No Country for the Rohingya: The Humanitarian Disaster in South-East Asia


By Priyamvadha Shivaji (NALSAR, Batch of 2020)

Think ‘refugee crisis’, and most of us think ‘Europe’. However, the current humanitarian disaster plaguing the world is a global problem. South-East Asia, in particular, has experienced its share of the ‘boat people’ arriving on its shores, starving and desperate. The plight of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers and economic migrants fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladesh has suddenly come to the fore in international media. In the past three years, the UN estimates that about 1,30,000 Rohingya, widely considered to be the most persecuted ethnic community in the world, have fled their homes- a painful chapter in their already tragic story.Rohingya_and_Bangl_3313208b

The Rohingya crisis is not just about numbers- it’s really about the ways in which they’ve been failed as a community. They have been ghettoized and displaced from their home countries, and turned away from safety when they’ve been drifting on rickety boats for weeks, many of which have been abandoned at sea. This outflow of the Rohingya has led to the greatest number of asylum-seekers in the region since the Vietnam War. It is paradoxical to see that as Myanmar has become more liberal, it has also unleashed a wave of anti-Muslim sentiments within its Buddhist majority.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group that differs from the Buddhist majority ethnically, religiously and linguistically. They practice a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam. There are around 1.3 million Rohingya in Myanmar (who live primarily in the Western Rakhine State), followed by 4,00,000 in Saudi Arabia and around 3,00,000-5,00,000 in Bangladesh. They claim their descent from the Muslims who migrated to the erstwhile Arakan Kingdom in the 15th century, as well as those who arrived while Bengal and Myanmar were under British colonial rule. However, since the country’s independence in 1948, their ancestry has been denied and they have been considered to be illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Both the Myanmar government and the Rakhine state’s dominant Buddhists reject the existence of the term ‘Rohingya’, a self-identifying term that helps to promote a collective sense of ethnicity.

Legal and social status

The Rohingya have not been granted citizenship status. Although the 1948 citizenship law was already exclusionary, the military regime’s strict 1982 law denied access to citizenship and its benefits, making the Rohingya effectively stateless and therefore desperately poor. In the 1990s, the government began issuing ‘white cards’ to Muslims that would help them to register as temporary citizens. However, the national census in 2014, coupled with pressure from Buddhist groups, influenced the government’s decision to grant the Rohingya citizenship only if they were identified as Bengali. A constitutional referendum in 2015 cancelled the white cards, leaving the Rohingya with zero protection.

As Myanmar’s political system opens up while the country transitions from authoritarian rule, ethnic and religious tensions have resurfaced. This systematic disenfranchisement has also been accompanied by violent persecution. In 2012, deadly riots in Rakhine prompted attacks on the Rohingya after the rape of a Buddhist woman. This event has enforced their plight.

Ghettos such as Aung Ming Lar in Sittwe, Rakhine, have closed off the community from the world. Police checkpoints, barbed wire, limited access to facilities and insults have driven the Rohingya to fear for their lives. They cannot be treated in hospitals for they fear they might be poisoned; they cannot be seen in public for fear of violence. It is such squalor and hostility that the Rohingya hope to escape, by paying traffickers to take them across the sea. The fact that so many of them prefer a dangerous boat journey which doesn’t promise survival to staying in Myanmar shows the depths of persecution they face.

Myanmar’s Failings and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence

There is evidence to suggest that paramilitary forces which target the Rohingya are actively encouraged by the military, and by violent Buddhist monks who preach against the community.

Burmese leaders are trying to cast doubts on the notion that the crisis exists at all, by trying to claim these refugees as being either of Bangladeshi descent or painting them as liars looking to gain economic benefits. Although some leaders attended a May conference in Thailand on the issue, the government’s callousness is frightening. Later, it was announced that steps would be taken to reduce the outflow of migrants, although there was no announcement regarding tackling of the issues that led to the outflow in the first place.

This tolerance of abuse is not unique to the government. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the face of democratic Myanmar, has largely remained silent on the Rohingya crisis and therefore been criticized. Other democracy activists have gone on record to state that no such group as the Rohingya exists.

