What does it mean to be denied a country? For the Rohingya, it means generations of deprivation and the first step towards genocide, writes Ajachi Chakrabarti.
Farid Ahmad looks upon me with polite contempt. He greets me when I am introduced to him at the camp for Rohingya refugees at Balapur, a suburb of Hyderabad, with an affable as-salamu alaikum, but once he finds out my profession and the purpose of my visit, he all but rolls his eyes.
“Kuchh bhi to nahin ho rahe, ji. Bohot media waala aaya, hum logon ke liye kuchh bhi nahin ho rahe. Pehle jaisa Burma mein, yahan pe bhi waiseich ho gaya. Kyon bole to, mera yeh umar mein—abhi 30–35 saal ho gaya mera umar—yeh umar mein teen-char baar refugee ho gaya. Padhai bhi nahin kar sakta hai Burma ka aadmi. Yahaan pe bhi aisaich hai. Aaj yahaan pe to guarantee nahin hai, yahan pe reh sakte bolke guarantee koi bhi nahin de rahe. Hum logon ka zindagi to barbaad ho gaya; koi admi padhai nahin kiya. Lekin yahan pe chhota-chhota jo bachha hai, abhi yahan pe do class, teen class padha sakte hain, lekin yahan se doosra jagah bhaga diya to? Woh to guarantee nahin hai. Woh bachha ka zindagi bhi barbaad ho jayega. Har mahine mein aa raha hai media waala, lekin kuchh bhi kaam nahin ho raha.”
Farid came to India with his wife and two daughters, fleeing his village of Kha Moung Seik in the restive Rakhine State in western Myanmar after communal violence flared up in the province in 2012, killing hundreds of people and displacing about 150,000. According to government estimates, theirs is one of over 10,000 Rohingya families that have made their way to the country over the past decade, escaping oppression that has caused many international observers to call the Rohingya the world’s most persecuted minority. The number is almost certainly understated (it doesn’t, for instance, include any figures from Manipur, a border state where many Rohingya have migrated) and steadily growing.
According to government estimates, theirs is one of over 10,000 Rohingya families that have made their way to the country over the past decade, escaping oppression that has caused many international observers to call the Rohingya the world’s most persecuted minority. The number is almost certainly understated and steadily growing.
It was an arduous journey. First, they crossed the Burma-Bangladesh border, evading both the NaSaKa, a security force that administered the Muslim-majority portions of the state before being disbanded in 2013, who were known to shoot at sight Rohingya trying to cross the border; and the Border Guard Bangladesh, who have on many occasions sent boatloads of refugees back across the Naf river that acts as a natural border—in violation of the policy of non-refoulement, that cornerstone of international refugee law that says you can’t send people fleeing violence back to the violence they are fleeing—and often arrest them. It is a crossing Farid has made many times; he had earlier fled similar outbreaks of state-sponsored violence, only to be sent back with the assurance that the situation had calmed down. He also worked as an importer of medicines from Bangladesh, which he sold to pharmacies in Burma.
Once in Bangladesh, the family made their way, partly on foot, partly hitchhiking, to the western border, where they paid a coyote Rs 500 each to cross into West Bengal in the back of a truck. (That price has gone up to around Rs 1,600–Rs 2,500 as demand has swelled.) Again, this was a crossing fraught with danger. Although traffickers often have an understanding with India’s Border Security Force, says Sucharita Sengupta, a researcher who has studied both the migration of the Rohingya as well as the issue of human trafficking over the India-Bangladesh border, “the ones who are caught, either they have not paid the sufficient amount, or, there’s another very interesting thing that [Souvik Sarkar, Chief Officer of the Balurghat District Correctional Home] told me. He said it is also an understanding, that two percent will be caught.” Hundreds of Rohingya, including two of Farid’s sisters, are languishing in prisons across West Bengal.
LIKE MANY Rohingya who have settled there, Farid says his family chose to come to Hyderabad because he felt its significant Muslim population would allow them to practise their religion in peace. “Back in Burma,” he says, “our mosques were shuttered by the army. We weren’t allowed to teach our children Arabic.” Naseer Siddiqui, liaison officer at the Refugee Facilitation Centre in the city run by the Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA), agrees that the Rohingya find the city safe, adding that “it is the cheapest city. For Rs 100, they can eat three times a day.”
Like most able-bodied Rohingya men in the camps, despite being a little educated, he works as a daily labourer. “Kya karenge? Bachha hai, biwi hai. Mehnat karna padega.”
In 2010, when COVA became an implementation partner of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tasked with running the facilitation centre, there were around 350 Somali refugees and 50 Rohingya living in the city. After the 2012 riots, however, as the Rohingya fled Rakhine State by the tens of thousands, those crossing into India went to cities where their friends and relatives had settled. The initial 50 called their friends and relatives, who called theirs, and so on. Today, there are over 2,500 Rohingya in Hyderabad, the most in any city bar Jammu, which has over 5,000.
Farid was one of the first wave in 2012. “When he came here, he faced many difficulties,” says his brother Salim, who came the following year. “He didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone, didn’t know where to get a job.” As his opening barrage makes clear, Farid is now fairly proficient in Dakhani. Like most able-bodied Rohingya men in the camps, despite being a little educated, he works as a daily labourer. “Kya karenge? Bachha hai, biwi hai. Mehnat karna padega.”
He earns Rs 300 a day, provided he gets work. “When there were 50–100 people going for work,” he says, “everyone would get hired. But now, when a thousand go, most of them are going to come back empty handed. Some months we get seven days, sometimes 10 days. That’s not enough money to raise a family.” Neither is it enough to pay off major expenses, such as medical bills. As one report about Rohingya in Hyderabad mentions:
During an interview, Abu Hussein at the Balapur Camp reiterated that the major issue was healthcare. He had taken his son Zia to a local hospital called St. Martha’s where the doctor asked him to undergo a number of cumulatively expensive blood tests. Not having enough money, he could not get all the tests done so he started saving money for the tests. When he went to the doctor the second time, after the tests were done, he gave them a list of other tests to be carried out. This attitude of doctors to the Rohingyas was a matter of deep concern to them.
THE CAMP at Balapur is very much a work in progress. To call it a camp is a misnomer, perhaps; as Sahana Basavapatna, a lawyer and researcher, writes while describing the living conditions of Rohingya in India, “[the] term ‘camp’ in its classical sense denotes some organisation and management of the refugee population. It would be more appropriate to understand these spaces as they are officially described, i.e. slums or slum-like settlements.”
