Why is no one helping Myanmar’s Rohingya?

June 17, 2015
Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia's Aceh Province May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Roni Bintang

Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia’s Aceh Province May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Roni Bintang

Myanmar is currently in the throes of a massive humanitarian crisis. Thousands of ethnic Rohingya are fleeing persecution. Boarding overcrowded boats (and often enduring horrific conditions), they’re going to countries scarcely able to help them — or in some cases, frankly, not interested in helping them.

How did this happen?

A Reuters graphic shows a recent estimate of where displaced Rohingyas have landed. Click through for more data.

A Reuters graphic shows where displaced Rohingyas have landed. Click image to expand.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Many of their enemies refuse to acknowledge that the Rohingya are an ethnically distinct group. They claim instead that the Rohingya are Bengali and that their presence in Myanmar is the result of illegal immigration (more on that later). The Rohingya, for their part, claim to be pre-colonial residents of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the Middle East Institute explains, with the earliest known appearance of the term Rohingya in 1799.

SLIDESHOW: Adrift at sea, unwanted on land

Why are the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar?

The Rohingya face violence and lack basic rights such as access to healthcare, education and employment. They live in “apartheid-like conditions” due to, among other things, Myanmar’s refusal to recognize them as citizens. But this is nothing new. Between May 1991 and March 1992, more than 260,000 Rohingya fled the country over “human rights abuses committed by the Burmese military, including the confiscation of land, forced labor, rape, torture, and summary executions,” the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights wrote in a 2013 report.

OK, but if it’s been going on almost 25 years, why is everyone talking about it now?

While this problem isn’t new, it’s gotten demonstrably worse in recent years.

Myanmar’s 2010 transition from a military-led government to a somewhat more democratic system led to some of the worst violence against Muslims. The national government has tacitly permitted the rise of the 969 movement, a group of Buddhist monks who employ “moral justification for a wave of anti-Muslim bloodshed,” Reuters reports. Since 2012, roughly 140,000 Rohingya have fled northwestern Myanmar amid deadly fighting with the majority Buddhists.

Rupban, a Rohingya woman, shows her ration card with pictures of her family members at a refugee camp in Kutupalong May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Rafiqur Rahman

Rupban, a Rohingya woman, shows her ration card with pictures of her family at a refugee camp in Kutupalong May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Rafiqur Rahman

Why is there so much animosity toward the Rohingya?

As is the case in many modern conflicts, the current unrest in Myanmar can trace its roots to the country’s colonial past.

In 1826, Britain annexed what’s now the northwest part of the country, as well as the region that’s currently home to most of Myanmar’s remaining Rohingya Muslims. Due to the British colonial government’s lax immigration laws at the time, Bengali Muslims flooded into the region. And the British installation of South Indian chettyars (money lenders) as administrators of the new colonial territory displaced Burmese Buddhist peasants. It’s had an enduring legacy, as the Economist explains:

“Over the decades [the Rohingya], without legal or any other sort of protection, have been the victims of wanton discrimination and violence by both the virulently anti-Muslim Rakhines, a Buddhist ethnic group, and agents of the central government. One of the few things Rakhines and members of the ethnic Burmese majority have in common is a shared hatred of the ‘Bengalis,’ a label they both apply to Rohingya with contempt.”

Add to that a failed Rohingya secessionist uprising between 1948 and 1961, persistent fears of Islamic encroachment on Buddhists and a 1982 citizenship law “essentially legitimizing discrimination against the Rohingya,” according to the Middle East Institute.

Thai fishermen (R) give some supplies to migrants on a boat drifting 10 miles off the coast of the southern island of Koh Lipe, Thailand May 14, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Thai fishermen (R) give some supplies to migrants on a boat drifting 10 miles off the coast of the southern island of Koh Lipe, Thailand May 14, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Why don’t nearby countries take them in?

The obvious candidates to house displaced Rohingya have appeared unwilling or unable to provide permanent homes for them.

Malaysia and Indonesia have turned away Rohingya by the hundreds because the countries claim they are financially unable to accept them. “We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here,” Malaysia’s deputy home minister remarked recently. The Thai navy has similarly rebuffed the refugees.

Bangladesh, a majority Muslim nation, had informally harbored the Rohingya for years — only to order them out of border camps in recent days. That’s not surprising; it’s one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a fragile government and economy.

Why doesn’t the Myanmar government do something about this?

Good question. It’s one that the Dalai Lama, President Barack Obama, the U.S. State Department and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all asked. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called the violence against Rohingya a “slow genocide.” Billionaire George Soros has compared it to Nazism.

Put simply, positioning oneself against the Buddhist majority is considered a risky political move. Myanmar President Thein Sein’s office previously issued a statement referring to the rabidly anti-Rohingya 969 movement as “just a symbol of peace.” Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate who fought for decades for democracy and reform in Myanmar, has been conspicuously quiet on the issue.

10 comments

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Where are their fellow Muslims, with food and shelter? Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world. Can they not help their Rohingya brothers and sisters in faith? From all indications, Muslims are too busy shooting girls in the face for studying, or running from their fellow shooters. Islam is broken. We are all human.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Muslims are good at multiplying and spreading the faith. But then bad at sending money or food when needed. How many foreign relief agencies in Africa are run by Islamic groups? What do the oil princes of Qatar send?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

How convenient of the writer to ignore the rape and murders committed by the so called Rohingya against the other residents of the areas. Expecting others to overlook their atrocities is one of the hallmark of muslim communities all over the world – one of their rights given by their Allah.
They have to realize that in the real world people fight back. When then got the wrong end of the stick they cried ” persecution”.
I am no bigot but i feel the media is not presenting the other side of the story – maybe the persecution angle appeal more to their readers? or attract readers’ attention?