There appears to be a widespread anti-Muslim sentiment amongst ordinary citizens. As political parties are not compelled to seek the Muslim vote and must instead cater to the interests of Buddhist voters, there is even more apathy to the plight of the Rohingya’s plight. While the al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have called for jihad to extend to the Muslims in these countries, non-radical, non-Islamic groups have shown no concern.

International Pressure

The stories of the Rohingya being turned away by Malaysian or Australian patrol boats have at last come to be represented in the western media, leading to greater visibility. International media has condemned host countries’ concerns of their lucrative western tourism being tarnished by such ‘unsightly’ humanitarian problems.

Countries providing aid and investment have agreed to ‘normalise’ trade and aid relations. However, as they don’t have much control over Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s capital), it is unlikely to significantly influence Burmese politics. Myanmar needs relations with other countries more than being needed. It is being argued that cutting off trade with Myanmar will not result in it becoming a Chinese-like unfounded ‘vassal state’.

Only international pressure has forced Myanmar to take the few steps it has, such as attending the Bangkok conference. Slowing down aid and investment until the government takes a more proactive approach towards addressing the problems faced by the Rohingya appears to be the only solution.

A few leaders in the National League for Democracy have called for practical solutions to the Rohingya crisis. A shift in foreign policy could help to strengthen these voices and break the deafening silence of those in power.

A policy linking further aid to a shift in Myanmar’s approach to the crisis is increasingly being advocated by the White House, Norway, the Gulf states, and other ASEAN countries. The effectiveness of this solution remains to be seen.

After Myanmar- a European Model?

Such a crisis in South-East Asian waters has not been seen since the boat people fleeing from Vietnam in the late 1970s. While Bangladesh hosts around 32,000 registered refugees (and 200 unregistered ones), its refugee camps are in a squalid state, leading many to risk the voyage across the Bay of Bengal. Malaysia, Indonesia, and, increasingly, Thailand are now preferred destinations. The cost of hosting refugees is borne by the UN and other donors.

The model for dealing with the European crisis requires refugees to be divided up amongst countries based on factors like prosperity, number of refugees already taken in and so on. South-East Asian countries are looking to establish a similar model. Although the region is relatively poorer than Europe, certain wealthy states such as Singapore, Japan and China are willing to aid these refugees. The Arab state, who are closely invested in the fate of the Rohingya, are also pitching in.

‘Providing provisions and sending refugees away’ is definitely not the solution. It is clear that the Rohingya are, quite literally, fighting for their lives, and when they are turned away and denied a better life in other countries- the right to live with dignity being a basic human right- they are being let down by their fellow humans. The government of an impoverished African country, the Gambia, has offered help- surely, Myanmar’s neighbours can also do their part. Calling the boat people ‘illegal labourers’ (as the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop did recently), or merely stating that they are ‘mentally sick and could have better lives in Bangladesh’ (as Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina stated) does not detract from the fact that 25,000 people are adrift in the Bay of Bengal without hope.

Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have agreed to host 7000 migrants for a year. Although Thailand largely ignored the crisis in May, recent positive statements by its ministers have given hope to refugees. While it tolerated the human trafficking and smuggling in the past (it continues to serve as a transit point for refugees fleeing to South-East Asian shores), it is at last beginning to respond to the plight of the Rohingya. Gulf funding could convince these countries to resettle refugees- or, at the very least, not to turn them away or sink their boats.

The fact that so many refugees die while in transit and are abandoned in rickety boats on the seas by traffickers is a cause for concern, and one that is slated to be taken up by the UN. The monsoon has temporarily reduced the number of Rohingya boarding boats, owing to the treacherous conditions of the Indian Ocean. However, when calmer weather returns in the autumn, the exodus is expected to be as high as in the spring of 2015.

Only global attention led to the beginnings of a solution, and only continued global pressure is likely to have an impact. While countries have vested interests in protecting these refugees, primarily the need to present a humanitarian face to the international community, it cannot be denied that the situation is currently so dire that any and all aid is welcomed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) resources have already been stretched thin as it struggles to combat the global refugee crisis with grossly inadequate funds. But the Rohingya crisis is an issue that deserves more attention. Myanmar must answer for its persecution of the Rohingya- but more pressingly, the desperate refugees in boats must be given immediate help. The world is watching.


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