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.”