In-depth: Asia’s migrant crisis and the plight of the Rohingya
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In-depth: Asia’s migrant crisis and the plight of the Rohingya

As many had expected, the ‘Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean’ held in Thailand last week ended with a soft whimper rather than a loud bang. The participants gathered in Bangkok agreed to keep the talks going, but the meeting failed to address one of the crisis’ key issues: why people are leaving their homes behind to embark on such perilous sea voyages?

Many are economic migrants from Bangladesh, looking for a brighter future in neighboring countries or beyond. Others are Rohingyas, a beleaguered Muslim minority often fleeing Burma’s western State of Rakhine.

The Rohingya have had an extremely hard time for decades, but their position took a turn for the worse at the beginning of 2012, when clashes between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya minority erupted in Rakhine.

Later that year sectarian violence flared again, leaving dozens of people dead and “widespread property destruction”, according to Human Rights Watch. Last year, the UNHCR wrote that about 140,000 Rohingyas are living in camps where they have little or no access to basic services, including healthcare and education. It is these people who boarded – or, in some cases, were forced to jump on – the smugglers’ boats and were then abandoned to their fate by traffickers once Thai authorities cracked down on their bases.

Many believe that no lasting solution to the current crisis can be found unless the reasons why people are leaving Bangladesh and Burma, also known as Myanmar, are addressed. On Friday, Volker Turk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, did not beat round the bush. “There is no solution without addressing root causes [..] Among other things, this requires full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar towards all people on its territory. Granting of citizenship is the ultimate goal,” he stated, adding that the UN welcomes “some initial steps taken in this regard.”

Mr. Turk also argued that, in the meantime, a legal status for all habitual residents recognizing that Burma is their own country is urgently required.

In spite of mounting pressure from foreign governments and NGOs to overhaul its approach, the government in Naypyidaw is holding its ground: authorities rebuked critics and reportedly pressured their partners not to use the term Rohingya at Friday’s gathering. The word did not appear in the summit’s final statement.

According to Dr. Maung Zarni, the Burmese organizer of the Oslo Conference to End Myanmar’s Systematic Persecution of the Rohingya, the authorities’ confidence stems in part from the awareness that no serious consequences are in store regardless of the approach they choose to follow.

“The government knows that there is no serious political will on the part of the international community, especially USA, UK, Norway, Japan, EU,… the external players deeply engaged with Myanmar, to seriously stop Myanmar’s un-acknowledged genocide,” he told Asian Correspondent in an email interview.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been cautious about this topic and has avoided taking sides. A political analyst was quoted by the ‘Washington Post’ last year as saying that Suu Kyi told him she was silent because speaking up would only lead to more blood being spilled, but many smell political interests behind the opposition’s silence. With elections scheduled to take place in November, this is no time to antagonize the country’s Buddhist majority.

“To an extent the elections do play a role, especially for Aung San Suu Kyi, who is trying to get Buddhist votes,” said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, an NGO which works closely with local communities.

Interestingly, protesters who spoke to Asian Correspondent at last week’s nationalist march in Yangon contended that some supporters of the NLD had joined the rally, implying that resistance against change exists inside her own party too.

Electoral calculations alone, however, do not fully explain why authorities and much of the society loathe the Rohingya, for this problem existed long before elections were even thought to be possible.

According to Dr. Zarni, the discrimination against this particular group dates back to the 1970s, when the government led by General Ne Win began persecuting them as part of a nation-wide anti-insurgency campaign which targeted, among others, also independentist forces in Rakhine. The goal was to pit one minority against another in order to maintain control of the area.

“The key to understanding the policy is the central government’s divide-and-rule general strategy towards the mosaic of ethnic and religious groups in Myanmar,” he said.

In the years that followed, the military junta came to see the Rohingya as a threat to national security, a view that is still popular to this day.

“The current policy is merely a continuation of successive military regimes’ policies towards the Rohingya,” Dr. Zarni wrote. “Myanmar’s systematic persecution of the Rohingya has become an inter-generational policy pursued by successive military leaderships in the central government. The rationale – they are a threat to national security – has been institutionalized. So, regardless of what type of government emerges Myanmar is most likely to keep this policy in place.”

This is why even the upcoming elections do not inspire much optimism.

“I cannot guess what will be the elections’ result, but I do not think they will create a big change because all these parties are trying to use popular sentiments,” explained Ms. Lewa.