Posted by helang | Report as abusive

‘Rohingya’ is an emerging, coalescing ethnicity of several distinct Muslim ethnicities known during British rule by separate names reflecting their historical origins stretching back, in some cases only decades, in other cases centuries. Unfortuntely Rohingya leaders are unwilling to acknowledge their disparate and indeed kalaedoscopic origins, but seek to implant the myth that they have never ever had anything to do with South Asia, but are all descended directly from early traders and clerics who arrived by sea in the 8th Century. The Rakhine retaliate by calling all Rohingya “illegal Bengalis” which of course isn’t true. Even President Thein Sein acknowledged on 11 July 2012 in conversation with UNHCR Antonio Guterres that the descendants of Bengalis who settled in Arakan during British rule qualify for citizenship. The problem is how to prove this.

The UN could help by setting up a Panel of Wise Men responsible to the UN Secretary-General in order to establish, with the help of Rakhine and Rohingya scholars, the origins of the designation, which may well merit an acceptable ethnicity. That might help to put the two communities in contact again and helo towards reconciliation.

Posted by DerekTonkin | Report as abusive

When you check British archives, there is no single words mentioned Rohingya. You will only see Bengali. British collected census when they ruled in Myanmar. They even recorded smaller ethnic population in Myanmar. But, you don’t see Rohingya in the census as the word is created very recently. You are lying behalf of them.
For you reference. Please check what British former ambassador to Myanmar and many scholar said:

“There was no such identity as
‘Rohingya’ known to the British Governments of either India until 1937 or of Burma after the
separation from India on 1 April of that year. In the 122 years between their conquest of
Arakan in 1826 and Burmese independence in 1948, not a single reference to ‘Rohingya’ is
to be found in any British official report, regional gazetteer, census, legislation, private
correspondence or personal reminiscence. Even if such a self-identification had been made,
the census enumerator would have written ‘Chittagonian’ as they were under instructions to
do in both the 1921 and 1931 censuses if alternative identities were offered, such as
‘Kawtaw’, ‘Barna’, ‘Babuji’ or ‘Magh’.”

http://www.networkmyanmar.org/images/sto ries/PDF17/Rohingya-Identity-rev.pdf

Here is research by Myanmar expert Professor Robert Taylor:

“The ‘Rohingya’ issue is complex and there are strident claims made on all sides as is
inevitable when claims about ethnic origins, historical roots, and legal rights are combined.30
However, among all the various Muslim communities present in Myanmar,31 some of which
are recognised as indigenous, only the ‘Rohingya’ leadership makes a disputed claim to being
one of Myanmar’s indigenous national races, presumably number 136. The British
recognised no such group. Persons known as Bengalis or Bengali Muslims, of whom there
were nearly half a million in Rakhine State in 1983, then made no such claim.”

http://www.iseas.edu.sg/documents/public ation/iseas_perspective_2015_12.pdf

So, please stop lying.

Posted by MMjournalist | Report as abusive

Your article states that the migrants are from “Myanmar/Bangladesh”. Aid agencies and others international humanitarian officials on the ground estimate that approximately 70-80% of the migrants are from Bangladesh, usually from cities and towns far from the Myanmar border.

Why does this article artificially conflate the migrant boat crisis with the situation of the Rohingya?

Why is there no analysis or discussion of the roots of migration in Bangladesh?

Posted by philoctetes | Report as abusive

The ugly reason why no one is helping the rohibgya minority is because the world has gone mad. The non-Rohingya- inhabitants of Burma are evil. Just look at their comments where they’re always slandering the victims and accusing them of being non-Burmese nationals. Wealthy countries such as Australia are too racist to let persecuted rohingya refugees to come to their stolen shorts.

Posted by boycottburma | Report as abusive

The News is false. There is no discrimination against Muslims in Myanmar. They are illegal immigrants from Bangladish.
Actually, there is no bangali from Myanmar on the boats. All those boat people are from Bangladesh. But western and Middle east (Saudi) governments wanna occupy Rakhnie state from Myanmar and given the power to those Bangali as a separated state from myanmar. So that they can have army base in south Asia between Myanamar and India also they wanna control China influence in that region.
Those news on western medias are try to give a reason and excused for them, if NATO makes war against Myanmar.

Posted by BabyHussein | Report as abusive

So called Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Bangladesh should be held accountable for flooding Myanmar and other neighbors with illegal immigrants. Bangladesh also committed horrendous genocide against the Buddhist and Hindu tribes in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Why is their no media interest about the victims of Bangladeshi terrorism in Chittagong Hill Tracts?

Posted by VictimOfJihad | Report as abusive

Very serious anti buddhist article ignoring the racism encountered by rohingya bengalis in indonesia which is a muslim country… this anti buddhist propaganda doesnt change historical facts, the rohingyas are infact bengalis who claim independence from their host country burma,,, saudi arab must open their door to rohingya. Just paying news channels to create hatred against buddhists, and hindus will further deteriorate the problem,,,

Posted by ismail786 | Report as abusive