Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim Minority Become Newest Boat People

Rohingya human trafficking victims held in a detention cell near the Thailand-Malaysian border in February. (CNS photo/Damir Sagolj, Reuters)Rohingya human trafficking victims held in a detention cell near the Thailand-Malaysian border in February. (CNS photo/Damir Sagolj, Reuters)

A few small but significant steps toward ending the suffering of Rohingya Muslims adrift on the Andaman Sea have been made in recent days. Responding to broad international criticism of previous decisions to turn away boatloads of Rohingya landing on their shores, Southeast Asian regional powers Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to temporarily accept refugees for up to one year. Regional states plan a joint meeting at the end of this month to discuss responsesapproaches to the Rohingya crisis and human trafficking between the neighboring countries.

Just last week both nations had forced boats overloaded with starving and dehydrated Rohingya refugees, a deeply persecuted minority seeking to escape Myanmar, back to sea where an unknown number had already perished, including women and children. Rejecting people seeking asylum at the border, be it by land or sea, is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, or not expelling those who have the right to international protection. Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project—which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade—said as many as "8,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers could be parked on boats in the Malacca Straits," unable to come ashore in Malaysia and Thailand. The New York Times reports the total number of people at sea could be as high as 20,000.

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"Hospitality and solidarity are two principle human values which grow through human interaction and accompaniment of those who are marginalized. It is time we take the challenge to protect the lives of those who are suffering seriously," said Bambang A. Sipayung S.J., director of Jesuit Refugee Services Asia Pacific. The plight of Rohingya Muslims came to worldwide attention this month when boatloads were pushed back to sea after being denied landings in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Thai officials claimed to have re-stocked water and food supplies for the refugees, but photos of the pitiful state of the sea-stranded refugees suggested that their conditions were indeed life-threatening.

The Indonesian and Malaysian reversal was welcomed by the U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, who added that the United States was willing to assist Southeast Asian states as they attempt to respond to the crisis. She added that United States was also willing to accept Rohingya refugees as part of international effort. She said that since Oct. 1, the United States has resettled more than 1,000 Rohingya.

"I think the Malaysians and the Indonesians have requested some help resettling people. We're taking a careful look at the proposal," Harf told reporters in Washington. "It has to be a multicountry effort. We obviously can't take this all on ourselves. But we are prepared to play a leading role in this effort.”

Another surprise reversal came from Myanmar itself where a spokesperson for the nation's main opposition group, the National League for Democracy, demanded on May 19 that Myanmar officials help end the humanitarian crisis by offering the Rohingya people something they have long been denied—citizenship.

In an interview with a U.K. newspaper, The Independent, the NLD's U Nyan Win said, “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.”

That pronouncement was a decisive break with the opposition party's typical silence on the issue. Both the NLD and its leader, Nobel Peace Price Winner Aung San Suu Kyi have been criticized for their long reluctance to take a human rights-based stand on a domestic issue regarded as highly inflammatory. Many in Myanmar regard the Rohingya with fear and suspicion, emotions that are sometimes stoked into violent repression against Rohingya by nationalist Buddhist leaders. 

Speaking to AFP, U Nyan Win said, “If [the Rohingya] are not accepted as citizens, they cannot just be sent onto rivers. They can’t be pushed out to sea. They are humans. I just see them as humans who are entitled to human rights.” With national elections scheduled for October, it will soon be clear what price, if any, the NLD will pay for its new position on the abused minority.

The Philippines has also announced that it would accept as many as 3,000 Rohingya refugees. Philippines Minister for Communications, Herminio Coloma, said, “We will continue to do our part to save lives,” he said, adding that in the 1970s the Philippines had welcomed the "boat people" who fled Vietnam after the communist victory over South Vietnam. He said he Philippines was willing to accept its obligations under the 1951 U.N. convention on refugees, which requires states to "provide assistance and relief to people involuntarily displaced from their lands due to conflict.’

Father Socrates Mesiona, National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the Philippines, supported the government's decision. "It is our duty to welcome these people,” he said. “If necessary, we will welcome them and will try to ensure them a decent life. They are human beings and children of God, created in the image and likeness of God. The fact that they are Muslim does not create any problem and does not change the state of things. As the gospel teaches us, we are ready to give them hospitality.”

That will prove a welcome change for the Rohingya. Many have been adrift for months on the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal after repeatedly being denied landings in regional states. The refugees are fleeing conditions in Myanmar (formerly Burma) where they face fundamental human rights violations. In recent years the Muslim minority community has frequently been the targets of violence by the Buddhist majority. Successive Burmese governments, including the current administration under Thein Sein, have used a 1982 citizenship law, which excluded the Rohingya from Myanmar’s official list of 135 national races, to deny citizenship to the Rohingya people. Myanmar officials refer to the group as "Bengalis" and insist they have immigrated illegally from Bangladesh, even though most have lived in the country for generations.

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group who practice a unique blend of Sufi-infused Sunni Islam. An estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million live in Myanmar’s Myanmar’s western Rakhine State; an additional million are scattered across Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere. More than 140,000 of Myanmar’s Rohingya were pushed into displacement camps in 2012 amid regional conflicts, and more than 120,000 have since fled the Myanmar/Bangladesh border to escape violence, persecution and economic hardship. The United Nations has called the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a report earlier this month titled “They Want Us All to Go Away: Early Warning Signs of Genocide in Burma.” The report documents how the Rohingya are subjected to dehumanizing hate speech, physical violence, segregation, dire living conditions, restrictions on movement, land confiscation, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, voting restrictions, loss of citizenship, extortion and countless other human rights violations. 

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