Located on private land owned by the Salamah Trust, a local charitable organisation, it has problems relating to sanitation and drinking water, though the situation has improved somewhat in the last three years. (A borewell has been dug, for instance.) The large influx of refugees mean the settlements cannot accommodate everyone, and many move to nearby tenements once they can afford to pay rent.
Conditions are similar at Rohingya settlements across the country. In November 2012, the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) sent a fact-finding team to a Rohingya camp at Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi. It reported,
Each family lives in a tiny room with tarp or brick walls and improvised construction. The camp does not have electricity. The crude construction provides no protection from the elements. In the winter, the families heat their rooms with wood stoves. The acrid smoke does not have a proper exit vent, and therefore newborn infants, children, and pregnant women continuously damage their lungs, throats, and eyes by breathing in smoke.…Most families do not have blankets or mats to cover the ground and/or to keep warm on cold nights. A ditch behind each row of homes collects waste.
“The term ‘camp’ in its classical sense denotes some organisation and management of the refugee population. It would be more appropriate to understand these spaces as they are officially described, i.e. slums or slum-like settlements.”
Another HRLN fact-finding report from a camp in Mewat, Haryana last September found:
The community has to fend for itself. After a heavy rainfall, most of the huts were in poor and uninhabitable condition. Just a few hours of rainfall had led to flooded area. In order to even reach the huts, the inhabitants had to wade through knee-deep muddy water.
The inhabitants of the flooded camp, some 88 families with 720 members, had had to leave their huts and move to an emergency shelter—a building construction site with a basement full of dirty water. The report concluded that the refugees in Mewat “lack access to basic sanitation facilities, education and (maternal) healthcare” and that despite this being the sixth fact-finding team to visit the camps in the last three years, “there hasn’t been any improvement in services for this community in the past years and months”.
Everyone I spoke to in Balapur, however—and most Rohingya who have been interviewed around the country by journalists and researchers—agree that however bad their living conditions might be, they’d much rather stay than go back. They are unequivocal about what would happen if they did: they would be killed.
IIWhat one calls the Republic of the Union of Myanmar has been a shibboleth of sorts in the West ever since the junta changed the name from Burma in 1989, a year after cracking down on the pro-democracy movement of Aung San Suu Kyi. Although most of the world, and the United Nations, defers to the principle of allowing a country to call itself what it wants, the governments of the US, UK, Australia and Canada have remained defiant in referring to the country as Burma, though the prospect of oil and gas deals got Obama to extend the “diplomatic courtesy” of calling it Myanmar during his visit. Politicians and publications in the countries have begun to come around to using the official name as Myanmar has transitioned towards democracy.
The rationale offered by the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC), as the junta was known from 1988 to 1997, was that ‘Burma’ wasn’t inclusive enough towards the country’s many minorities—there are over 135 ethnic groups in the country—as it was associated with the Bamar, or Burman, people, the largest (68 percent of the population) and dominant ethnic group. This would hold water if the more classical name for the Bamar wasn’t Mranma, from which Myanmar gets its name.
For a country that calls its Rohingya population “illegal Bengali immigrants”, Burma was, like most nations, forged by migration. Surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on the fourth with fertile, well irrigated plains in the centre, it was a frequent target for tribes moving south from China and Tibet. The Bamar appeared fairly late in Burmese history, establishing a settlement at Pagan, near the strategically significant confluence of the Irrawady and Chindwin, in the 9th century.
For a country that calls its Rohingya population “illegal Bengali immigrants”, Burma was, like most nations, forged by migration.
Under Anawrahta, who ascended to the throne in 1044, they conquered most of what is today Burma and established an empire that would last 250 years. They accepted the Therawada creed of the conquered people; indeed, the casus belli for the conquest of the Mon in Burman folklore is that Anawrahta wanted a copy of the Tripitaka and the Mon king, who had 30 of them, refused him with insults.
However, as the kingdom went bankrupt, largely because it had alienated two-thirds of cultivable land in its core region of Upper Burma to the powerful clergy, other invaders found the tumultuous kingdom ripe for the taking. The Mongols handed successive defeats to the Burmans in the late 13th century and got King Narathihapate to submit in 1286. The next year, the king was assassinated and Pagan’s vassals rose in revolt, bringing the kingdom to an end. The various kingdoms of the region fought each other for the next few centuries, trying to fill the power vacuum.
ONE OF these kingdoms was Arakan. The mountainous region between the deltas of the Ganges and the Irrawaddy had been ruled since ancient times by settlers from India, who founded the Dhannyawadi kingdom. Over time, the centre of power moved from Dhannyawadi to Waithali, which was ruled by the Hindu Chandra rulers, though the subjects largely practised Mahayana Buddhism. The first contact with Islam was made in the 8th century through shipwrecked Arab sailors, and the religion spread as maritime trade expanded. The Arab names for the Arakan and its (Muslim) inhabitants—Rohang and Rohingya—continue to be used today, having first appeared in a British ethnographic survey in 1799.
The first contact with Islam was made in the 8th century through shipwrecked Arab sailors, and the religion spread as maritime trade expanded. The Arab names for the Arakan and its (Muslim) inhabitants—Rohang and Rohingya—continue to be used today.
The Rakhine, a Buddhist ethnic group that makes up the majority in the province, claim to be descendants of Dhannyawadi and Waithali, but there is little evidence to this lineage. They are closely related to the Burmans, and arrived in Arakan in the 10th century, probably as an advance guard of Pagan. Anawrahta conquered the northern part of Arakan and Burman influence as well as Therawada Buddhism grew in prominence.
During the revolts that followed Narathihapate’s death, Arakan stopped paying tribute to Pagan and declared independence, but descended into infighting, with considerable meddling by the Burman kingdom of Ava and the Mon state of Pegu. In 1406, the Arakanese king Narameikhla was exiled by Pegu. He returned in 1429 at the head of an army of Afghan adventurers, provided to him by Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah, and once again unified the Arakan under the powerful kingdom of Mrauk-U.
The conquest saw an influx of Muslim settlers, and as a vassal of Bengal, Narameikhla adopted Muslim titles and customs. Mrauk-U would shake off the vassalage soon enough, though, and even conquer Chittagong in 1459, but the titles and customs remained, as did the presence of many Muslims among the nobility. They served as administrators and kingmakers, and a syncretic culture developed with influences from east and west. More Bengali Muslims were brought to the kingdom as captives by Portuguese pirates operating in the area.
