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Crisis of Rohingya: A future lost in darkness of time

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Photo credit: karennews.org
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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.

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Violence And Intimidation Directed Towards Rohingyas In Bangladesh Camps

Human Rights Watch warned in a report in August that the Bangladeshi government was restricting access to basic services by resisting attempts by aid agencies.

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Rohingya, Violence
Rohingya refugees carry a hume pipe in Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

The failed attempt to send thousands of Rohingya back to Myanmar starting this month has drawn attention to alleged violence and intimidation by security forces against members of the Muslim minority living in Bangladesh’s sprawling refugee camps.

Bangladesh has boosted its international reputation by hosting more than 730,000 Rohingya who fled a vicious campaign by Myanmar’s military last year that U.N. investigators have labelled genocide – an accusation Myanmar has consistently denied.

But Bangladesh appears keen to demonstrate that Rohingya refugees will not be welcome there indefinitely. The planned repatriations sparked fear and chaos last week as Rohingya went into hiding – and in a handful of reported cases attempted suicide – to avoid being sent back.

Rohingya, myanmar, violence
Rohingya refugee children shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Meanwhile, allegations of sporadic beatings, looting and intimidation by Bangladeshi soldiers, police and camp officials have underscored the bleak conditions faced by Rohingya in their host country, where most are denied official refugee status and face restrictions on freedom of movement.

The repatriation of some 2,000 refugees was scheduled to begin last Thursday, but Bangladesh has now put the plans on hold until next year after failing to find any Rohingya willing to go back.

Rohingya in the camps have told VOA that soldiers were stationed near the homes of those who were told they would be sent back last week, fueling fears of forced repatriation and adding to widespread distress in communities already suffering extreme trauma after last year’s violence.

One Rohingya man told VOA anonymously that block leaders in the camps were also “announcing with loudspeakers… that it’s essential for everyone to carry ID with them whenever and wherever they go if they leave their homes.”

Late last month, security forces looted property from Rohingya shopkeepers at the Balukhali camp, said John Quinley, a human rights specialist with the non-profit organization Fortify Rights.

Rohingya, myanmar, violence
Rohingya refugees walk under rain clouds on June 26, 2018, in Jamtoli refugee camp in Bangladesh. VOA

“Right now the security forces are operating in the camps with total impunity,” he said.

In another case earlier this month, Fortify Rights reported that security forces rounded up 18 Rohingya leaders and slapped and hit some of them while telling them to instruct other refugees to cooperate with a new U.N.-backed project to provide them with “smart cards.”

Many Rohingya oppose the identity cards because they fear the information on them will be shared with the Myanmar government.

Bangladesh’s refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner, Abul Kalam, told VOA he was unaware of the allegations of violence but would follow up. “Generally, it is not acceptable that someone would apply force on or beat someone to do or not to do something,” he said.

Quinley called on the U.N.’s refugee agency to “do everything in their power to make sure that the Bangladeshi authorities are respecting human rights.”

Rohingya, myanmar, violence
An elderly Rohingya refugee holds a placard during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh.VOA

Spokesperson Caroline Gluck said the agency has notified the authorities of a “small number” of reports of violence related to the smart card project. The agency has “been following up with them to ascertain the circumstances of what happened,” she told VOA.

Officials have responded that the incidents were “not linked” to the smart card project, she said.

She added, “The new ID card will enable refugees to be better protected and will streamline access to assistance and services.”

Mohammed Sheikh Anwar, a Rohingya activist, told VOA the Bangladeshi government “needs to keep the lower-level authorities in check. There should be an accountability measure.”

“Committing violence against genocide survivors to make them agree to the authorities’ terms is not the solution,” he added.

Rohingya, myanmar, violence
A Rohingya refugee woman draws water from a hand pump at a temporary shelter in New Delhi, India.

Last week a Rohingya man named Ata Ullah said he was beaten at the office of an official at the Chakmarkul camp, the Guardian reported, after he failed to provide the official with a list of refugees.

Ata Ullah said in a video circulated on social media that when he couldn’t provide the official with a list he “was beaten with a large stick… they stepped on my neck, I could not stand it.”

Also Read: Bangladesh Government Build a New Rohingya Camp

Human Rights Watch warned in a report in August that the Bangladeshi government was restricting access to basic services by resisting attempts by aid agencies and Rohingya refugees to “create any structures, infrastructure, or policies that suggest permanency.”

As a result, the report said, “refugee children do not go to school, but rather to ‘temporary learning centers,’ where ‘facilitators,’ not ‘teachers,’ preside over the classrooms. The learning centers are inadequate, only providing about two hours of instruction a day,” the report said. (VOA)