By Alex Shkurko
In the waters of Southeast Asia’s Andaman Sea, Rohingya migrants have captured the world’s attention with their tragic tale of religious persecution, repression and hopelessness. Confined to large boat-shaped hunks of rusted metal and in creaking wooden hulls crowded full beyond their intended capacities, these people search for safe-haven among the coastal countries directly south of Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal, where they first began their treacherous journey. Originally hailing from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the Muslim Rohingya minority has endured unrelenting persecution from both the government and the local people of the majority Buddhist country. Myanmar’s recent transition to democracy following 49 years of military junta rule has done much to ease economic sanctions, though inequality remains rampant. However, political liberalization has yet to translate into better treatment for the Rohingya. On the contrary, ethnic relations have intensified, resulting in the current refugee crisis.
An estimated 25,000 people, mostly Rohingya refugees, have fled Myanmar in the first four months of this year, a 100 percent increase from the same period of the previous year. What’s directly motivated the surge in migration is a matter of opinion at this point. However, the Rohingya have been continuously targeted and have been departing from Myanmar’s shores in search of wealthier nations since the beginning of the decade. Myanmar’s government has refused to accept the Rohingya and grant them citizenship even though some families can trace their heritage back centuries to Rakhine. Along with the denial of citizenship come restrictions on travel within the country and a blanket refusal to refer to the people as “Rohingya,” instead opting for the more sterile and politically beneficial “Bengali.” This in turn rids the Rohingya of their ethnic identity and implies that they’re of Bangladeshi origin. Hardliner Buddhists fervently believe that they crept in from Bangladesh over the past 50 years and have been deceitful about their heritage. The situation only becomes direr upon realization that Bangladesh doesn’t acknowledge the Rohingya as their own people either! Instead, the Bangladeshi government corals them into refugee camps that today house more than 200,000 Rohingya, a number that continues to grow rapidly as Buddhist mobs attack Rohingya villages.
Buddhists constitute 89 percent of Myanmar’s population. While contradictory to commonly held Western views of Buddhism, monasteries play host to many aggravated groups who together decry the toxic effects of living amongst Muslims. “Vipers in our laps” is how one young monk describes their presence. Despite being forbidden to kill, many Buddhists feel threatened by their presence and have tried to rid the region of them through the use of violence. Particularly troubling are the effects of installing a democracy in a state that has lived under a military dictatorship for over 50 years. With the power to finally choose for themselves, factions of the majority have naturally turned to their own prejudices and fears to move the country in the direction they believe best. To compound the issue, political leaders are forced to cater to the political majority whose hatred is pushing the country towards genocide.
In the aftermath of the country’s first democratic, but highly contested, elections in 2010, Buddhist groups developed and promoted a metric meant to rid the country of a majority of its one million Muslims. The measure called for the proof of three generations of legal residence in the country. Anyone that could not meet that arbitrary baseline would be put into refugee camps and sent to any country that would have them. The notion of being a refugee in your own country is a fascinatingly cruel one and deserves particular notice. What once resembled a socially and economically unequal system has further devolved into violence between the two peoples and has become socially unsustainable.
Two years ago, Thein Sein, the President of Myanmar adopted the same rhetoric and proclaimed to a United Nations (UN) delegation that any Muslim whose family has not resided in the country for at least three generations was a de facto “threat to the peace of the nation,” a statement that drew a quick rebuke from UN. In the same year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Myanmar government was an accessory to the murder, rape and mass persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Through interviews they were able to confirm that the army stood idly by as the number of deaths piled up and were only moved to rein in the sectarian violence after much bloodletting. In one instance, authorities’ half-hearted efforts to quell massive anger following the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingyan man cascaded into the brutal murder of 10 Muslim men aboard a local bus. Subsequent Rohingya counter riots resulted in the pillaging of Rakhine Buddhist property and even more deaths. The government’s direct complicity in attacks on Rohingya Muslims should not be ignored either. In one case, soldiers fired upon a Rohingyan man and his family as they attempted to put out the house-fire started by a group of Rakhine Buddhists. In another instance, a local man observed the paramilitary shoot “at least six people- one woman, two children, and three men,” before dragging their bodies away.
It doesn’t appear that the forces of ethnic dissonance have subsided since 2012. In fact, they’ve only grown and multiplied as evidenced by the increased migration we can observe today. Between January and March of this year, the UNHCR estimates that nearly 300 people have died in journeys departing from the coastal waters of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Malaysia has historically been the destination of choice for migrants due to its disproportionate number of high skilled workers and its tendency to look the other way when cheap unskilled labor presented itself on its shores. However, the journey is a difficult one rife with opportunities for extortion, death and sexual violence. Abductions and forced marriages-as-payment are prevalent. Brokers often make deals with would-be migrants and offer them the journey free of charge in exchange for regular collections from their future wages. If they accept this deal, prospective migrants lose any leverage they had and put themselves at risk of being in effect, indentured servants- as lender interest rates are often 100 percent. Rape by crewmembers was commonly mentioned in interviews gathered by the UNHCR and any migrant attempts to quell violence were met with harsh beatings. Human trafficking saturates the region and disproportionately affects Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar is directly creating the market for smuggling and human trafficking by harassing the Rohingya and not doing more to mediate their conflict with the Buddhists. They must overcome their religious hatred towards the Muslims, if only to improve the livelihood of their own communities.
As we observe daily reports of sinking boats and asylum rejections from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, we must pressure our own government to demand that more be done. Let aid be predicated on the treatment of migrants. What is dually incorrigible and reprehensible is the rejection of migrants fleeing religious persecution and the perpetually promoted human rights ethos that these Southeast Asian countries have. Upon encountering a migrant vessel, a Thai navy ship proceeded to conclude that the migrants did not want to dock and instead wished to continue their journey. A reporter observed the piercing desperation present on the migrants’ faces. Upon refilling the vessel with enough fuel for 33 hours and providing food, water and batteries, the sailors of the Thai navy ship felt that they had satisfied their duty. Despite lacking a crew, who had abandoned the boat in the previous week, the navy was confident in the skill of the passengers to navigate the seas and “reach their dream destination”. The decision to leave was supposedly made by a leader of the group, much to the disdain of the women who cried as the ship departed. Even in this instance, the loss of innocent lives could be avoided and we should continue to pressure governments to realize this.
Image by UNHR Photo Unit