Mrauk-U would shake off the vassalage soon enough, but the titles and customs remained, as did the presence of many Muslims among the nobility. They served as administrators and kingmakers, and a syncretic culture developed with influences from east and west.
Aided by Portuguese mercenaries, Mrauk-U made frequent raids throughout the Ganges delta, sacking Dhaka in 1625 and even getting Tripura to pay tribute. However, after the Arakanese king killed the exiled Shah Shuja, Shuja’s brother Aurangzeb checked their progress, first luring away the Portuguese and then conquering Chittagong in 1666. The defeat began the decline of Mrauk-U, and the Arakan was easily conquered by the Burman king Bodawpaya of the Konbaung dynasty in 1785. Invited by Arakanese nobles and greeted with music by the local populace, the conquering army engaged in wanton destruction and killings. Some 200,000 Arakanese were forced to flee to Chittagong; two-thirds of the population had left by 1798.
THE BRUTALITY of Bodawpaya’s army caused an insurrection to build in the Arakan over the next few decades. This insurrection, like similar ones in the newly conquered territories of Manipur and Assam, was supported by the British, who had conquered Bengal and were looking to expand eastwards.
Arakan was conquered by British forces led by General Joseph Morrison in the summer of 1825, after the Burmese army was defeated in the Battle of Danubyu, which decided the first Anglo-Burmese war. It was formally ceded under the Treaty of Yandabo. The British encouraged those who had fled to return, as well as asking farmers in Bengal to settle in the region in order to increase agricultural productivity. This migration didn’t help the cause of the Rohingya, as they were classified as “Indian Muslims” in subsequent censuses despite their long history in Arakan, a classification that is used to this day to deny them citizenship rights.
“This inversion of the natural order, the Burmans believed, would not have been possible but for the treasonable collaboration with the British invaders of some of the despised minorities—their former subjects.”
The second Anglo-Burmese war of 1852–53 ended with the annexation of the rest of Lower Burma, and the third war, which lasted a few weeks in 1886, added Upper Burma to the British empire. The British also led expeditions against many of the hill tribes, bringing them under their sphere of influence if not outright conquering their territories, in order to exploit their natural resources and check Chinese and French ambitions in the region.
As the lawyer and author Shelby Tucker puts it, “[where] an indigenous population is ruled by a small body of expatriate civil servants, security is more safely entrusted to foreigners and local minorities”. In India, the British relied on Sikhs, Gurkhas, Dalits and Muslims to form the backbone of their army, especially after the largely upper-caste sepoys had mutinied in 1857. In Burma, the British army in 1938 comprised “1587 Britons, 1423 Indians and Gurkhas, 3040 ‘other indigenous races’ (Karens, Kachins and Chins) and 159 Burmans—one Burman for every 39 non-Burmans.” There were 69 non-Burman officers for every Burman one, and the “authorities opened Burma to immigration of Indian labourers, merchants, and moneylenders.” Traditional clan loyalties were broken down as peasants migrated to the cities, and a new economy underpinned on Indian capital was created.
Most of the conditions for the civil war were thus in place by the first decade of the twentieth century. Burmans were the majority community, yet foreigners made most of the important decisions affecting their lives and economy. English was replacing Burmese as the language of the educated elite. An alien religion [Christianity] was spreading among them, diminishing the importance of the sangha, and Western newspapers and books, that of the Tripitaka. And this inversion of the natural order, the Burmans believed, would not have been possible but for the treasonable collaboration with the British invaders of some of the despised minorities—their former subjects.
THE HISTORY of the Burmese independence movement is one of Burman nationalism, the struggle of a race in decline uniting to fight for its interests. Educated Burmans came together to form the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) in 1906, which became a nationalist umbrella group called the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA) in 1920. The GCBA split as the British introduced electoral politics in the 1920s and, as the future Burmese president Dr Maung Maung wrote, political parties “grew like mushrooms after the rains…All hit the high road to the legislative council, political jobs and privilege”.
By the end of the decade, Burman polity was divided along familiar lines of traditionalists and modernists, as well as on the question of home rule. (Most minorities, fearing home rule would equate to Burman majoritarian rule, were cool to the prospect.) However, after the fanciful Saya San rebellion, in which a former monk styled himself as a mythical bird king and encouraged his unarmed followers to attack military police, was suppressed using mostly Indian troops, and a mob of Burmans killed Indian dock workers and their families in Rangoon, claiming they were taking away Burman jobs, in 1930, YMBA and GCBA veterans came together to form the Dobama Asiayone, or the We Burmans Association, with the rallying cry “Burma for the Burmans.”
Ideological and personal divisions, of which there were many, were papered over by uniting against a common enemy, through boycotts of Indian and Chinese traders as well as an exhortation to promote local goods and the Burmese language, and an increasingly strident call for independence. The Thirty Comrades led by Aung San, who went to Japan in 1940 to train and formed the core of the Burma Independence Army (BIA), were all members of the Dobama.
Ideological and personal divisions, of which there were many, were papered over by uniting against a common enemy, through boycotts of Indian and Chinese traders as well as an exhortation to promote local goods and the Burmese language, and an increasingly strident call for independence.
The Japanese army, supported by Aung San’s BIA and Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, invaded Burma in January 1942. By the time they reached Rangoon in March, the BIA’s strength had increased from 300 to 12,000, eventually growing to 18,000. As they ejected the British from the country, however, many atrocities against minorities as well as fleeing Indian refugees were reported.
In the Arakan, the Rakhine were one of the few minority groups in the country to side with the BIA, while the retreating British armed Rohingya villages to form a buffer against the advancing Japanese. Tensions had been simmering between the two communities as a result of the mass migration that followed the British conquest and the upending of the old social order, and the region descended into communal violence that each side calls a massacre by the other. Rohingya villages were attacked in the south, where the Rakhine formed a majority, while Rakhine villages in the Rohingya-majority north suffered the same fate. Battle lines were drawn that have only deepened in the following decades.
IIIChris Lewa, who heads the Arakan Project, an advocacy group for the Rohingya refugees, does not like to refer to the state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya as genocide. The word is over-the-top, she says, and not useful to promoting dialogue about the issue within Myanmar. She prefers the terminology used by Human Rights Watch—“ethnic cleansing…one community and government trying to get rid of another community, trying to get them to leave the country.”
Successive governments have used the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide not so much as the legal definition of an unconscionable crime but as an instruction manual.
