Rohingya travel hundreds of nautical miles thus to escape economic and civil oppre3ssion.
by Marque A. Rome
Thai governments — whether of yellow or red stripe — have in recent years suffered mounting international criticism owing to treatment of Rohingya refugees, who dare journey in flimsy open boats, typically with insufficient supplies, across the Indian Ocean in hope of finding somewhere a livelihood and home.
Many come ashore along Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast. The Thais, however, among whom xenophobia forms a cultural trait, do not welcome stateless immigrants, especially not economic refugees adhering to the Muslim faith.
Thai law is quite clear on the point, the gist of which is, Thailand is for Thai people; visitors are welcome, but legal immigration is sharply restricted. A number of small ethnic groups around the country has suffered under these strictures, notably the northern hilltribes and Sea Gypsies here in the south. Formerly, though native for generations past, they were perceived as unwanted outsiders and denied citizenship.
Rohingya have lived in refugee camps in Bangladesh for decades.
That has gradually changed.
Sea Gypsies, for example, who appear to be the Andaman coast’s aboriginal inhabitants, now have full rights of citizenship and royally bestowed surnames.
But still no legal apparatus is in place for dealing with immigrants in an orderly way. Unwanted visitors are deported. But what can be done with those unwanted in their home countries, where officials deny them repatriation?
That is the unfortunate case of the Rohingya, whose home is on the Arakan coast of Burma: the Burmese don’t want them there and will not accept them back.
Their enervation may be forgiven after days at sea without shelter.
So the Thais are placed in the invidious position either of accepting entry by an alien and impoverished group or…pushing them back whence they came — back into the sea. This has sometimes been done, prompting criticism from abroad. Thus the government is now creating a permanent plan for dealing with the Rohingya boat people.
What that will encompass remains to be seen, but the question naturally arises, “Who are the Rohingya and why have they no home?”
Their origins are vague but not because lost in the shrouds of antiquity; they appear, as an ethnic group, only recently. Burmese historian Khin Maung Saw asserts that the term ‘Rohingya’ does not appear before the 1950s. Another historian, Dr. Maung Maung, noted no ‘Rohingya’ are mentioned in the British 1824 census survey.
Aye Chan, of Kanda University of International Studies, has written that ‘Rohingya’ was adopted as a name by Bengalis in the 1950s whose forbears had migrated to Arakan during the British Raj. Many came at the behest of British employers but found themselves no longer wanted, and, indeed, stateless, after Burma’s independence in 1947. Aye Chan also argues that no record exists of ‘Rohingya’ in any language before the ’50s.
Arakan, in western Burma, borders East Bengal, now the nation of Bangladesh, so it seems reasonable to accept that the group’s origins are there, especially as they are Muslim, and the Burmese — for whom Buddhism is regarded as a defining national trait — do not accept them as native. They also speak a language related to Chittagonian, a Bengal dialect common in the south along Bangladesh’s border with Burma.
A 500-year-old coin the Rohingya think indicates their antiquity as a nation.
The Rohingya themselves derive their origin from a fanciful story: the 8th Century shipwreck of an Arab trading vessel whose crew begged — and received — mercy from Arakan’s local raja when he ordered them killed. The Rohingya said they were allowed to stay and have been in Arakan since.
However the case may be, relations between the Rohingya and the Burmese long have been uneasy. A 1939 study carried out under the auspices of British authorities, anxious that animosity might flare into violence between the Arakanese majority and Muslim migrants, concluded that migration from Bengal should be greatly reduced.
That British fears of violence were not misplaced became evident after the Japanese conquest of Burma in 1942: On 28th March of that year, perhaps 5,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Arakanese nationalists and Karens. The animosity was not all on one side, Muslims in northern Arakan massacred some 20,000 Arakanese.
"One law for both the Lion and the Ox," wrote Blake, "Opression." It has certainly been that of the Rohingya since long before most were born.
By no means all Burmese Muslims are Rohingya, but during World War II Muslim Bengali immigrants largely supported the British against the Japanese, who invaded the country in the guise of liberators. Support for the British was equated as opposition to Burmese nationalism — and so left the Rohingya with few friends after independence.
During the war, Rohingya support for the British manifested itself in active collaboration. They provided intelligence to British commanders fighting the Japanese, who reciprocated with brutal reprisals of a type similar in kind to the notorious Rape of Nanking: massacre, rape, murder, torture, extortion and forced labour. Tens of thousands fled into Bengal.
Since the war, various military governments in Burma have, for domestic political reasons, regularly incited violence against the Rohingya and other minorities. The former are an easy target, being strongly religious and — with their mosques and madrasa schools — plainly opposed to integration with the Buddhist majority, leading to further displacement of the community.
