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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S.G. Ji­la­nee The writer is a se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and for­mer editor of Southasia.

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.

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