Burma's race laws, expulsions, driving Rohingya refugees

| 29th May 2015
Condemned to a life of misery and discrimination: one camp for Rohingya refugees near Sittwe, Rakhine State, can only be accessed by sea with boats transporting vital aid supplies such as rice and cooking oil. Photo: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, September 2013
Condemned to a life of misery and discrimination: one camp for Rohingya refugees near Sittwe, Rakhine State, can only be accessed by sea with boats transporting vital aid supplies such as rice and cooking oil. Photo: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, September 2013
Decades violent expulsions, race laws and denial of citizenship lie at the root of the 'boat people' crisis in Thailand and Malaysia, writes Oliver Tickell. Attacks on the Rohingya minority have escalated since a new policy was announced in 2014 to permanently deny their rights.
Burma's policy is nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness that appears designed to strip the Rohingya of hope and force them to flee the country.

A statement by Human Rights Watch attributes the dramatic surge in boat people leaving western Burma and Bangladesh to "decades of repression and denial of rights to the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority."

The refugees from both countries are the Rohingya, a Muslim community that originates in Burma but has suffered a succession of discriminatory laws, expulsions and denial of citizenship.

The current round of problems began in 1978 when the Burmese army violently expelled over 250,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh - which forcibly returned many of them soon afterwards.

In 1991, Burmese security forces again violently expelled hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh. A second forcible return followed in 1995.

Burma's government has refused to accept the term 'Rohingya' and refers to them as 'illegal Bengalis' - although they have been living in Burma long before the state's creation. The Rohingya have been denied full citizenship ever since the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law made it "almost impossible for Rohingya to prove their claims to citizenship."

Standed on the border

Since the explulsions began thousands of Rohingya have lived predominantly in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships along the border, says HRW, "under restrictive conditions that severely curtail their freedom of movement, ability to seek work, and access to basic social services, and curbs on the right to religion."

Bangladesh current;ly hosts some 30,000 recognized Rohingya refugees in UNHCR camps - but only those that arrived in Bangladesh before 1993. Since then Rohingya have been denied any opportunity to lodge claims in Bangladesh for refugee status regardless of their need for international protection.

Consequently, another estimated 30,000 who are not recognized refugees live in makeshift sites around these camps near Teknaf in Cox's Bazaar, and another 250,000 to 300,000 undocumented Rohingya live around the area.

Those residing outside the UNHCR-run camp "often face abuse and discrimination from local Bangladesh officials and communities", according to HRW.

An exodus of small boats

Starting in 2005, small boats carrying Rohingya and Bangledeshi migrant workers started leaving the coast of southern Bangladesh, carrying mostly men to Malaysia to join the migrant worker population there.

These small vessels often came ashore in Thailand, and the refugees then used the existing network of smuggling routes into Malaysia. The number of boats arriving gradually grew, prompting the Thai authorities to take action. In 2009, several ships were towed long distances out to sea by Thai security officials, sparking a major international outcry.

Thailand then changed to a so-called 'help on' policy, where officials were ordered to re-provision boats that arrived in Thai territorial waters with humanitarian supplies, refuse them the right to land in Thailand, and direct them south to Malaysia.

But as HRW reports, "this policy later mutated into a policy of corruption and directing arriving boats into the hands of gangs, who then placed the people aboard in jungle camps where they were held and extorted for money before being permitted to travel to Malaysia."

The exodus has grown to tens of thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, some who are fleeing violence and discrimination, and others who are seeking work.

A recent report by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 25,000 people travelled on boats from Burma and Bangladesh in the first three months of 2015, with an estimated 300 dying of starvation, dehydration, or beatings by smuggling crews, or as a result of fights on board ships.

Fundamentalist Buddhists' ethnic violence

Sectarian violence between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya and other Muslims erupted first in June 2012. A second round of violence in October 2012, says HRW, "resulted in government-backed crimes against humanity amounting to a campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed to drive the Rohingya from urban areas of Arakan State.

"Overall, there were at least 167 deaths and widespread property destruction. There remain over 140,000 internally displaced Rohingya and Arakanese in camps throughout Arakan State.

"Many Rohingya have been receiving only rudimentary and inadequate assistance due to government restrictions and intimidation by Arakanese ultra-nationalists against international aid workers."

The March-April 2014 census conducted by the Burmese government with assistance from the UN Population Fund did not enumerate people who self-identified as Rohingya. Preliminary results released in August estimated that 1.09 million people were not counted.

In response to the prolonged displacement, the government formulated a draft Rakhine Action Plan, which was disclosed by the media in September 2014, prompting Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director, to comment:

"The long-awaited Rakhine State Action Plan both expands and solidifies the discriminatory and abusive Burmese government policies that underpin the decades-long persecution of the Rohingya. It is nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness that appears designed to strip the Rohingya of hope and force them to flee the country."

2015: the noose tightens

In 2015, the Burmese government stripped the Rohingya of the right to hold temporary identification cards, so-called 'white cards' that gave them the right to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 nationwide elections, but did not guarantee the full rights of a citizen.

Over 400,000 Rohingya have so far relinquished the cards ahead of the May 31 deadline, with the Burmese government promising some form of ID to be issued in the future if Rohingya self-identify as 'Bengali' - and not as 'Rohingya' - effectively denying their own ethnic, cultural and religious identity.

"Also deeply troubling", says HRW, "is the passage of four so-called race and religion laws, which many see as targeting the Muslim minority in Burma generally, and the Rohingya in particular, including the recently passed Population Control Healthcare law, which could be used to limit Rohingya birth rates.

"It is these developments, and the escalated violence against Rohingya since 2012, that has largely fuelled the current exodus."

Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director, commented: "Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia need to agree to never again engage in pushbacks of people stuck at sea, find any remaining boats, bring the people on board to safe ports, and ensure that their rights are respected.

"Just as important, there will be no long-term solution unless Burma ends its rights-abusing and discriminatory policies toward the Rohingya and joins other countries in taking action against smugglers and traffickers who abuse and prey on them."

Dalai Lama implores Aung San Suu Kyi - 'Do something!'

Speaking to The Australian newspaper, the Dalai Lama, who heads the greater part of Tibet's Buddists, implored his fellow Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest for critic­ising Myanmar's military junta, to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya - a topic on which she has been almost entirely silent.

In his interview, the Dalai Lama revealed that he had already ­appealed to her twice,  in person to stand up for the Rohingya since 2012. 

"I met her two times, first in London and then the Czech Republ­ic. I mentioned about this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something ... It's very sad. In the Burmese case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something."

Despite the influential call, however, Suu Kyi has remained silent. She has previously excused her non-intervention on the grounds that she is "a politician and not a human rights champion." This may refer to the fact that the Rohingya cause is not popular among the Buddhist majority.

However the Dalai Lama appealed to all of Burma's Buddhists to "remember the face of the Buddha" in their dealings with the Rohingya minority.



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Oliver Tickell
edits The Ecologist.