It is hard, however, to ignore the argument made by a number of academics and activists, most recently by the London-based International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), that “genocide is taking place in Myanmar and [there is] serious and present danger of the annihilation of the country’s Rohingya population.” The Allard K Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale is more circumspect, saying that such a conclusion “would require a full and independent investigation”, but that assuming the information it has received is credible, there is “strong evidence that genocide is being committed against Rohingya.” Successive governments have, after all, used the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide not so much as the legal definition of an unconscionable crime but as an instruction manual.
The Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin wrote in 1944 that “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation…It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” Article II of the convention defines genocide as
…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The first four acts have been widely reported to have been perpetrated by the government, security forces and local political groups.
INDEPENDENCE FROM the British left the nascent Burmese state facing deep ethnic tensions. The British had retaken the country largely with the aid of the hill tribes, but the BIA, rechristened the Burma National Army (BNA), had struck the final blow by betraying the Japanese. At the head of a powerful army that could cause an overnight insurrection—one which could not be stopped using Indian troops; Nehru and the Congress had protested noisily when Indian troops were used to aid colonists in Indochina, and Field Marshal Auchinleck had advised against future such action—as well as the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, a coalition of the major Burman political parties, Aung San was well-placed to negotiate with the British to include BNA soldiers in the army as well as abandon plans for a gradual transition to independence in favour of an immediate settlement.
The accelerated timeline, however, meant that crucial discussions about issues like autonomy and federalism could not be satisfactorily settled, and various ethnic groups rose in revolt. The civil war that ensued led to the strengthening of the military at the expense of the civilian government, and Ne Win, one of the original Thirty Comrades, seized power in a military coup in 1962.
In the Arakan, insurgencies broke out both among the Rakhine, led by the former monk U Seinda and seeking ethnic statehood and autonomy, and the Rohingya, who demanded that the Muslim-majority Mayu Division be either granted independence or merged with neighbouring East Pakistan. Neither struggle amounted to much; U Seinda accepted the U Nu government’s “Arms for Peace” deal, while the Rohingya groups, spurned by Pakistan and the Burmese governments, also agreed to local ceasefires.
The 1948 Burmese Constitution, adopted by a constituent assembly whose elections were boycotted by most political parties and minority groups, defined citizenship not as an individual right that stemmed from birth, but as a right accruing from membership of one of “the indigenous races of Burma”.
The 1948 Burmese Constitution, adopted by a constituent assembly whose elections were boycotted by most political parties and minority groups, defined citizenship not as an individual right that stemmed from birth, but as a right accruing from membership of one of “the indigenous races of Burma”. The Union Citizenship Act of the same year did not include the Rohingya in the list of indigenous races. It did allow people “descended from ancestors who for two generations at least have all made any of the territories included within the Union their permanent home” to apply for citizenship, provided they applied within a year of the law taking effect, and many Rohingya took advantage of the rule.
The law also required parents to register their children once they reached 10 years of age, but after the 1962 coup, the government gradually stopped registering Rohingya children. Ne Win declared the Rohingya were “Indian Bengalis”; the erasure of Rohingya history and identity has since become official state policy. In 1974, citing an influx of refugees during the Bangladesh war, the government passed the Emergency Immigration Act, which required all citizens to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingya, however, were issued only foreign registration cards, which weren’t recognised by most schools or employers, limiting education and employment opportunities and setting into motion the cycle of sustained deprivation Farid was complaining about.
In 1978, the government launched the Naga Min Sitsin Yae, or Operation King Dragon, in northern Arakan. It was, Human Rights Watch reported, “a national effort to register citizens and screen out foreigners prior to a national census. By May 1978, more than 200,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh: this, the Burmese authorities claimed, signified the Rohingya’s illegal status in Burma. Refugees reported that the Burmese army had forcibly evicted them and alleged widespread army brutality, rape and murder.” The international community soon convinced Ne Win’s government to take back the refugees by dangling an aid package. The government hit back in 1982, by introducing a citizenship law that seemed to be designed to exclude the Rohingya.
Operation Dragon King was, Human Rights Watch reported, “a national effort to register citizens and screen out foreigners prior to a national census.”
The 1982 law provided for three types of citizenship, each with its own identity cards. Full citizens, those registered under the 1948 act and their children, were issued pink cards. “Those Rohingya who had the old National Registration Cards,” another HRW report says, “were ordered to turn in their cards when they made an application for citizenship under the new law: many of them complained that they had received neither new documents nor the old ones back.” Associate citizenship (blue cards) could be granted subject to certain conditions provided applications were filed before October 1983, almost impossible to do for returning refugees, which left naturalised citizenship (green cards) as the only option.
However, both associate and naturalised citizenship required documentary evidence of ancestry, something most Rohingya didn’t possess, and the law gave the government tremendous discretion in deciding who could be granted such citizenship, as well as what rights they would entail. “In the south of Rakhine State, some 2,000 Rohingya applied,” says Lewa, “and they got naturalised citizenship. The problem is that with the naturalised citizenship, they still could not move. So there was very little incentive to apply for citizenship [under] those conditions. And in the north, the people decided to refuse categorically to apply, so basically now they have no status at all.” It was only after sustained pressure from the UNHCR and the Bangladesh government that the government began issuing white temporary registration cards, marked “not evidence of citizenship” and listing their race as “Bengali” or “Muslim”, to the Rohingya in 1995, a year after it stopped issuing birth certificates to Rohingya children.
WHAT DOES it mean to be denied a country? What is the state of statelessness like? Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that everybody has the right to a nationality and that nobody can be arbitrarily denied theirs. Nationality, after all, is fundamentally the right to have rights; the Declaration was a covenant between nations, not people. “Through the loss of nationality and citizenship, and therefore the means through which any guarantee of human rights can be actualized,” writes Patrick Balazo, “the human being is reduced to a state of bare existence, an existence that is itself the ultimate expression of precariousness.” There are some 12 million stateless people around the world.
Nationality is fundamentally the right to have rights; the Declaration was a covenant between nations, not people. “Through the loss of nationality and citizenship, and therefore the means through which any guarantee of human rights can be actualized,” writes Patrick Balazo, “the human being is reduced to a state of bare existence, an existence that is itself the ultimate expression of precariousness.”
As stateless people, the Rohingya are denied all sorts of rights. Most of them cannot vote or stand for elections. Even in the historic polls in November, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a large majority, only the 2,000 who had applied for naturalised citizenship were allowed to vote, and dozens of Muslims who applied to run for parliament from around the country were rejected, even by the NLD. (The Rohingya had been allowed to use the temporary registration cards to vote in the past, but following protests by Buddhist nationalist groups in February, the government cancelled the right to vote.) They have no legal standing in Burmese courts, and no legal right to the land they cultivate. They have little access to education and employment, great difficulty starting businesses, and limitations on how much property they can own.
