s refusal to recognize them as citizens. Examples of human rights abuses committed by the Burmese military towards the Rohingya community include the confiscation of land, forced labour, rape, torture, and summary executions.
What about the Myanmar government’s take on the whole issue, one might ask. Well, they have come up with what is known as the Rakhine Action Plan.
Essentially, the Myanmar government has given the Rohingya people in the country a dispiriting choice: Prove your family has lived here for more than 60 years and qualify for second-class citizenship, or be placed in camps and face deportation. According to this plan, those who can prove their residence are then qualified for naturalized citizenship, which carries fewer rights than full citizenship and can be revoked. What’s more, they would be classified as “Bengali,” rather than Rohingya, implying that they are immigrants from Bangladesh and thus leaving open the possibility of deportation.
As for those Rohingya who fail to meet the standards for naturalized citizenship or refuse to accept the Bengali designation, they would be placed in camps before being deported. Unsurprisingly, the Rakhine Action Plan has been described as “nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness” by the Human Rights Watch.
For those at sea who probably hoped for international help, or at least refugee status, it has been a series of unfortunate events. ASEAN countries (specifically Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia) are refusing to allow Rohingya refugees to seek asylum. They instruct their respective military to take them back to sea, effectively abandoning the vulnerable Rohingya.
They then turn to Thailand, where things get even worse, as not only are Thai military forces setting them back adrift on the sea, but those who do make it in are abruptly met by the social evil of human trafficking. In Thailand, Rohingya are held in internment camps until they can either pay thousands to human traffickers for their release or be sold as slaves to the highest bidder. Inevitably the Rohingya must resort to soliciting funds from whatever means possible, and if successful, they are pushed back out to sea. Those who are unable to pay become slaves: women and young girls are forced into marriages which essentially mean lifelong indentured servitude, and men sold to Thai fishermen.
Australia has adamantly refused to accept any Rohingya on its shores, as well. It is highly probable that thousands have died making the deadly voyage to escape the ethnic cleansing they face in Burma.
On digging a little deeper, one discovers another horrible truth of this crisis; as deadly as the situation of ethnic cleansing gets for the Rohingya, the more profitable it is for certain others, i.e. the Burmese Navy and local security forces, who are in fact demanding payments from both the smugglers who deliver the Rohingya to human traffickers, as well as the Rohingya themselves for seeking passage.
Bangladesh seems to be the one place where the Rohingya community have found some little semblance of stability, as according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) there are more than 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh today.
Yet their relationship with the Bangladeshi authorities is dicey at best, as the latter views them as illegal migrants. While they are stateless under Burmese law, in Bangladesh they are barred from employment.
The situation in Bangladesh is such that about 33,000 men, women and children live crammed into two dilapidated camps in the villages of Kutupalong and Nayapara, near the Myanmar border, that are supported by the United Nations and the Bangladesh government. Sadly, they are the lucky ones, as there are about 200,000 to 400,000 more Rohingyas in nearby camps and hills who aren’t even recognized as temporary refugees by the government, lest it weaken its case to send them back to Myanmar.
Now, more than 20 years after the first wave of Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar, fear and apprehension are on the rise through the camps of mud houses where they found shelter in southern Bangladesh that they will soon be forced to move again. It is felt by Bangladeshi authorities that the presence of these foreigners without any proper documents was causing problems for local people as well as hindering development. H.T Imam, political adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, accurately summed up the sentiments of most of his countrymen in his statement, “The Rohingya are the citizens of Myanmar and they must go back. We feel for them, but we are unable to host them any longer.”
Not all countries are indifferent to the Rohingyas’ plight however, as is shown by the numerous appeals made by Mr. Obama, asking the Myanmar government to revise the anti-Rohingya policies. Also, in May of 2015, the Philippines undertook a pledge to create camps to house 3,000 of the Rohingya boat-people. Working with UNHCR, the Philippines’ government is looking to temporarily shelter refugees and provide for their basic needs, while a more permanent solution is sought.
Still, as Bangladesh and Myanmar row over what to do with a stateless minority whose search for security is driving a regional migrant crisis, the would-be refugees can only hope that the end to this aimless existence is within reach.
– Shambhavi Sarmah