Rescue the Rohingya!

Branded by the UN as “the world’s most persecuted people”, the Rohingya people are victims of a humanitarian disaster in Myanmar. Revelation of the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis scandalised the world. To put an end to it, we must acknowledge the long-running problems of ethnic supremacy and radical nationalism that has been plaguing Myanmar for decades.

Stranded migrants passing food supplies dropped from a Thai army helicopter. (Photo: Christopher Archambault/AFP)

By Ching Feng Loo

Branded by the UN as “the world’s most persecuted people”, the Rohingya people are victims of a humanitarian disaster in Myanmar. Revelation of the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis scandalised the world. To put an end to it, we must acknowledge the long-running problems of ethnic supremacy and radical nationalism that has been plaguing Myanmar for decades.

An ethnic minority in the Rakhine state, Muslim Rohingyas are constantly harassed by institutional discrimination. The 1982 Citizenship Law denies them citizenship, despite having resided in Myanmar for centuries. The census in 2014 also excludes Rohingyas from the 135 officially recognised minorities. Since they are foreigners, this imbues the local government with political authority to deport them at its whim. Outside the legal framework is a staunch opposition against the alleged expansion of Islam, with the 969 movement led by Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu. Sectarian violence against local Muslims left at least 78 dead and thousands displaced, both internally and otherwise. Arson attacks in Rakhine villages and mosques has also added thousands to the tally of homeless Rohingyas.

The Burmese army uses flimsy excuses to deny persecuting the Rohingyas. Rape accusations are brushed off with a derogatory tease of Rohingya women being too dirty. Though evidence points to them as the culprits, authorities are somehow able to slither away from the long arms of the law. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has its hands tied because Myanmar is not a state party of the Rome Statute. Members of the UN Security Council need to cast vested interests aside to hold the Burmese military accountable for their crimes.

Denied an identity and a place to call home, most survivors of the persecution who fled the country soon learn that the grass is not greener on the other side. Boarding people-smuggler boats, they are forced to bribe their traffickers; failure to pay ransom results in abuse. The rickety and overcrowded boats put passengers at the risk of drowning, and to [JR4] aggravate matters, rapidly diminishing food rations incite infighting among the migrants.

The responses of neighbouring countries have not been welcoming, with the Bangladeshi government barring migrants from entry despite international pressure and appeals. The rejection may be politically motivated: Muslim Rohingyas who emigrated to Rakhine were supporters of the Pakistan Central Government during the Bangladesh Independence War. Other regional countries like Malaysia and Thailand have shown similar attitudes when dealing with the migrants.

Though the stalemate recently came to a halt, the ordeal is far from over for the Rohingyas. Upon rescued from sea, many were held captive in squalid detention centres. Resettlement is a bureaucratic nightmare, making it a distant dream, out of the Rohingyas’ reach. In fact, corruption has made asylum-seeking no longer a right but an exorbitant luxury for the relatively affluent. Due to the lack of transparency, Rohingyas have become scapegoats of a moribund system.

Migrants who are brought ashore should be treated in a more humane manner. Rather than imprisoning them, the workforce should include Rohingya refugees to allow them to contribute to the local economy. Labour laws must ensure that employers do not take advantage of the migrant workers’ refugee status by exploiting their labour. In terms of education, Rohingya children should be given the opportunity to enrol at institutions, whether it’s crowd-funded education centres or public vocational schools. Allocating resources to the Rohingyas may put a strain on the welfare of the general public, but the alternative is worse. Segregating them with little means to sustain meaningful life will only drive them to a life of crime, eventually wreaking even more havoc.

Taking in migrants and providing them humanitarian aid however, is a superficial solution to the insidious problem of prejudice. Abiding by the principle of non-interference, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have stayed on the fence regarding the ongoing crimes against humanity in Myanmar. Their leniency is often misconstrued as complicity. Memorandums and verbal condemnations are not enough; the approaches need to be less amicable. Myanmar’s human rights track record has proven to be horrendous despite its commitment in several international conventions. Instead of lifting sanctions, ASEAN countries need to impose more of them. Donor countries like Australia and the US must regulate developmental aid for them to be conditional on human right reforms.

Among politicians and activists, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is uncannily aloof about the Rohingya people’s sufferings. Confronted by journalists, she prevaricates by shedding the mantle of victimhood on fellow Buddhists or side-tracking to the topic of “rule of law”. Some defend her reticence as a strategic measure to reconcile with the dissolved junta, yet there is little truth in that line of reasoning. Having assumed power and clout through a landslide victory in the 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi is more than capable of exercising the political power she holds as state counsellor to help the Rohingyas but have not done so. Other Nobel laureates have been critically vocal, and so should the Norwegian Nobel Committee: further inaction should result in a revocation of her Peace Prize.

Islamic militant groups are also starting to take a stance on the issue: ISIS is seeking to further their agenda by recruiting Rohingya migrants. The Taliban vowed to avenge them. Their religion which provoked the persecution they are suffering is now also garnering radical solidarity. For the Rohingyas who are deprived of respect and a sense of belonging in their home country, the gauntlet of jihad thrown down at them can become an enticing offer of solace. Governments have voiced their concerns about Rohingyas joining the ranks of Islamic militancy. If we continue with this apathy and inaction, that will soon no longer be just a possibility but an inevitability.

Just as a shipwreck unfolded the Mediterranean refugee crisis, it took thousands stranded at sea to alert governments of the plight of the Rohingyas. Being the world’s least wanted, their lives hang on a limbo of uncertainty with a bleak outlook of their fate. The most persecuted could become the most dangerous, and if that happens we are the ones who will reap the whirlwind.