The Rohingya are also bound by the provisions of the 1864 Foreigners Act, which provides for a strict licensing regime for foreigners moving through Burma. “The net effect of the Act,” says a report by the Irish Centre for Human Rights (ICHR), “is that Rohingyas who wish to travel from one village to another, or from one township to another, or indeed to any part of the country must apply to the relevant authority…for a license or permit. The procedure for obtaining a license is often expensive—both in terms of application fees and the bribe required—and can take up to two months to be processed with no guarantee of a positive outcome.”
This has made the task of genocide considerably easier. Between March 1991 and May 1992, shortly after it had countermanded the results of the first multi-party elections in 30 years, the military waged a campaign of forced labour, arbitrary land confiscations, restrictions on freedom of movement, rape, torture and summary executions in the north Arakan, as a result of which around 270,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. The ostensible reason for the military crackdown was to defeat the Rohingya insurgencies, but as Bertil Lintner reported in the Far East Economic Review in 1991, the insurgencies had a combined strength of 800 men and little public support. The SLORC “needed a scapegoat, a distraction and [a] common enemy to unite a disillusioned and angry populace” after the election, Lintner wrote. “They chose the Rohingyas.”
The SLORC “needed a scapegoat, a distraction and [a] common enemy to unite a disillusioned and angry populace” after the election, Lintner wrote. “They chose the Rohingyas.”
In April 1992, however, Bangladesh took the matter to the Security Council, and again the junta agreed to take the refugees back. The same year, it created the NaSaKa. As the ICHR report states, “part of the function of the NaSaKa [was] to ensure that such an exodus, which would attract the attention of the international community, [did] not happen.”
INSTEAD, THE new strategy was to make conditions unbearable so that Rohingya had no option but to flee, but keep the exodus to a trickle. (Just to be sure, the army laid mines along the border.) The heavy militarisation of the region by the NaSaKa meant that the returning refugees found conditions worse than ever—sure, the rape and murder became more sporadic than systematic, but the NaSaKa acted as an occupation force, regulating every aspect of Rohingya lives. (After 9/11, terrorism replaced Rohingya insurgents as the stated reason for the military occupation.) The increased restrictions on mobility limited their access to markets, health facilities and employment opportunities. Also, Lewa writes,
In the late 1990s, a local order was issued in North Arakan, applying exclusively to the Muslim population, requiring couples planning to marry to obtain official permission from the local authorities—usually the NaSaKa…Marriage authorisations are granted on the payment of fees and bribes and can take up to several years to obtain. This is beyond the means of the poorest. This local order also prohibits any cohabitation or sexual contact outside wedlock. It is not backed by any domestic legislation but breaching it can lead to prosecution, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
There were other forms of oppression. Many mosques were demolished or shuttered by the military, and were forbidden to be rebuilt. Muslim businesses were driven away from town cenres, and Rohingya were subject to arbitrary taxation. Their lands were seized, often with just a week’s notice, and model villages constructed on them, usually through forced labour by the Rohingya themselves. These were settled by Rakhine, while many Rohingya in the southern part of the state were forced to relocate to the north. Males as young as 10 were forced into manual labour, and there are reports of Rohingya being killed for refusing. In 2004, a court sentenced three people to death for high treason because they had contacted the International Labour Organisation to report forced labour, though the Supreme Court commuted the sentence upon appeal.
Muslim businesses were driven away from town cenres, and Rohingya were subject to arbitrary taxation. Their lands were seized, often with just a week’s notice, and model villages constructed on them, usually through forced labour by the Rohingya themselves.
Although the government claims the riots in 2012 following the alleged rape and murder of Ma Thida Htwe by four Rohingya men on 28 May were spontaneous communal violence, the ISCI’s interviews with Rakhines who participated violence suggests there was significant planning and organisation behind the attacks. “The June massacre of the Rohingya in 2012 was for all intents and purposes Rakhine state’s Kristallnacht—designed to terrorise and displace the local population as well as to test the response of higher government authorities,” the report says.
It alleges that days before the violence started, activists sent letters to Rakhine villages, asking each household to send at least one man between the age of 20 and 40 to the capital, Sittwe, to participate in the attacks on Rohingya neighbourhoods from 4–7 June. They were bussed in and out every day, and given free meals. “Rohingya survivors and Rakhine participants identified local Rakhine businessmen, Rakhine civil society leaders and ANP politicians as the chief organisers.” The security forces did not intervene until the fourth day of the violence, and are reported to have joined in. Not one Rakhine has been prosecuted for participating in the violence.
THE ANP, or the Arakan National Party, was then known as the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party. (The RNDP merged with the Arakan League for Democracy in 2014.) Although ostensibly secular, the party has demonstrated streaks of Buddhist nationalism, even as it speaks of centuries of oppression by the Burmans. Of late, it has bought into the government propaganda that the Muslims, not the State, are the real enemies of the Rakhine, and has been known to cite the Nazis to justify its anti-Muslim actions. “Hitler and Eichmann were the enemy of the Jews, but they were probably heroes to the Germans,” reads a November 2012 editorial in The Progress, the RNDP magazine. “In order for a country’s survival, the survival of a race, or in defence of national sovereignty, crimes against humanity or in-human acts may justifiably be committed.” Along with the local clergy, they have for years demonised Muslims in ways that will be familiar to those who have watched the Hindu Right operate in India—they accuse them of being illegal immigrants, of having too many children and threatening the demographic balance, of having destroyed temples in the past, of cow slaughter, even allegations of love jihad.
“Hitler and Eichmann were the enemy of the Jews, but they were probably heroes to the Germans,” reads a November 2012 editorial in The Progress, the RNDP magazine. “In order for a country’s survival, the survival of a race, or in defence of national sovereignty, crimes against humanity or in-human acts may justifiably be committed.”
There are more monks than soldiers in the country, and they wield tremendous influence and moral authority over Burmese society. Although they have on occasion used this power to stand up to the military government, much of the political intervention by the Sangha involves espousing ethno-religious nationalism and anti-Muslim propaganda.
