Rohingya Refugees: Trapped between "Arakan" and a hard place

 /  Dec. 20, 2013, 11:53 p.m.


In the dead of night on November 3, seventy Rohingya refugees boarded small boats in Myanmar, heading into the Bay of Bengal. Four hours into their treacherous journey, the wooden boats collapsed. Men, women and children plunged into the murky water. Only eight survived.

This tragic accident underscores a disturbing trend. Thousands of Rohingya Muslims are fleeing to West Bengal to join India’s second largest Muslim community. According to Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), over 1,500 Rohingya attempted to flee within the first week of November alone. The migratory patterns are most evident during autumn, as the waters of the Bay of Bengal are calmer and safer for travel. Simultaneously, within Myanmar’s borders, over 250,000 Rohingyas have been displaced from their homes, as tension and violent conflict between the Muslim minority and Buddhist majority have increased in recent months.

The UN defines the Rohingya as a “persecuted religious and linguistic minority from western Burma.” Meanwhile, the Myanmar government fails to recognize their citizenship, describing them as “relatively recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent.” Yet over 800,000 Rohingya live in the country.

Given the harsh oppression they face at home, Rohingya have suddenly found themselves a migratory people. They also face extreme opposition in India and Pakistan; both countries have recently increased border security leaving the Rohingya with few alternative destinations as they flee persecution. Bangladesh, already a destination for hundreds of thousands of exiled Rohingya, can no longer accept any more due to the rapid influx of refugees. Malaysia seems to be the newest destination for the displaced while some attempt to enter Thailand and far fewer make the journey to Australia.

The Rohingya do not speak Hindi, Bengali, Urdu or English, which are the official languages in the region. The inability to communicate in their dialect with border officials of other nations only increases tension.

Because of these differences, the Burmese government adamantly refuses citizenship to Rohingya in the 1982 Citizenship Law. Without protection as natural citizens, the Citizenship Law directly subjects them to discrimination by the government. Benjamin Zawacki, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, explains, “Further, in the eyes of the Myanmar authorities at least – as evidenced by the lack of legal accountability for civilians and officials alike – discrimination also makes the violence and violations somehow justifiable.”  Systematic persecution by the government, involving campaigns of forced labor, public executions and torture, has increased over the years, forcing Rohingya to flee.

The Arakan state (also known as Rakhine) is the central region of conflict in Myanmar for the Rohingya. Muslims comprise 95 percent of the population there, compared to 4 percent of Myanmar’s total population. In June 2012, the government declared a state of emergency in the area, following a season of heavy protests, violent rioting, and property destruction. This declaration gave the government more power to target Rohingya.

Then, in May 2013, controversy erupted with the introduction of a two-child policy aimed solely at the Rohingya. The policy was originally created in 1994, but was finally enforced in May. This strict new policy, however, does not affect Buddhists, which furthers allegations that Burmese officials are initiating “a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims,” according to the Human Rights Watch. Renowned activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung Suu Kyi also rebuked the two-child policy, although she has yet to admonish the government for its overall repression of Rohingya Muslims.

There are many reasons for such hostility and widespread rejection of Rohingya refugees in other Southeast Asian countries. First, in Bangladesh, the refugee camps have reached a maximum population and can no longer sustain any new incomers. Other countries, such as India, fear links between Rohingyas and regional terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is based in Pakistan. Human rights organizations strongly question the legitimacy of these claims.

In recent news, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum featured images of Rohingya refugees for an event called “Our Walls Bear Witness: The Plight of Burma’s Rohingya.” According to the USHMM website, “the Rohingya have long been considered among the world’s most persecuted peoples.”

As of November 20, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling upon the government of Myanmar to grant citizenship to the Rohingya and end the violence. The government has since rejected the resolution, but still faces increasing international pressure.

Despite these efforts, for the Rohingya refugees aboard the wooden boats on November 3, the UN resolution did not come fast enough.

Liz Stark