Last week, when Burma rescued 208 boat people drifting off its coast it was not difficult to predict that political troubles were at hand, for any new arrival is associated by many there with the Rohingya issue, one of the most sensitive topics in a country which abounds with contentious problems.
The most immediate reaction to the boat crisis was a march organized by nationalist groups in front of the Kyaikkasan sports center, in Yangon, on May 27. In the early afternoon a few monks and a long queue of people dressed in white t-shirts marched under a grey sky, fists in the air.
Once inside a large grassy square, two rows of supporters carrying flags lined up on each side of a podium and soon enough speakers were addressing the public about Burmese traditions and history. Even the rain that poured right after the speech began and transformed the streets in shallow torrents failed to cool the inflamed atmosphere: nationalist passions, it seems, are water-proof.
The major concern of the protesters is that some of the people who have been rescued might wind up staying in the country as Rohingyas, a minority that is currently stripped of its citizenship. They are referred to by authorities as ‘Bengalis’ and according to the United Nations are among the most persecuted minorities in the world. Thousands of them have been forced to live in camps, deprived of the possibility of receiving even basic services.
In 2012, clashes between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya minority erupted in Rakhine State in western Burma (Myanmar), leading to a number of deaths and an estimated 140,000 people being displaced.
Two years later the United Nations claimed they had credible information about the death of 48 Rohingyas and called on Yangon to investigate the matter. The government replied that such accusations were unacceptable: Ye Htut, spokesman for the office of President Thein Sein, told the Irrawaddy that “it was sad to see a statement issued by the UN, not using information from their local office staff, but quoting unreliable information and issuing the statement.” He also added that by acting in this fashion the UN would tarnish its reputation among Burmese citizens.
The people who rallied yesterday certainly did not have much faith in the UN. Many of the banners on display explicitly attacked the institution: “UN, stop making story on Rohingya. Boat People are not Myanmar,” said some. “Boat people are not Myanmar. Boat people are Bangladesh,” stated others.
A deal reached on May 26 between Yangon and Dhaka for the repatriation of 200 of the rescued people did not seem to offer enough guarantees to the protesters.
“Usually they say they will send them back, but we cannot trust whether the government will do it or not,” a middle aged man told Asian Correspondent.
“There are no Rohingyas in our history,” argued Raung Myat Thu, who said he is a politician but was taking part to the protest as a private citizen.
“They are migrant workers from Bangladesh. If they were from our country they would speak our language,” he added.
Mr. Raung did not spare harsh words for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has become an icon of the pro-democracy movement. According to him, the leader of the National League for Democracy opposes nationalist movements simply because she was once accused by the government of not loving her country on the ground that she is married to a foreigner.
This might not be the last time we hear about nationalist protests, for the boat people crisis is far from over. According to a UNHCR report, “some 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers’ boats between January and March this year – almost double the number over the same period in 2014.” Following a crackdown on trafficking by Thai authorities, smugglers abandoned their ships at sea leaving thousands of people stranded