The 2012 violence saw the rise of two prominent monastic nationalist movements, whom Lewa calls “a cancer in Burma right now”: 969 and Ma Ba Tha. As one monk told Al Jazeera under condition of anonymity, “Ma Ba Tha and 969 are controlled by the military and when it wants a problem to take place, at the right moment, like turning on a water faucet it will turn it on when it wants and turn it off when it doesn’t. It’s an ember that it’s keeping so that it can start a flame when necessary.”
Ashin Wirathu, the most prominent spokesperson for 969 and known for his virulent anti-Muslim rants, was imprisoned in 2003 for inciting violence against Muslims and challenging the dictatorship. Another monk interviewed by Al Jazeera says that he developed a special relationship with military intelligence—they provided him food from outside—and he was given amnesty in 2012, following which he continued to preach hate. “Muslims are only well-behaved when they are weak,” he told the BBC in 2013. “When they are strong they are like a wolf or a jackal, in large packs they hunt down other animals.” The Ma Ba Tha was formed in 2014 and includes members of the 969. It “is more explicitly political and centralised than 969,” says the ISCI, “and is well known for anti-Muslim activities and ideology. Charged with ‘protecting and promoting’ Buddhism, it also demonises Islam as the greatest threat to Buddhist Myanmar.”
The two groups and the ANP helped the military in continuing the genocidal project, distributing pamphlets and CDs warning of Muslim expansionism and stoking fears of Rohingya plans of conducting ethnic cleansing of the Rakhine.
The two groups and the ANP helped the military in continuing the genocidal project, distributing pamphlets and CDs warning of Muslim expansionism and stoking fears of Rohingya plans of conducting ethnic cleansing of the Rakhine. They called for economic and social boycotts of Muslims and the expulsion of NGOs that helped the Rohingya. They successfully campaigned for stricter marriage laws, restricting Muslim families to two children, requiring Buddhist women under 20 to obtain parental consent before marrying a non-Buddhist, and banning polygamy. Last January, when Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, criticised these “race protection laws”, Wirathu attacked her during a rally. “We have explained about the race protection law,” he thundered, “but the bitch criticised the laws without studying them properly. Don’t assume that you are a respectable person because of your position. For us, you’re a whore.”
The enormous influence wielded by these groups in mainstream Burmese consciousness is what prevented Daw Suu from expressing any misgivings she might have had about the treatment faced by the Rohingya. The Ma Ba Tha, after all, with members in over half of Myanmar’s cities, threatened to boycott any party that insufficiently embraced “Buddhist principles”. It isn’t only the NLD; many editors say there is great self-censorship in the Burmese media when talking about the Rohingya issue for fear of violence.
Daw Suu’s silence, which drew criticism the world over and causes the Rohingya I met at Balapur to be sceptical of any change in their fortunes under an NLD government, didn’t help her in Rakhine State, though it might have helped achieve the overwhelming majorities in the rest of the country. The Ma Ba Tha had anyway distributed pamphlets warning people not to vote for the NLD, and nationalist forces succeeded in vitiating the atmosphere and stoking communal passions. The elections in the state were swept by the ANP, which won 10 of the 12 seats for the House of Nationalities, 12 of 17 seats for the House of Representatives, and 22 of 32 elected seats in the state legislature.
The enormous influence wielded by these groups in mainstream Burmese consciousness is what prevented Daw Suu from expressing any misgivings she might have had about the treatment faced by the Rohingya. The Ma Ba Tha, after all, with members in over half of Myanmar’s cities, threatened to boycott any party that insufficiently embraced “Buddhist principles”.
“Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have to fight these kinds of people,” says Lewa, “and as you can see, they are very powerful. Even after the election, they continue with anti-Muslim rhetoric. I think partly the reaction of Aung San Suu Kyi is not to further inflame the situation in the country and keep her majority Buddhist support base, but also, to be honest, I think it is part of a general prejudice there is in the country, that is also tainting the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi herself.”
THE RIOTS were followed by a state of emergency, and the government endorsed the policy of segregation between Rakhine and Rohingya. By September 2012 some 70,000 Rohingya were staying in IDP camps, a number that doubled over the next year. The Lowenstein Clinic report had this to say of conditions in these glorified detention camps:
The conditions in the IDP camps in Rakhine State constitute a humanitarian crisis. After touring the camps, the UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs declared, “I have seen many camps during my time as the (UN emergency relief coordinator), but the conditions in this camp rank among the worst.” The IDP camps are overcrowded and Rohingya inhabiting them face severe restrictions on freedom of movement and lack access to basic resources, including sources of income, food, education, and life-saving medicine and care.…
Rohingya living in IDP camps face chronic food shortages. The state government has routinely rejected requests of displaced Rohingya for food rations…The Myanmar Army and Rakhine citizens prevent humanitarian aid from reaching the camps…Rohingya have stated that the lack of access to healthcare during pregnancy is an attempt to prevent births, and many have reported cases of otherwise-avoidable maternal mortality.
In the north, meanwhile, the conditions caused by militarisation have remained. In February 2014, Médecins Sans Frontières, “by far the biggest health provider in the northern part of Rakhine”, was expelled from the province after it spoke in public about treating Rohingya survivors of a recent attack in Maungdaw. The government allowed them back last January after international pressure, but has continued discriminatory practices that perpetuate poverty.
Unable to work or educate themselves, alienated from their lands, the Rohingya are left in limbo, seemingly marking time before staying becomes unbearable, relying on aid agencies for rations and trying to avoid falling on the wrong side of the authorities.
Unable to work or educate themselves, alienated from their lands, the Rohingya are left in limbo, seemingly marking time before staying becomes unbearable, relying on aid agencies for rations and trying to avoid falling on the wrong side of the authorities. The latter bit is hard, since they face constant harassment by security forces over the tiniest of offences. They are fined heavily, says Oli Ahmed, a refugee at the Balapur camp, who voted for an opposition party in the 2010 election and soon found himself being regularly summoned to the police station on trumped up charges. “You have to walk,” he says, “because if you go in a car, they’ll fine you more.”
Mohammed Hosain, a farmer, had his house raided on multiple occasions by the NaSaKa, who claimed he had a phone with a Bangladeshi sim. Burmese CDMA sim cards cost 400,000 kyat, well beyond the reach of most Rohingya, so many buy Bangladeshi sims that are more than 10 times cheaper. Hosain, however, didn’t have one. “They would raid my house, then when they didn’t find anything, they would take me to the station and beat me. Then they would fine me. The first time, they asked for 150,000, then 100,000, then 50,000. I ran out of money, so I escaped. What else could I do?”
