Nowhere to sail

Why Burma’s boat people are dying on the sea....

Written by Alia Allana | Published:February 10, 2009 2:31 am

The international media has been awash with shocking stories: stories of forced migration,of people being shipped out to sea with insufficient food or water,because of government policy. The one thing that this has done is that the Rohingyas are now on the radar. Three boats carrying people from the Burmese minority from the country’s Arakan state have been found — two near the coast of Indonesia and the other near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Three weeks at sea with less than basic food and water; this has caused alarmed responses from the usual quarters: the UN,international human rights organisations and Angelina Jolie. It is believed that the Thai army has shipped out another seven boats,each with over two hundred people on board,to sea. The locations of these are still unknown.

So why are the Rohingyas leaving Burma? First of all,the military junta that rules Burma has a strict policy on who they classify as a Burmese citizen; and Muslims from Arakan state do not figure. The Rohingyas or Arakans are physically different from the ethnic Burman population of the country’s south — though they do share similar customs and beliefs. Yet they share borders with Bangladesh and India and thus have much in common with Bangladeshis and with Indians; they speak Bengali and Burmese and look classically South Asian. Hence their exclusion from fundamental rights.

Their status as Burmese and consequently their history (which state do they belong to? why are they political,not economic refugees?) is thus deeply contested. Legend has it that the term “Rohingya” has evolved from its original term

“raham” implying help: Arab and Muslim merchants who were stranded at sea,slowly integrated into the Arakan society that had kept them alive. Islam spread through the ports; yet south-east Asia’s predominantly Buddhist culture and religious identity was a powerful force. Thus,despite Arakan conversion,the customs of Islam were adopted alongside Buddhist adats — customs — that made this a very culturally diverse society. Intermarriage between traders and locals was common. And so grew the Rohingya population.

However,this changed under the British. They divided Burma into Upper and Lower Burma,and incorporated it into the British Raj,opening up migration from India into Burmese lands. A large influx of migrants from South Bengal,largely Muslim,then settled in Arakan. This new diaspora was different from the original Rohingya population in the sense that they took with them religion as one of their primary uniting forces.

Even then,relations between the Muslims and Buddhists were harmonious and cordial. In fact,one of the primary fighters for independence alongside General Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father) was U Abdul Razak,a Muslim Burmese. When other parts of South and South-East Asia were suffering from religious and ethnic partitions,the people of Arakan under Razak identified with the Burmese cause. They considered themselves to be ethnically Burmese. So why are they now referred to as ‘kala’? Why are they being forced out?

A UN report says this is state policy. The SPDC wants to establish a pure Burman population; this can be seen in other parts of Burma —specifically the areas bordering Laos. This is policy that affects the 32 per cent of the population that does not look distinctly “Burmese”. The UN’s report also underlines brutal state policies such as intimidation,forced labour,extradition,rape,torture,and seizure of land. Nor can the Rohingya easily escape; as non-citizens they are unable to leave. Thus,illegal,forced migration.

There is a sizeable population of Arakans found on the border with Bangladesh — from my time working in those refugee camps I have been told that until recently the Bangladesh government issued work permits and naturalisation policy was possible. Yet $250-per-capita Bangladesh feels it can no longer accommodate all. Even the 12 camps on the Thai border are now clearly considered a burden. Countries have closed their doors to the 300,000 Arakans.

In the end,the Arakan population is Burmese with a history traceable to the 3rd century; yet the junta will not accommodate them. If not,the international community must take up the burden. Resettling the Arakan in Burma has proved to be problematic — the UNHCR tried in 1991. Unless there is a concerted effort from the international community to absorb these 300,000 elsewhere,they will stay homeless.

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