May 21, 2015
By Jillian Kestler-D’Amours
Malaysia has ordered its navy to search the waters off its coast for stranded migrants, after thousands of Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Burma have spent weeks at sea.
Between 3,000 and 6,000 migrants are believed to remain stuck without food and water on boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, and human rights groups have called on Southeast Asian governments to intervene.
On Wednesday, more than 400 Rohingya were rescued by Indonesian fishermen. According to the International Committee on Migration, more than 1,500 migrants have disembarked in Indonesia and Malaysia, while another 400 returned to Burma and Bangladesh.
But who are Burma’s Rohingya, why have they fled their homes, and how have neighbouring states responded to the unfolding crisis off their coasts?
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are members of a Muslim religious minority living primarily in Burma’s western Rakhine state. They are estimated to number approximately 1.3 million, out of the country’s total population of more than 50 million.
Under the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingyas were denied Burmese citizenship, and instead were designated as “resident foreigners.”
What is happening in Rakhine state?
Gangs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists began carrying out sectarian-fuelled attacks against Rohingya Muslims in northern townships in October 2012. Homes were burned and families fled in the violence, which Human Rights Watch said was “at times carried out with the support of state security forces and local government officials.”
In April 2013, HRW released a report accusing the government and Buddhist groups in Rakhine state of carrying out “ crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya.
The violence was a result of long-standing religious divisions, and the rhetoric of ultra-nationalist Buddhist leaders. Radical Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, for example, has launched a vitriolic campaign against the country’s Muslims.
Has the Burmese government addressed the violence?
For several decades since it gained independence from the U.K., Burma was ruled by a military dictatorship. In 2011, the country moved towards a civilian government, though army leaders still hold ministerial posts and much influence.
According to William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, many observers thought Burma’s move towards democracy would lead to greater rights for the Rohingya.
“But it’s really been the opposite,” he told the Star. “And it seems to have gotten worse because although the regime is more liberal and more acceptable in some ways to the international community, whatever was driving the attacks on the Rohingyas in the past seems to have actually been strengthened and enhanced.”
The Burmese government and opposition parties have largely avoided publicly addressing the attacks on the Rohingya despite widespread international criticism.
That changed this week, however, when opposition leader U Nyan Win addressed the root causes of the migrant boat crisis in an interview with The Independent newspaper in the U.K.
The spokesperson of the National League for Democracy party, Win linked the dire situation aboard the boats to the Rohingya’s lack of citizenship. “The problem needs to be solved by the law. The law needs to be amended. After one or two generations (of residence) they should have the right to be citizens.”
How many Rohingya have fled their homes?
In October 2014, The Associated Press reported that about 100,000 Rohingya had fled Burma since widespread violence first broke out two years earlier.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 25,000 people have departed from the Bay of Bengal in the first quarter of 2015. Of that number, 40-60 per cent of people are thought to have left from Rakhine state.
About 150,000 Rohingya are now living in closed, internally-displaced persons camps in Burma.
How have regional governments responded to the boats?
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia initially pushed back several of the migrant boats. Since the crisis has worsened, however, Malaysia and Indonesia promised to temporarily shelter 7,000 “boat people,” Reuters reported.
Thailand, meanwhile, said it would stop towing boats back to sea and provide medical attention to sick migrants on its shores, but it would not set up migrant camps.
Regional governments will hold a meeting to discuss the issue on May 29 in Thailand. AFP reported that Thailand’s Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said that Burma had accepted the invitation to attend the meeting, despite originally saying it would not go.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told AFP this week that the U.S. was prepared to help South Asian countries “bear the burden” of the refugees.
“Nope, nope, nope,” responded Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott when asked if his country would take in any of the refugees. “If we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on the boats, this problem will get worse, not better,” Abbott said, according to AFP.
According to Schabas, the international community has a responsibility to protect the refugees.
“If we can’t get the Burmese to change the way they treat the Rohingyas, then neighbouring countries and other countries with the resources to help them have to weigh in and ensure that they are protected,” Schabas said.
“There’s no doubt they’re as genuine a case of refugees as you get, and we have an international commitment to protect refugees from persecution.”