IVAnd so he ran, with his family of nine. Hounded out of the country of their birth because some corporal couldn’t be ersed to find some other family to extort. Destined to be outsiders wherever they go. Driven out like their parents had been, and their parents’ parents. But those other times had been tides; they were part of a trickle. The trouble with being a trickle, as the junta sagely foresaw, is that nobody notices it. There is no great outcry in the West, no global wave of sympathy, no diplomatic pressure to overcome the distinct lack of local sympathy.
The trouble with being a trickle, as the junta sagely foresaw, is that nobody notices it. There is no great outcry in the West, no global wave of sympathy, no diplomatic pressure to overcome the distinct lack of local sympathy.
For there is little sympathy indeed for the Rohingya in their immediate neighbourhood. Neither Bangladesh nor India, nor for that matter any Southeast Asian nation bar Cambodia and the Philippines, is one of the 145 signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention or one of the 146 members of the 1967 Protocol. This means they are not bound by international law, unlike most nations, to provide refugees a whole range of rights—non-refoulement; the right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions; the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State; the right to work; to housing; to education; to public relief and assistance; to freedom of religion; the right to access the courts; to freedom of movement; the right to be issued identity and travel documents.
It means that these nations deal with refugees in an ad hoc manner, usually depending on politics and diplomacy. “India is very clear that it does not want to be bound by any law or be drawn into litigation on questions of how it treats refugees,” says Basavapatna. “You will notice that the ones in which it has been called to the courts are ones which have concerned the most basic of rights, such as Refugee Status Determination, or those involving either the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Chakmas or the Hindus from Pakistan. The government’s policy as far as these groups, is clear; they will be assisted because the political considerations and its ramifications are too serious to be ignored. As far as the other nationalities are concerned, the government has and wants to have more room for manoeuvre.”
Bangladesh hasn’t signed the Protocol for similar reasons. Its treatment of the Rohingya hasn’t been exemplary, either. In 1978, after Operation King Dragon, Bangladesh sought to dissuade refugees from crossing over by withholding food and humanitarian aid from the camps, as a result of which over 12,000 refugees died of starvation. Then in 1991–92, after another tide of refugees, the government was more brutal in its attempts at repatriation. As one villager in Maungdaw told a mission of inquiry from the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues,
We left because the Bangladeshi authorities forced us to do so. At first, they told us that the situation had become safer in Burma, as they wanted to convince us to leave. Then, they confiscated our ration cards to prevent us from getting food: this was blackmail aimed at urging us to leave. When the UNHCR came to visit the camp, we told them about our situation and they promised that we would get the ration cards back. After the UNHCR left, the camp authorities looked for the spokesmen who had talked to the UNHCR and they were beaten. The next time the UNHCR came to visit the camp, we told them about the violence. Once again, those who spoke were beaten. The Bangladeshi authorities threatened us: “You’ll get into big trouble if you do not go back to your country. Nobody can protect you here.”
The law minister has announced a draft law that would disallow Rohingya marriages, either to each other or to a Bangladeshi national. The Guardian reported in 2012 that the NGO Affairs Bureau in Dhaka has a policy of not approving plans for educational and health facilities in Cox’s Bazar, even those benefiting locals.
Today, the border district of Cox’s Bazar has anywhere between 300,000–500,000 Rohingya. The trickle has become a flood. However, only a tenth are registered as refugees, mostly those who have been in Bangladesh since 1992. The government only registers new births among this section. The registered refugees live in UNHCR camps, with rations provided by the government and a network of NGOs provide sanitation, healthcare and education up till Class VI (though attempts are underway to extend it to Class VIII).
The rest, however, live in leda, or makeshift settlements, some of which are located right opposite the official camps. Though they do not face en masse arrest, they are provided no facilities by the State, left to survive by their own devices. They are also denied the freedom to move to other districts as well as the right to work. Most survive on the informal sector, working for half the amount as native Bangladeshis in fish farms or as rickshaw pullers or domestic help.
However, the Rohingya are increasingly viewed with suspicion by the Bangladeshi government. “Bangladesh’s Awami League government,” Subir Bhaumik wrote in India Today, “sees them as Islamist extremists closer to their arch-rivals, the Jamaat-e-Islami.” The law minister has announced a draft law that would disallow Rohingya marriages, either to each other or to a Bangladeshi national. The Guardian reported in 2012 that the NGO Affairs Bureau in Dhaka has a policy of not approving plans for educational and health facilities in Cox’s Bazar, even those benefiting locals. There is talk of moving the camps away from Cox’s Bazar, a tourist town, but local authorities are sceptical such a move can be executed. There is also talk of registering the new refugees in order to facilitate repatriation were Myanmar to take them back. Much of the discourse about the Rohingya in Bangladesh treats them as an internal security matter, not a humanitarian issue.
THE SUSPICION extends this side of the border as well. It seems a foregone conclusion by both the Indian and Bangladeshi government that a population this oppressed must have been radicalised. However, while it is true that groups like the Taliban have urged the Rohingya to take up arms and there is a history of Rohingya insurgent groups, there has been no conclusive evidence tying the Rohingya to acts of terror.
Not that attempts haven’t been made. On the night of 29 September 2012, a mob of 25,000 people attacked Buddhist monasteries, shrines and houses in the Ramu upazila of Cox’s Bazar after an image desecrating the Quran appeared on Facebook. Bangladeshi authorities were quick to blame Rohingya refugees, but subsequent investigations found it was locals behind the attack. Similarly, following the Burdwan blast in 2014, the NIA arrested Khalid Mohammad, a Rohingya in Hyderabad, leading to much hysteria in the media about the terror threat posed by the refugees. There was very little coverage when he was exonerated six months later, though he is still facing charges of possessing fake documents. The Rohingya at Balapur allege that they are often questioned by police and intelligence agencies as a result.
Rohingya migration to India is fairly recent, having begun only in the last decade. “In India,” Basavapatna writes, “the image of the Rohingyas is unenviable—foreigner, Muslim, stateless, suspected Bangladeshi national, illiterate, impoverished and dispersed across the length and breadth of the country.” The government response to the migration has been haphazard, a consequence of not having an official refugee policy.
“In India,” Basavapatna writes, “the image of the Rohingyas is unenviable—foreigner, Muslim, stateless, suspected Bangladeshi national, illiterate, impoverished and dispersed across the length and breadth of the country.”