Amnesty International has noted that:
“Rohingyas’ freedom of movement is severely restricted, the vast majority are effectively denied Burmese citizenship. They are subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage. Rohingyas are used as forced labourers on roads and military camps….”
In 1961, the democratic government of U Nu granted local autonomy to Rohingya and established the Mayu Frontier Administration, a special frontier district ruled directly by the central government. But in 1964, Gen Ne Win — after toppling U Nu — abolished it. Thereafter his government’s policy towards the Rohingya has been described as one of ethnic cleansing, the goal being “a Rohingya-less Arakan.”
“In 1978 over 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh,” Amnesty International reported, “following the Burmese army’s ‘Nagamin’ (‘Dragon King’) operation. Officially this campaign aimed at ‘scrutinising each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally.’ It directly targeted civilians, and resulted in widespread killings, rape, destruction of mosques and religious persecution.”
From 1988 till the recent change in regimes, the government permitted three marriages per year per village in the principal Rohingya population centres of northern Arakan State. This edict was later extended to other townships in Arakan.
“During 1991-92, over a quarter-million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh,” wrote Amnesty International. “They reported widespread forced labour, summary executions, torture, and rape. Rohingya were forced to work without pay by the Burmese army on infrastructure and economic projects, often under harsh conditions. Many other human rights violations by security forces occurred….”
Worse still for the Rohingya, the Bengalis are no longer amenable to accepting them: the government no longer provides support for refugee camps in which the overwhelming majority live and actually prevents international agencies from improving facilities for fear that, as a 2006 Refugees International report explained: “a humane camp environment will attract more Rohingya to their country.”
Conditions at a typical camp in Bangladesh.
Malnutrition rates therein are described as “very high”, with acute malnutrition prevalent in 16.8 per cent of children aged younger than five years, and 2.8 per cent severe cases. “Chronic malnutrition was present in 51.9% of the children. The underlying causes include poor water and sanitation, lack of access to complementary food and non-food items, and the poor socio-economic conditions of the refugees.”
So, displaced from their homeland or treated as aliens, failing to find sympathy for their plight in co-religionist Bangladesh, they take to the sea. But their treatment after coming ashore in other countries is far from certain. In Indonesia and Malaysia they are treated with a modicum of human dignity.
In Thailand they have been treated as pests.
Rohingya being towed: sometimes the overloaded derelict vessels succumb to the stress and...their passengers then present a problem to no one any longer.
In February, 2009, scandal erupted. A boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees was towed to sea and the story raised international headlines. A group rescued by Indonesian authorities that month told stories of being captured and beaten by Thai authorities, then abandoned in the ocean. Another group of five boats was towed to sea where four sank.
Thailand’s prime minister at the time, the Democrat Apisit Vejjajiva, admitted “some instances” in which Rohingya were abandoned at sea. He said they were allowed to “drift to other shores” but that policy was to supply “enough food and water” to ensure their arrival, and vowed he would bring to account officers guilty of human rights violations.
In the event, none were found guilty.
Although the new government of Burma agreed late last year to repatriate “registered Rohingya refugees” it is by no means clear how many can prove they are ‘registered’ — too many having been displaced during a period covering now seven decades.
The United Nations estimates the total population of Rohingya at 729,00 scattered throughout various Indian Ocean nations: Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and, of course, Burma.
Other figures suggest this wildly underestimates the population: In a briefing paper dated 26th March 2009, the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office estimated the number at 800,000 in Arakan alone.
In addition: “It is estimated 500,000 Rohingya live in Saudi Arabia, 200,000 in Pakistan, 200,000 in Bangladesh, 50,000 in the United Arab Emirates and 25,000 in Malaysia.”
That makes about 1.8 million. Rohingya nationalists, however, dispute even this figure as greatly under-estimating their number, which they think is closer to 3.5 million, of which two million live in Burma and the rest in exile.
The Rohingya flag.
A Rohingya Patriotic Front has pressed for recognition of Rohingya status internationally. The group has a national flag — its green field emblematic of Islam; the central motif taken from a coin minted by Shams al-din Muhammad Ghazi, sultan of Bengal and dating from 1554 (the latter to support the group’s claim to an origin far earlier than the 1950s).
Thus the Rohingya are seen tenaciously holding onto their identity. Though scattered, like the Zionist Jews previous to Israel’s founding in 1947, they are eager to carve out a homeland.
Rohingya lined up awaiting deportation in February, 2009.
Born of this earth, yet with no land acknowledging them its children, the Rohingya necessarily wander — and even in that find themselves pursued and oppressed.