By Shilpika Srivastava
The scars on their bodies earned in fights over little food and water are nothing when compared to the marks that are invisible – deeply etched on their souls.
Think about the courage it takes to leave your home, mount a dilapidated boat, and venture out into the perils and qualms of the stormy seas! Unfortunately, this is the stark reality of thousands of people from Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya ethnic Muslim minority.
In the past few weeks, the Rohingyas, also called ‘floating coffins,’ have not seen even a single humanitarian example of compassion and humility. Rather, they have been coldly pushed back by governments who are not keen on sheltering any more asylum seekers.
Who are the Rohingyas?
The Rohingya people are an Indo-Aryan ethnic Muslim group that reside in northern Rakhine (Arakan), Myanmar.
The ethnicity of the Rohingya people is disputed, however, as per these people and a few scholars, they are indigenous to the land of Rakhine. A group of other historians suggest that they migrated to Burma from Bengal primarily during the period of British rule.
The least wanted and the most persecuted minority
A report published in BBC a few years back unveiled the fact that the Rohingya people are “among the world’s least wanted.”
As per the report, they are not allowed to travel or even marry without seeking permission. “They are not welcome in Bangladesh either, where at least 200,000 now live as illegal immigrants, without rights to employment, health care or education,” states the report.
A recent report by the United Nations has also tagged this ethnic minority as one of the world’s “most persecuted minorities.”
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s report earlier this month also exposed the fact that rising Buddhist jingoism and anti-Islamic sentiment in Myanmar made this Muslim minority a “population at grave risk for additional mass atrocities and even genocide.”
Also, the last three years have witnessed Rohingya people being targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists, leaving hundreds dead and triggering a departure of more than 120,000 people, as per the UNHCR.
The situation is so bad in Burma that even the name Rohingya is considered a taboo in the country. Albeit the Rohingyas have lived in this Buddhist majority country for generations, they are still referred to as ‘Bengalis’ and are purported to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
What prompts the Rohingya people to the sea?
The state of Northern Rakhine is one of the poorest and most isolated in Myanmar. However, the hardships inflicted on the Rohingya by their own country make their condition way too deplorable.
In 2009, Chris Kaye, Director, UN World Food Programme, who visited Myanmar the same year said to a news channel, “Economic hardship and chronic poverty prevents many thousands of people in north Rakhine state from gaining food security.” He further added, “Many do not have land rights or access to farmland to grow food, and the restrictions and limitations on the movement of people, goods and commodities places additional stress on people’s livelihood opportunities.”
The condition of this Muslim minority is so pitiable that out of the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the country, the Rohingyas are the only ones who are denied citizenship under Burma’s 1982 citizenship law. The inhumane acts of humiliation touch heights when they are even not allowed to get married without an official permission.
How much the Rohingyas are hated by Burma can be sensed from a statement made by the country’s Consul General Ye Myint Aung, who described the Rohingya people as “ugly as ogres” in 2009.
This litany of abuse and continuous harassment forced the Rohingya people to flee over to other countries in search of a better life conditions. Initially, they took shelter in Bangladesh where there’s only a flimsy difference from that of Burma.
When Bangladesh did not come to their rescue, then numerous Rohingya people started making dangerous trips to Malaysia in crooked boats in hope of better job conditions. It is just this slight ray of hope that is driving the Rohingyas to the seas.
The present situation
Over the past few weeks more than 3,000 refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh have arrived on Southeast Asia’s beaches, stranded after smugglers abandoned their rickety boats on the way to Malaysia.
According to the United Nations, about 3,500 Rohingya people are estimated to be adrift in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal too. They are either stranded at sea or deterred by Malaysian, Indonesian and Thai authorities from reaching the land.
Recently, the discovery of a mass grave in Malaysia and Thailand is yet another evidence of the grave existential impasse that migrants confront. The bodies found in the catacombs, situated in the state of Perlis, Malaysia are believed to be that of the Rohingya refugees, who flee Myanmar.
Toothless nature of ASEAN
ASEAN’s policy of non-interference over internal issues such as human rights abuse has certainly backfired the association during the ongoing humanitarian crisis suffered by Myanmar’s Muslim minority population.
However, after a long hour of blackout, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman said to local daily Utusan Malaysia’s a few days back that Malaysia and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations members have urged Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya issue as the association’s non-interference policy does not mean silence.
Had the issue not caught international publicity, it can’t be denied that these refugees may have been conveniently ignored by ASEAN.
There’s hardly any solution!
As reported by CNN, Yasmine, a 13-year-old girl told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that a dozen men came to her home in Rakhine State. “They dragged me to the boat, they had sticks and threatened to beat me,” she said. “I screamed, I cried loudly. My parents were weeping, but they couldn’t do anything. I went onto the boat with three men. When I got to the big boat… I cannot explain my feeling, I was so scared.”
However, amidst the disaster-struck and downtrodden Rohingyas, a first ray of hope came from Philippines. A week back, the country offered to accept these refugees, though there is a bleak possibility that these poorly maintained and overcrowded migrants could ever clear the passage from the Andaman Sea to the Philippines.
Recently, Singapore announced an initial aid of US$200,000 through ASEAN to back the efforts of countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia that have been helping Rohingya refugees.
Although, Myanmar has slightly softened its stand on the issue and declared that it will offer aid to migrants stuck at sea. Though it seems highly unlikely that it will take back Rohingyas that have fled.
Given the history of this Muslim minority on the land of Buddhist majority country, the future of those, who are still stuck in Rakhine still seems dark.