There is “an indeterminate body of judge-made law and delegated legislation” that constitutes refugee law in India, providing certain basic rights. While there is a formal procedure to register as a refugee, a large number have been arrested for violation of the Foreigners Act, 1946—a British-era legislation that has caused the incarceration of Rohingya in three countries—and the Passports Act of 1929. (Many of these have asked the authorities to treat them as Bangladeshi migrants, for fear of being repatriated to Myanmar.) The formal procedure is also a recent development, following protests by the Rohingya outside the UNHCR office in Delhi in 2012, which got the government to agree to issue long-term visas to registered refugees.
The documentation process is conducted by the implementation partners of the UNHCR, such as COVA. The first step is to register with COVA, but Mohammad Moosa Azmi, the Registration Officer, says that many take a few days to come to the COVA office, since they often arrive in the city with few possessions, and settling in and getting employment is their first priority. Azmi helps them fill the Application Mandatory for Refugee Status, which is sent to the Delhi office of the UNHCR, after which a Refugee Status Determination interview is scheduled, usually twice a month. (These are usually conducted in Delhi, but due to the poor socioeconomic conditions of the Rohingya refugees, an exception was made.) The whole process can take months, even years, and there is a backlog of RSD interviews; in the interim, they are issued asylum seeker cards, though only after the RSD interview. To protect them from police harassment before that, Azmi hands out his visiting card, so that they can contact him in case of any trouble.
COVA also helps enrol refugee children in local schools as well as get hospitals to admit them. There are also a number of charitable organisations that provide shelter and vital supplies, as well as means for the Rohingya to improve their lot in life, such as micro loans. The Salamah Trust, which donated the land for the Rohingya settlement, also runs a girls’ school. In Delhi, the Zakat Foundation has provided similar support, as have other organisations in different cities.
These NGOs are filling a void left by state inaction, however, and though their efforts are “life-sustaining,” Basavapatna writes, “transforming conditions of slums and springing the poverty trap should remain central to the Rohingya debate.”
These NGOs are filling a void left by state inaction, however, and though their efforts are “life-sustaining,” Basavapatna writes, “transforming conditions of slums and springing the poverty trap should remain central to the Rohingya debate.” The HRLN’s fact-finding missions in Delhi and Mewat were part of a writ petition before the Supreme Court asking for an improvement in conditions, arguing that despite escaping persecution, the Rohingya were being subjected to further violations of the rights to life, maternal health and basic human dignity.
“Jaffarullah’s petition,” however, Basavapatna says, referring to the case, “was ill-planned even if it had the right intentions. It was filed by one of UNHCR’s implementing partners, but the HCR was clear that it would not be involved in any litigation. It is important because it raises some pertinent questions regarding the standard of living of Rohingyas in Delhi and Mewat. However, the Rohingya policy has to be thought out (and is being thought out) on a number of other considerations. There are organisations working to make health, sanitation, water supply and hygeine more accessible. In that sense, the writ petition’s prayers are being answered. But if the question is to get the government of India to consider a refugee policy—which the petition does not speak about but should have taken the trouble to—it has failed to do so. Further, the writ has not come up for hearing and nothing seems to be done to expedite it.”
FARID AHMAD is convinced that escaping the poverty trap is not possible in India or Bangladesh. He is not alone. Many Rohingya have come to the conclusion that their only chance for a future is to migrate to other countries in search of employment. Such migration is very hard; Bangladesh used to allow resettlement for registered refugees but stopped because the measure was deemed to be a pull factor for refugees, while it is possible if one has relatives settled abroad and registered with the UNHCR to join them. India has provided such a facility to other refugees, including the Rakhine, but not to the Rohingya. This desire was behind the latest tide of Rohingya refugees to attract the world’s attention—the boat people of last May. So great was the global outpouring of concern and support that followed visuals of thousands stranded at sea that even Gambia, the poorest nation on Earth, offered to take in Rohingya refugees.
The “boat crisis” was precipitated after the Thai government began cracking down on people smugglers, who were known to often hold the people they were smuggling in jungle camps until a ransom was paid. The smugglers responded by abandoning the boats at sea, while Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia refused to allow the migrants to land.
Since the beginning of the troubles in Rakhine State, Rohingya have been known to escape to Thailand by boat. Trafficking networks in Thailand have historically allowed—for a hefty price—the Rohingya to pass through the country and on to Malaysia, which used to issue residence and work permits to Rohingya before suspending the process due to allegations of fraud. Reaching Thailand and Malaysia is also a transit to move to other countries with better job prospects, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Remittances from abroad are often the largest source of income for Rohingya families.
Following the mining of the Bangladesh border and the heightened persecution since 2012, the number of people willing to take the risk, and expense, of a maritime crossing has increased. These years have also seen a major rise in attempts to make similar crossings from Bangladesh. Sengupta says that the roots of the recent rise in marine migration from Bangladesh lie in a memorandum signed between the Bangladeshi and Malaysian governments in 2012, “according to which Malaysia would formally receive workers from Bangladesh in the plantation, agriculture, manufacturing, construction and service sectors.” She says news of the deal created the image of Malaysia as some sort of land of opportunity, and even though the agreement collapsed due to logistical reasons, an illegal trafficking network was set up, which is availed by both Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants. Some 95,000 people have attempted the crossing since 2014, while over 1,100 have died at sea.
The “boat crisis” was precipitated after the Thai government began cracking down on people smugglers, who were known to often hold the people they were smuggling in jungle camps until a ransom was paid. The smugglers responded by abandoning the boats at sea, while Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia refused to allow the migrants to land. (The only ones to help were fishermen from the island of Aceh.) Malaysia and Thailand were eventually convinced, after international outrage, to provide “temporary shelters” in the form of detention camps. The UNHCR is attempting to find a more permanent solution through regional coordination, but observers expect little progress, and there is little clarity over what would happen were maritime migration to resume on a large scale. There is little prospect of meaningful dialogue as long as it is treated as a security issue and not a humanitarian one, after all.
The solutions for the Rohingya problem lie within Myanmar, in the new government defusing communal tensions in Rakhine State, reversing the policies of ethnic cleansing and acknowledging the right of the Rohingya to inhabit their native land without fear.
The solutions for the Rohingya problem lie within Myanmar, in the new government defusing communal tensions in Rakhine State, reversing the policies of ethnic cleansing and acknowledging the right of the Rohingya to inhabit their native land without fear. However, their plight has exposed deficiencies in our response to humanitarian crises. Deficiencies that have not only made life that much harder for helpless people fleeing brutal violence, but have also exposed the limitations of our claims as countries that cherish human rights.