Policy adrift over Rohingya, Myanmar’s Muslim boat people

February 3, 2009

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority fleeing oppression and hardship in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, have been called one of the most persecuted people on earth. But they have seldom hit the headlines — until recently, that is. More than 500 Rohingyas are feared to have drowned since early December after being towed out to sea by the Thai military and abandoned in rickety boats. The army has admitted cutting them loose, but said they had food and water and denied sabotaging the engines of the boats.

(Photo: Rohingyas in immigration area in soutwestern Thailand, 31 Jan 2009/Sukree Sukplang)

The Rohingyas are becoming a headache for Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia where they have washed up. Indonesian authorities this week rescued 198 Rohingya boat people off the coast of Aceh, after three weeks at sea. Buddhist Thailand and mostly Muslim Indonesia call them economic migrants looking for work at a time when countries in the region, like everywhere else, are in an economic downturn. But human rights groups such as Amnesty International are calling on governments in the region to provide assistance to the Rohingyas and let the UNHCR  have access to them.

Myanmar’s generals have a shabby enough record with their Buddhist majority. The brutal suppression of monk-led protests that killed at least 31 people in September 2007 and the continued detention of opposition icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi bear witness to that. But their treatment of ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Rohingyas and the Christian Chin people in the mountainous Northwest — where insurgents have been fighting for autonomy — have been especially brutal. They are not oppressed because of their faith alone, but their faith and ethnicity make them targets. The military government does not recognise them as one of the country’s 130-odd ethnic minorities. They are forbidden from marrying or traveling without permission and have no legal right to own land.

(Photo: Thai policeman with Rohingyas at immigration area in southwest Thailand, 31 Jan 2009/Sukree Sukplang)

Most Rohingyas come from Rakhine State, also known as Arakan State, in northwest Myanmar, abutting the border with Bangladesh.  Their roots go back at least to 1821, when Britain annexed the region as a province of British India and brought in large numbers of Bengali-speaking Muslim labourers. When Burma won independence from Britain in 1948, the Bengali-speaking Muslim population near the border exceeded that of the Buddhists, leading to secessionist tensions. This translated into harassment following the 1962 coup that has led to nearly five decades of military rule by the ethnic Burman majority. Thousands fled to Bangladesh to escape a 1978 military census of the Rohingyas called “Operation Dragon.”

Refugees typically leave Rakhaine state for Bangladesh first before taking off in their flimsy fishing boats to find a new life elsewhere in Southeast Asia. On a recent Reuters visit to a Bangladeshi refugee camp, our correspondent Nizam Ahmed heard harrowing tales of being rape, torture and slave labour. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says 200,000 Rohingyas now live a perilous, stateless existence in Bangladesh. As a result, thousands have fled to try to start new lives, chancing their luck in rickety wooden boats they hope will get them to Malaysia, home to 14,300 official Rohingya refugees and maybe half as many again unregistered ones.

(Photo: Rohingya refugees prepare lunch at a naval base in Indonesia’s Sabang Island, 30 Jan 2009/Tarmizy Harva)

To Myanmar’s generals, the Rohingyas are a suspect lot who support local insurgencies that threaten the unity of the country. To Myanmar’s neighbours, they are fresh wave of boat people in Asia’s endless migrations impelled by destitution. To human rights and religious groups, they are persecuted minorities. As for the desperate and stateless Rohingyas who sail off in flimsy boats hoping to wash up on a friendly shore, they just need somewhere to call home.


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This is article is biased against Rohingyas. I have a lot of respect for reuters but with this blog entry i have lost my respect for reuters. How can you use lines such as: The Rohingyas are becoming a headache for Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia where they have washed up.

You cannot play with the lives and rights of thousands of people, the Rohingyas.

Posted by tatcee | Report as abusive

I did not find this article as biased against Rohingyas but quite interesting and informative. As stated Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted people on the earth. I thank for this short line to reuter and also beleive the reuter has written about the headache in true good faith.

Posted by Maung Zaw | Report as abusive

I found this comment quite disturbing:
The Rohingyas are becoming a headache for Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia where they have washed up

They are not overgrown fungi, or the bubonic plague… perhaps the author was trying to convey the situation from an alternative point of view.

Posted by Ashley | Report as abusive

[…] zum Hintergrund auf […]

Posted by Zur Verbrennung thailändischer Fahnen… (Update) : TRANSATLANTIC FORUM | Report as abusive

The Rohingyas, a population of 3.5 million is a part and parcel of Asian population who are living in one of the ASEAN country known as brutal Burma military state.The racial war on Rohingyas,the bonafied citizens of Burma by it military ruler has created a headache for neighnouring countries pushing the Rohingyas out of Burma through systemetic way of extermination.

The ASEAN and all Asian countries must find a solution for the Rohingyas peaceful living in their own country
through mutual consultation before it becomes another Palestine in Asia as wiping out the Rohingyas is a mere unrealistic dream of Burmese successive government.

They compelled more than half of Rohingyas to leave the country due to well founded fear of persecution to many countries of the world.
Nurma think they were successful,but, it is a big mistake,all Rohingyas world-wide are conscious about the salvation of the Rohingya people by all legal means.

Maung Sein
New York,USA

Posted by Maung Sein | Report as abusive

[…] Also pray for the Rohingya people…. According to a recent Reuters report, “The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority fleeing oppression and hardship in Buddhist-dominated […]

Posted by Concern for the Cities! | Report as abusive

In my experience, polical leaders in South East Asia, including Thailand act like barbarians. I have lived in Thailand for several years and there is a racist, biggoted culture. Myanmar and Thailand are one and the same – it’s just that Thailand puts on a ‘face’ for tourists and the developed world.

I believe this racist culture originates from the State and that it sets an example for people to copy it. One cannot help but notice the racist culture, “farang, farang”, uttered from people’s lips. It’s exactly the same with a minority people like the Rohingyas who need protection, but the backward racist culture of this region of the world, care more about money in the hands of the few, than human rights.

Posted by Paula Westwood | Report as abusive