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Rohingya boat people: Myanmar's shame

May 20, 2015

Poverty, politics and despair are forcing thousands of Rohingya to flee Myanmar. The authorities remain woefully indifferent to their plight

THE Muslim Rohingya have often been called the most persecuted people in the world, with good reason. Most of them have lived in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar, for generations, yet have always been denied citizenship by the government. Indeed, they are not even recognised as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups. Over the decades these non-people, without legal or any other sort of protection, have been the victims of wanton discrimination and violent attacks by both the virulently anti-Muslim local Rakhine and the central Burmese government. A shared hatred of the “Bengalis”, as the Buddhist Rakhine and Burmese call them, is one of the very few things that they have in common.

Yet if the Rohingya imagined that their plight couldn’t get any worse, they were wrong. About 150,000 of an estimated 1.1m Rohingya were pushed into refugee camps, mainly around state capital Sittwe, after two bouts of vicious ethnic cleansing by Rakhine nationalists in 2012. Since then increasing numbers have been trying to escape by sea to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. An unprecedented 25,000 of them, including Rohingya from Bangladesh, got on boats during the first quarter of this year, desperate to get out before the start of the tropical monsoon season renders travelling all but impossible. And unprecedented numbers are dying: about 300 since January.

A 15-year-old boy, Mohammed Haryot, tells his story. He left one of the camps together with seven other members of his family, mostly siblings, to try to get to Malaysia. Each had to pay a trafficking gang about $500 just to get on a flimsy rowing boat to reach a bigger vessel for the trip to Malaysia. That passage cost a further $2,000: huge sums for the Rohingya. There were about 300 people on Mr Haryot’s rusty old tramp, with no food or water. After about a week at sea they were intercepted by a naval ship and forced to return to Sittwe. It is unclear how much these particular Rohingya owe the traffickers for their fruitless ordeal.

The boy is “happy” to be back now, but would gladly try again. He says that there are no prospects for young Rohingya in Sittwe, no jobs and no money. As one elder puts it, “people know well about the dangers at sea, but they also know that the situation on land is worse than on the boats. They are desperate.”

Since 2012 all the Rohingya villages and camps have been totally cut off from Burmese towns like Sittwe, depriving them of their livelihoods. Newly erected high-wire fences are completing their isolation. Incomes have plummeted. One Rohingya used to have a good taxi business in Sittwe, yet now has just a bike for his few customers in a small village. He makes about one-third of the money he used to. Most Rohingya are farmers or fishermen. Yet the former cannot return to their fields, while the latter complain that they have few boats left and are driven off by Rakhine fishermen if they do manage to get out to sea.

The local authorities insist that this forced isolation is for their own good, to spare the Rohingya any further attacks. The Rohingya themselves, however, see it as the culmination of a longstanding policy of apartheid, depriving them of the last benefits that they enjoyed living among the Rakhine. No Rohingya student, for instance, has been allowed into the university at Sittwe over the last three years. They are not allowed into the township hospitals unless it is a life-or-death situation. “It’s really inhumane stuff”, comments one aid worker.

Furthermore, the Rohingya are resigned to the fact that politics in Myanmar are just going to get worse for them. Any hopes that the country’s turn to quasi-civilian rule in 2011 after decades of military dictatorship might have improved their lot have evaporated. Indeed, while life does improve for many others in Myanmar, the Rohingya are if anything going backwards, the unwitting victims of a deadly political game for control of what businesses like to proclaim is the “New Myanmar”.

Thus, for instance, while the rest of the country is preparing for a general election in November, the first of the reform era, the Rohingya have seen their voting rights curtailed. Similarly, last year, while the rest of the country was participating in the first national census for years, supported by the UN, the Rohingya were forced to boycott it as they were unable to self-identify as Rohingya. Census-takers would only register them as “Bengalis”, so they refused to take part.

These are symptoms of a government pandering to a growing anti-Muslim hysteria in the country, an ugly phenomenon that has been whipped up for political advantage by some of the hardliners in the military and the ruling party. These people know that humiliating the millions of Muslims in Myanmar plays well with many Buddhist Burmese, and is often supported by the more chauvinist monks as well. They have an election to win, and this is one of the very few areas in which they have an advantage over the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party.

Indeed, so strong is this anti-Muslim, anti-Rohingya sentiment that even Ms Suu Kyi, who campaigns relentlessly for human rights and the rule of law, has been loth to stand up for the human rights of the Rohingya. For some, this has been extremely disappointing, the more so as it has allowed the government to ignore the crisis of the Rohingya boat people without a shred of adverse criticism within Myanmar. The agony of these Rohingya has led the world’s news channels in recent weeks, for instance, yet there was not a single mention of it in the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar. As the Rohingya are not technically “citizens”, the government believes that it can wash its hands of the problem.

Clearly, ministers feel that they have no wider moral or humanitarian obligation to people who have in many cases lived and worked here for a century or more. In the face of such callous indifference, it is hardly surprising that so many thousands are taking to the boats. Unless the situation changes, even more are certain to flee at the start of the next dry season, with predictably grim results.

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