The tragic case of the Rohingya refugees

The tragic case of the Rohingya refugees

T The ‘Boat People’ or the ‘Nowhere People’ are terminologies that have become synonymous with the most persecuted minority in the world, the Rohingyas. Unable to claim citizenship in Myanmar, where about 1.1 million of them live in the Rakhine hills or in other countries, these ‘stateless’ people have been ‘existing’ with the curse of having no nationality to claim as their own.

The world witnessed one of its gravest humanitarian challenges in recent times when images started flooding the media of refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar and economic misery in Bangladesh, left to die stranded in traffickers’ boats in the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean. People who could not turn back to the countries they had run away from, people whom the South-East Asian countries that lay on their horizon were refusing to let in. Where do the Rohingyas go?

The Rohingyas’ claim to citizenship rests on their assertion that they are an ethnic indigenous group of Myanmar, can trace their lineage to the rich and ancient heritage of the old Arakan kingdom, and that they are not merely Bengalis. The original terminology of the word “Rohingya” can be traced back to simply meaning “inhabitant of Rohang”, the early Muslim name for the independent kingdom of Arakan (now Rakhine).

Way back in the eighth century, as traders and sea-farers, Muslim migrants from the West Asia had first entered the Arakan. Then, during the 17th century, thousands of Bengali Muslims were captured by the marauding Arakanese, sold as slaves, forced to serve in the king of Arakan’s army and to settle in Arakan.

This was followed by the conquest of the Arakan by the Buddhist Burmese from the south of the country in 1725, wherein the Rohingya Muslims were either executed or driven out. It led, what can be traced back, to the first flight of around 35,000 Arakanese people from Arakan into Bengal, then part of British-ruled India.

Then came the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) which saw the British not just conquer Arakan but also encourage farmers from neighbouring British-ruled Bengal to move to the depopulated area of Arakan. The sudden influx of immigrants from British India sparked a strong reaction from the mostly-Buddhist Rakhine people living in Arakan at the time, sowing the seeds of ethnic tension that remains to this day.

This mass immigration boosted the colonial economy, but local Arakanese bitterly resented it. They perceived that their jobs and land were being taken over by people whom they still call “illegal immigrants”, or just (pejoratively) “Bengalis”. With their own sense of victimhood over-riding, the Myanmarese governments had always been reluctant to grant the Rohingyas citizenship and acceptance as an indigenous ethnic group. In 1948, Burma gained independence from British rule and in 1962 the coup d'etat by General Ne Win signalled the beginning of the overwhelming dominance of the army in that country.

Policy of exclusion

But the Rohingyas continued to remain deprived of citizenship, marking a policy of exclusion that was made official with the passing of the 1982 Citizenship Law that deemed them stateless. Then came the ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state in 2012, triggered by the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by three Muslim men which led to Rakhine mobs rampaging through Sittwe and other parts of Rakhine to drive out the Rohingyas from their midst. The violence that ensued led to the death of hundreds and mass displacement of thousands of Rohingyas.

The Myanmar state’s policies continue to be discriminatory towards its minorities and the Myanmarese President Thein Sein has recently signed a new law that requires women to wait at least 36 months between bearing successive children. Activists allege that this law is targeted towards the Muslim Rohingya community, whose growth threatens to turn the Buddhists into a minority in Rakhine state.

On the other hand, countries like Australia, despite being a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, refuse to aid more Rohingya asylum seekers. Instead, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot has linked stopping terrorism with stopping asylum seekers. Where should the Rohingyas go?

They live in camps as internally displaced persons in Myanmar. Many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, a country that forcibly repatriated thousands of them back in the 1990s. Some have even come to India and settled in places like Jammu in the north and Hyderabad in the south. Today, they continue to flee to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

With no place to call home, thousands still lie on boats in the high seas abandoned by smugglers and traffickers. They are at the grave risk of facing additional mass atrocities, even genocide. While Buddhist monks and their supporters march through Rangoon to denounce the blaming of Burma for this crisis, the Pakistani Taliban’s most hardline faction has called on the oppressed Rohingya to “take up the sword and kill in the path of God”. So to live, kill?

The Rohingyas is but a reflection of the moral and humanitarian crisis we confront today. Amnesty International’s latest report, “The Global Refugee Crisis: A Conspiracy of Neglect”, states that today, with the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes exceeding 50 million, the world is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Where do all these refugees go?

(The writer is an alumnus of the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, UK and is currently Faculty at the Master’s Department of Political Science, St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru)

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