The United Nations considers Rohingyas of Myanmar as a persecuted religious and linguistic minority. Myanmar considers this community, of about 800,000, settled in Rakhine, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Despite their continuous residential reality, Myanmar is reluctant to grant them their due citizenship rights. Last year, a statement by Burmese President Thein Sein that “all Rohingyas should either be deported or placed in refugee camps” sparked a mass exodus.
Needless to say, Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities have co-existed for generations. They are now being forcibly segregated. Barriers have been erected across the roads in the state capital and the homes of thousands of Rakhine people have been destroyed. The divide between Buddhists and ethnic Muslims echoes of similar happenings in the Balkans.
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has failed to intervene and prevent the hardships being perpetrated upon the hapless Rohingya minority. It is also ironic that the iconic lady from Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself faced brutality and was awarded a Nobel prize for her services to humanity, has not been able to come forward and play a meaningful role to resolve this humanitarian crisis.
The leadership in Myanmar has imposed emergency rule in response to the continued tensions in Rakhine state. However, the application of preventive rules is selective; while the Buddhists remain free to move around, Rohingyas’ movement is being incrementally restricted.
To avoid persecution in Burma, a large number of Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, where they are treated as stateless migrants. More and more Rohingyas are now risking their lives by attempting to migrate on boats.
If apprehended, they are deported back to Myanmar after a short trial. Hundreds of them have been arrested at the Dhaka International Airport in recent months. “Such attempts are on the rise. These Rohingyas are mostly caught at the immigration when their fake passports go under the scanner,” said Hasanul Haider, Commanding Officer of Airport Armed Police.
Myanmar has rejected an offer by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to begin negotiations for bringing communal violence to an end. According to Asean’s Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan: “Myanmar believes it is their internal matter. But your internal matter could be ours the next day, if you are not careful.” He proposed the setting up of tripartite talks between Asean, the UN and Myanmar’s government to prevent the violence from having a broader regional impact.
Unfortunately, the bloodshed has led to about 180 deaths since June 2012. This year, the fighting in Rakhine has resulted in another 88 killings. Human rights organisations fear that the actual number of deaths could be much higher. Unbridled violence has also manifested the in torching of thousands of homes, resulting in thousands of Rohingya Muslims ending up in overcrowded shanty camps, where they live under sub-human conditions.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay reported from Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state, that: “Around 100,000 people have been displaced since the fighting started back in June. Most of those displaced lost their homes when they were burned down in what they say is a deliberate attempt by the predominantly Buddhist government to drive them out of the country. According to Mohammad Juhar, a Rohingya Muslim, ‘there were security forces present before the latest violence started. But when the fighting came to our town, there was no security…....When they did arrive, it was too late and they also shot into the crowds of Muslims’.“
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has requested Myanmar’s neighbouring countries to open their borders for those who are fleeing the country. It maintains that there are about 25,000 Rohingyas registered in Malaysia. Many Rohingya Muslims escaping the communal violence have also sought refuge in Bangladesh and Thailand. It the fact that it is a dangerous journey and after all going through that trouble, most of them are turned back.
According to the Bangladesh Coast Guard, at least 350 would-be refugees have, reportedly, drowned in the sea since July 2012. This figure, however, reflects only those incidents that the survivors or their families have talked about. Then again, the actual number could be much higher.
Rejected as citizens by both Bangladesh and Myammar, they continue to be victimised in the camps where they seek shelter. Jonah Fisher of BBC reports: “Deliveries to the camps on Myebon have to be made by boat, and attempts to get proper sanitation and supplies into Taung Paw have so far been blocked. Rakhine Buddhists control the jetty and are refusing to allow aid agencies’ regular access to the Rohingya camp.” Hence, obstruction by the Buddhist community was preventing aid workers from doing 90 percent of their work. Only the Burmese military could force the aid through, but it has refused to intervene.
The Rohingyas, who have crossed over to Bangladesh and are residing in Madham Charpara, are not registered as refugees. Since 1992, the Bangladeshi government has denied permission to the UNHCR to register them. They are still considered illegal migrants and are not entitled to food, healthcare or education benefits provided by the UNHCR and its partner organisations.
According to a survey conducted by “Doctors without Borders”, 40 percent of the deaths in unregistered camps are caused by diarrhoea. There is only one toilet for every 10 families. “The unhygienic life these refugees are leading here is the main cause of their illnesses,” said Professor Pran Gopal Datta, Vice Chancellor of Bangabandhu Medical University.
Bill Frelick, Director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Programme in Bangladesh, also said: “This is sheer inhuman treatment.” He added that unregistered refugees cannot get healthcare facilities outside their camps, and the aid agencies with better medical treatments are not allowed to reach them either. The Bangladeshi government has ordered at least three international aid organisations to cease assistance to the refugees living outside registered UNHCR camps. “This is a cruel policy,” he remarked.
Nevertheless, the ethnically Bengali, Rohingyas seek refuge in Bangladesh, which now has an estimated population of them quarter of a million. Bangladesh, however, does not appreciate their presence despite their ethnic ties to the country and has been striving to make life as difficult as possible for them in the hope that they will leave.
The Thai government has decided to temporarily detain Rohingya migrants for six months, without upgrading their status as refugees. The National Security Council (NSC) Secretary General, Lt Gen Paradon Pattanathaboot, said that Thailand will not set up permanent refugee camps, though it could still build temporary detention centres. Bangkok promised to receive Rohingyas for a maximum of six months, but warned that it would deport those who try to escape. More than 1,400 Rohingyas have been rounded up since early January.
Thailand has provided them with food and water on humanitarian grounds. The NSC is of the view that after the six month period, the UNHCR should take care of them. Bangkok Post has reported that on January 31, Thailand stopped the entry of boats carrying 340 Rohingyas, and officials ordered migrants to continue their travel to Malaysia after delivering them food and water.
The question is: whether these arrests, humiliations and deportations could stop the Rohingyas from emigrating into the neighbouring countries? As long as the Myanmar government continues to treat them as aliens, the problem would persist. All countries have a moral obligation to accept refugees, who are in danger and help them to resettle.
The UN needs to take bold steps to resolve the issue in a wholesome way, beyond its refugee dimension. It needs to act with speed and will as it did in the case of East Timor.
The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org