Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been trapped in the waters of Southeast Asia while the ASEAN nations, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, debate on how to settle the mass influx of migrants trying to cross their borders. The United Nations say Rohingyas are one of the world’s most persecuted people, yet the world neglects their suffering. This begs the question if there are ulterior motives to interventions.
Who Are The Rohingya Muslims?
The Rohingya Muslims live in the Rakhine State (also known as Arakan), which is situated on the western coast of Burma. Rohingyas claim they are descendants of Arab settlers who came to Rakhine in the 15th century. They lived in the Kingdom of Mrauk-U in Arakan, which was independent from Burma. The Rohingyas say they are ethnically and culturally distinct from Bangladeshis, however the Burmese government does not recognise their identity. Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingyas are labelled as “resident foreigners”. There are approximately 1.1 million Rohingyas living in Burma as stateless people; they have no citizenship or entitlements, they dwell in appalling conditions and are systematically oppressed by the Burmese government.
To understand the conflict between the Rohingyas and the Burmese people, we need to understand the historical background. The Burmese King Bodawpaya conquered Arakan Kingdom in 1784 and killed off many Rohingya men, thus forcing mass migration to Bangladesh. In 1826, the British annexed Arakan after winning the Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). To build up the population, the British encouraged the Rohingyas to migrate to Arakan, and this enraged the Burmese.
When Japan invaded Burma in 1942, Burmese nationalists took revenge on those who benefited from British rule. In Arakan the Buddhists and Muslims clashed, causing a division where Muslims occupied the north and Buddhists occupied the south. In 1947, the Rohingyas set up the Mujahideen insurgency separatist movement, with the aim to combine the Mayu district with East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). The Burmese government had initially denied the Rohingyas’ request for a separate Muslim state because they believed the Rohingyas were deliberately dismantling Burma.
There was some hope for the Rohingyas in 1959, Burmese Prime Minister, U Ba Sue, recognised Rohingyas as citizens with equal rights. However, that fell short when General Ne Win overthrew Prime Minister U. In 1978 the government launched Operation Naga Win (also known as King Dragon Operation), to root out insurgents. But at the same time authorities made arbitray arrests on Rohingya civilians, whom they alleged to be Mujahideen supporters.
More recent conflicts in Burma
Tensions mounted again in June 2012 in Rakhine when a Buddhist woman was allegedly raped and murdered by Rohingyas. Violent clashes followed, leaving 200 dead and 90,000 displaced. Mosques were burnt and villages were razed, and the Burmese government was accused of not doing enough to stop the bloodshed. The HRW alleged authorities were involved in instigating violence.
In 2012, HRW produced a report, All You can do is Pray: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State, urged world leaders to pressure Burma to end the ethnic cleansing. The report claimed the Burmese government forcibly displaced more than 125,000 Rohingyas . Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW, said the Burmese government are not held accountable for their crimes: “The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement.”
Refugee crisis: what’s happening?
At the first 3 months of this year, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported there were around 25,000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis drifting in the Southeast Asian seas. Not surprisingly, the Rohingya were escaping persecution and in search of a better life.
At the beginning of May, about 30 graves were discovered in the Sadao District, in Southern Thailand and the graves allegedly belong to deceased Rohingya migrants. This strongly suggests Rohingyas may be victims of illegal trafficking by organised gangs in Southeast Asia. On 11 May, 2000 refugees were rescued by Indonesia and Malaysia.
The next day, Indonesian authorities turned away a boat carrying 400 refugees. Indonesian government said: “We gave them fuel and asked them to proceed. Our business is they don’t enter Indonesia because Indonesia is not the destination.”
Malaysia also refused to accept 800 people coming from two boats. The Malaysian deputy home minister, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, said: “We are not prepared to accept that number coming into our shores and those who are already in, we are sending them home anyway.”
The Arakan Project said immediate action must be taken because there is very limited food and water on the boats. World leaders urged the Southeast Asian nations not to sit back and work together to end the crisis.
A meeting in Bangkok between the UN and the ASEAN states was held to discuss how they could tackle this emergency. Rangoon had rejected the UN’s demands to recognise the Rohingya Muslims as their citizens. Volker Turk, the UN assistant high commissioner, asserted the crisis could have been addressed if Myanamar had accepted Rohingyas as its citizens. He said: “This will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar towards all its people. Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal.”
Up until now, there has not been much progress with the refugee crisis.
Why the world closes its doors to the Rohingyas
It is hard to pinpoint why the world turns a blind eye to the struggles of the Rohingyas. The UN has repeatedly admonished the Burmese government for persecuting this community, while influential world leaders merely join the UN’s chorus line and has not committed to any action.
There was fleeting hope that Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi could address the problem, yet she failed to do anything. The Dalai Lama had urged Aung since 2012 to take action, he said: “I met her two times, first in London and then the Czech Republic. I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated.”
Perhaps the Rohingya Muslims’ situation proves only certain humanitarian crises are worthy of international attention and intervention. This hapless community joins the ranks of other genocides that failed to get spotlight and sympathy. The plights of the Rohingyas resemble the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. The international community failed to put a stop to the horrific killings where 800,000 people died from the 3-month period of onslaught. Former US President Bill Clinton had known about the massacre yet he refused to say it was “genocide” otherwise it would mean the US had an obligation to intervene. There is strong belief the US stayed out of Rwanda because the country has no geopolitical significance and resources.
Other genocides include: the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia where up to 2 million people were murdered to ‘purify’ the country and the Armenian Genocide in WWI when the Ottoman Empire decimated 1.5 million Armenian civilians. This incident is only recognised by 25 countries. The deaths of more than 200,000 East Timorese under the brutal dictatorship of Indonesian president General Suharto also went unheeded. President Nixon continued to sell arms to Suharto and ignored the mass human rights abuses because Suharto was anti-communist. In the Cold War context, the US would support any country fighting communism even if the country was authoritarian.
On the other hand, western leaders (particularly the US) seem to have strong justifiable grounds to invade Iraq. The US argued Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMD), was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and the US said it wanted to rescue minority groups, such as the Kurds and Shi’a Muslims, from persecution. Claims of WMDs were debunked when the UN found no evidence of these weapons in 2004, yet US involvement in the country still continues.
The fate of the Rohingyas migrants is still uncertain as neighbouring countries are still discussing how to handle the refugee crisis. As stateless citizens, Rohingyas are vulnerable to oppression and violence and the only attention they receive is short-lived media coverage and hollow support from the global community. Even this dire situation is not enough to move world leaders to provide effective support and action. Perhaps Rohingyas are like the victims of the Rwandan genocide – they are not worthy because they have no geopolitical importance.