Myanmar’s Rohingya are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, yet their suffering has long been ignored in Southeast Asia. An estimated 1.3 million Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, live in the Northwest state of Rakhine, one of Myanmar’s poorest areas – tens of thousands are trapped in displacement camps, with conditions outside often worse. Despite generations of ancestry in Myanmar, they are stateless and viewed as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Denied citizenship, they face daily discrimination and a multitude of restrictions on their movement, family size, education, healthcare, religious freedom and access to jobs. Fleeing repression and extreme poverty, more than 88 000 migrants have taken to the Bay of Bengal since January 2014 in an attempt to reach neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Roughly half of Southeast Asia’s ‘boat people’ are economic migrants from Bangladesh fleeing poverty; the other half are Rohingya fleeing persecution, historically from Bangladesh, but are now settled in Rakhine state. The Rohingya’s migration efforts have recently flared as a result of persecution at home, setting off a regional crisis when thousands of migrants were abandoned at sea, or abused and held for ransom by traffickers in squalid prison camps. The central government maintains the migrants do not belong in Myanmar, referring to them as ‘Bengalis’, and says it has no plans to alter policies that divest them of basic rights and freedoms. It is a humanitarian emergency that the region’s leaders are ill equipped and largely unwilling to resolve.
The history of the Rohingya is heavily disputed in Myanmar. The Rohingya trace their origins in the region back to the 15th century when thousands of Muslims migrated to the Buddhist Arakan kingdom (modern-day Rakhine). The majority arrived during the 19th and early 20th centuries when the Rakhine territory was governed by colonial rule as part of British India. This mass migration boosted the colonial economy, but local Arakanese were aggrieved, believing illegal immigrants were taking their jobs and land. Since independence in 1948, successive governments in Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989, have repeatedly refuted the Rohingya’s historical claims and denied them recognition as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. The government refuses to grant the minority group citizenship status, and as a result the vast majority have no legal documentation. The situation became critical when Myanmar’s military regime started to lift autocratic controls in 2011, with free speech empowering preachers of anti-Muslim rhetoric. In 2012, at least 280 people – mostly Rohingya – were killed in communal anti-Muslim violence organized by Buddhist mobs in Rakhine. In the aftermath, over 140 000 Rohingyas were relocated into crowded camps and cut off from their livelihoods, barred from basic necessities, schools and hospitals. Bangladesh does not allow the group citizenship, either. The Rohingya deny that they are merely Bengalis, and insist on their claim to citizenship and as an indigenous ethnic group of Myanmar.
Rohingya migrants have been smuggled by boat to Malaysia and Thailand in search of employment for decades, but Myanmar’s current migrant exodus began in the aftermath of the 2012 violence in Rakhine. Since then, desperate Rohingya have turned to human traffickers, choosing to pay for transport out of Myanmar to escape persecution. According to the United Nations, approximately 25 000 people set sail from the Bay of Bengal between January and March this year, roughly double the rate of the two previous years. Migrants pay up to 2 000 USD for sea passage to smuggler camps in southern Thailand, from where they hope to sneak across the border into Malaysia, one of South-East Asia’s richest (and predominantly Muslim) countries. Many succumb to disease or abuse in Thai camps, where they are often held until relatives pay large ransoms; others are waylaid by slavers and forced to work on Thai fishing vessels. In May, the crisis reached a further conflagration when the military-led government in Thailand prioritized a crackdown on trafficking camps along its border with Malaysia. The new measures directed at punishing traffickers were largely responsible for an upswing in abandoned migrants on land or at sea – a development that has exacerbated the situation. In Thailand and Malaysia, police have found dozens of abandoned prison camps. A mass grave containing 139 deceased migrants at one of these camps last month. Boat migrants fared little better. The UN has estimates that 300 people died at sea in the first three months of the year, believing as many as 2 000 migrants may still be adrift. Myanmar insists it is not to blame for the latest influx.
Under international pressure, regional leaders met in Bangkok in May, and the immediate crisis was relieved when thousands of migrants were granted temporary refuge in Indonesia and Malaysia. Coordinated efforts have slowed the number of vessels leaving Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as the number of transit camps across Thailand and Malaysia. The arrival of the monsoon season has also slowed migration – but with calmer waters returning in October, traffickers will return as well. In the long-term, no significant unified or coordinated regional response has been proposed or developed to address the deepening crisis. Southeast Asian states lack established legal frameworks and infrastructure to provide for the protection of refugees. Moreover, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand have yet to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and are thus under no obligation to resettle refugees long-term. Advocacy groups continue to appeal to major international players to exert pressure on Myanmar, while the United States and other global powers have urged the government to do more to protect ethnic minority groups from persecution. In one small concession to international pressure, the Myanmar government said it would monitor boat traffic in an effort to crack down on human trafficking. Given their desire for the Rohingya to leave, that commitment is unlikely to last.
Despite a temporary ease to trafficking, the complex social and economic issues that drive migrants to flee are still deeply pervasive. The main objective of Rohingya leaders in Rakhine is to restore their communities and the rights they once had – full citizenship and an end to discrimination. Myanmar’s central government states it is determined to stop the departures of migrants, but refuses to address the conditions driving the exodus across the sea. The unwillingness of the government and Rakhine community to address underlying grievances or even countenance any use of the term ‘Rohingya’, has created a political and legal deadlock. More critically, the dangerous combination of ethnic and religious tensions, discriminatory deprivation of basic rights, restricted access to food and medicine, hate speech, and large numbers fleeing the country precludes the possibility of genocide against this fragile minority group. Historically, genocide is preceded by four things that are happening to the Rohingya: stigmatization, harassment, isolation and the systematic weakening of rights. Only after this framework has been laid is genocide (the mass annihilation of a people) likely to occur. The first four stages have all happened to the Rohingya, and while the horrific final stage is not inevitable, it is possible. Myanmar faces the prospect of a total humanitarian disaster if more is not done.
To avert further tragedies and prevent a potential humanitarian disaster, more resources and a far greater political will are needed to protect the Rohingya and resolve their suffering. Up to now, domestic and international responses to the Rohingya’s plight have been piecemeal, with serious consequences for the minority group, the prospects of democratic transition and rule of law in Myanmar, and the integrity of international law. The central government, facing a significant election year after decades of military rule and a surge of Buddhist nationalism, has shown no willingness to address the plight of the Rohingya. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy advocate, has failed to speak on their behalf, reluctant to alienate her supporters among the Buddhist majority. That must change. It is essential that the Rohingya’s fundamental rights and freedoms be protected by the government in Myanmar, while simultaneously allaying Muslim hatred by combating extremism and hate speech. Extreme poverty and underdevelopment must also be addressed in an effective way. Only then can the migrant crisis be adequately addressed. It is also vital for the international community to support the humanitarian and protection needs of this vulnerable population. Western leaders, particularly the United States, must demand that Myanmar grant the Rohingya citizenship. As should Myanmar’s neighbours – some of which, including Indonesia and Malaysia, should also treat the migrants as refugees and engage in long-term resettlement efforts. Moreover, the ASEAN states must look for a sustainable solution within the framework of comprehensive regional cooperation. The UN and other agencies should also engage in a sustained and multi-pronged response to the crisis, as well as provide critical humanitarian and protection interventions in the interim. In the absence of constructive domestic policy and coordinated regional and international efforts, the only alternative for many Rohingya will be return to the open seas.