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The Rohingyas: Apartheid on the Andaman Sea

June 11, 2015

Myanmar treats the Rohingyas as badly as the old South Africa treated blacks. The world should not stay silent

THEY have been called the most persecuted minority in the world. The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, have been driven from their villages; 140,000 of them have been herded into squalid camps. They cannot vote. Their children are shut out of local schools. They are subjected to mob violence with impunity. A new law seeks to limit how many babies they may have. Small wonder they flee.

In the first half of this year thousands of Rohingyas have crowded into leaky boats and risked their lives to cross the Andaman Sea, seeking refuge in Thailand or Indonesia (see article). Traffickers have beaten them and taken their savings. Their tales of suffering on the open seas are at least as shocking as those of Africans who cross the Mediterranean hoping for a new life in Europe. Yet almost nothing is being done to help them.

The history of the Rohingyas is disputed. Their Buddhist neighbours in Myanmar’s Rakhine state consider them “illegal immigrants” or dismiss them as “Bengalis” because, although Muslim Rohingyas have lived in the area for hundreds of years, their numbers increased during the colonial era, when the British rulers of what was then called Burma encouraged more to immigrate. Their lot grew worse, ironically, when Myanmar’s military regime started to lift autocratic controls in 2011. Free speech empowered preachers of anti-Muslim hatred. The army and police, who can crush unrest when they choose to, stood by in 2012 when at least 200 people—most of them Rohingyas—were killed in communal violence involving Buddhist Rakhine thugs.

Desmond Tutu has called it a slow genocide. That is an exaggeration. As yet it is more like the old apartheid system in South Africa, against which Mr Tutu once campaigned. But genocide is often preceded by four things that are happening to the Rohingyas: stigmatisation, harassment, isolation and the systematic weakening of rights. This year Myanmar’s government took away identity cards from non-citizens, mainly Rohingyas, whose very existence as a minority it denies. Later this year the country will hold elections; during the campaign, demagogues will be tempted to stir up anti-Rohingya animosity to win votes. As the monsoons ease, more terrified boat people will put out to sea.

Some might argue that little can—or should—be done. Life for most people in Myanmar has improved since its rulers began to liberalise at home and open up to the outside world. Further progress depends on continued Western engagement with a regime which, though flawed, is gradually reforming. Right now, punishing Myanmar would be counterproductive.

That is too timid. A terrible abuse of human rights is threatening to turn into something even worse. The West—and Myanmar’s neighbours—should not simply look the other way. Broad economic sanctions would be too blunt a weapon, and would put Myanmar’s general liberalisation at risk. Far better to impose narrower sanctions on politicians who are stoking anti-Muslim sentiment. Last year America did just that to Aung Thaung, a rabble-rousing politician. The list should be lengthened. The West should demand that Myanmar grant the Rohingyas citizenship. So should Myanmar’s neighbours—some of which, including Indonesia and Malaysia, should also treat the boat people as refugees and let more of them in.

High time to speak up
A vital intervention ought to come from two individuals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton. Ms Suu Kyi (like Mr Tutu, a Nobel peace laureate) has earned immense moral authority both at home and abroad after suffering years of imprisonment for demanding an end to military rule in Myanmar. Mrs Clinton has touted the opening up of Myanmar as the biggest foreign-policy success of her four years as America’s secretary of state. Yet neither woman has spoken up clearly and loudly for the Rohingyas. A statement from Ms Suu Kyi’s party on June 1st spoke merely of “resolving racial conflicts in Rakhine [state]” but did not mention the Rohingyas at all.

Mrs Clinton, as she runs for the White House, will gain few votes by talking about the suffering of non-Americans thousands of miles from Iowa. Ms Suu Kyi, for her part, doubtless calculates that her party would actually lose votes if she stands up for an unpopular minority. Yet their silence shames them both. In Myanmar as in South Africa, ending apartheid is everyone’s business.

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