A People Adrift
Rendered stateless and persecuted by their own government, the Rohingyas of Myanmar are adrift at sea looking for a place to call home.
They are all at sea, with no place to go.
Buddha, it is claimed by his followers, preached ahimsa, -“cause no injury, do no harm.” A Buddhist was therefore supposed never to injure - far less, kill, anyone, at least unless attacked. But, Sri Lanka and Myanmar belie that concept about Buddhism. Nevertheless, the mistreatment Sinhalas mete out to Tamil and Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka cannot compare with the havoc that the Buddhist government of Myanmar has unleashed on its Rohingya Muslims, in contemptuous disregard of Buddha’s teachings.
Rohingyas are a Muslim community inhabiting Arakan in Myanmar across the border from Bangladesh. They are said to have been living there since the 16th century. But in 1982, General Ne Win’s government enacted the Burmese nationality law, which deprived 1.3 million Rohingyas of citizenship and stripped them of all rights.
The action was unique. Even when Stalin uprooted the Chechens from their homeland, he settled them elsewhere. They were not denied Soviet citizenship. The Myanmar government on the other hand has turned its hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas into stateless people. More than 140,000 Rohingyas in Burma continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons. They are not allowed to move about freely, work or even marry without state permission.
According to the Myanmar government, Rohingyas are not indigenous Burmese. They do not speak the Burmese language like other Burmese Muslims. They are immigrant settlers from Bangladesh, who speak Bengali and dress like Bangladeshis.
Often described by the international media and human rights organizations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, Rohingyas received international attention first, in the wake of the 2012 Rakhine State riots and, more recently, due to the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis involving their attempt to migrate to neighbouring countries and drifting on the high seas.
The total population of the Rohingyas
is estimated at between two and three million. Outside Myanmar, with about 1.3 million, they are scattered in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. In Pakistan and KSA they came long ago and settled.
Even the United Nations has been lukewarm towards their plight, despite knowing the nature and magnitude of the current humanitarian crisis. Last year, the UN General Assembly passed a consensus resolution urging Myanmar to provide full citizenship to its Rohingya Muslim minority and to allow them to move freely throughout the country. It has also asked the Southeast Asian countries to respect international law and help the migrants stranded at sea. But for want of any follow up action to resolve this crisis, all these efforts have failed to achieve the desired objectives.
For instance, when the Myanmar government ignored the UN resolution, the Security Council ought to have come into action and pass a Resolution under Chapter VII to enforce the former’s compliance with the UN call but it did not do so.
Meanwhile, the unfortunate people are being treated as if they were some extra-terrestrial species from an alien planet. Carrying these ‘alien creatures,’ their ‘Unidentified Sailing Objects’ (their boats) still continue to wander aimlessly in international waters. And no country seems to be inclined to accept them.
Having already taken a number of them, even Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand are now refusing to accept any more Rohingyas. As a result, thousands of the unfortunate people, including women and children, are helplessly stranded at sea in their boats.
Pitiably, the Muslim world also remains indifferent to the sufferings of their Muslim brethren. The ummah is dead as a dodo. Nobody talks about the Rohingyas. Even the OIC has maintained complete silence over the issue.
However, while those who were expected to care, remain indifferent, humanitarian agencies such as the human rights group, Fortify Rights are doing their bit to ameliorate the suffering of the stranded people. Fortify Rights is a non-profit watchdog that documents the plight of the Rohingyas.
In an interview, Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights, recently said that “Relief agencies estimate about 8,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are stranded on the waters in decrepit vessels. They are on the sea off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Their location is of no significance because none of those three countries is allowing them to make landfall. Some are drifting in the Sea of Andaman.
“Rohingya have faced systematic persecution in Myanmar for decades. In 2012, there was state-sanctioned violence against the community. So villages were burned down. Rohingya were shot at and killed, essentially driven out of their homes. And this is part of the reason why we're seeing so many take to the seas now.
“The Rohingya are one of the poorest communities in Southeast Asia. Their citizenship is denied in Myanmar. So they're a stateless population, and they have been since the early 1980s when Myanmar enacted a law that stripped them of citizenship. Everywhere they go, the Rohingya face abuse - in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere. They have no home.
“Rohingya have been trafficked through Thailand for the last couple of years. At least over 100,000 Rohingya are in Malaysia right now and over 500,000 in Bangladesh. The U.S. has resettled a few Rohingya, but generally speaking, they have no safe haven.”
Interestingly, according to one report “hundreds of Rohingya families have found refuge in Jammu-Kashmir of all places!
The crisis will continue to fester and may develop into a disaster, unless urgent steps are taken to resolve it. The people floating in the rickety boats would need food and medicines. Unless there is some arrangement in place to provide them with these essential needs, many will perish due to hunger or disease. Or, they may perish due to some natural calamity such as a tornado.
The magnitude of the crisis is beyond the capacity of stray humanitarian agencies to manage. Besides it calls for both short and long term solutions. While the short term solution would require providing them relief in an organized manner, the long term solution would need arrangements for their permanent settlement. And it is only the United Nations that can provide these solutions.
The UNHCR ought to undertake the arrangement for providing food and medicines to the floating people. And the UNSC can persuade or force the Myanmar government to revive their citizenship. At the same time, the so-called Muslim ummah should wake up from their slumber to contribute in cash for the Rohingyas’ rehabilitation or grant asylum to as many of them as possible so as to wash away this blot from the face of the Ummah.
Rohingyas are a Muslim community inhabiting Arakan in Myanmar across the border from Bangladesh.