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Friday, December 03, 2021

Flight of the Rohingya

As Myanmar’s persecuted minority flees the country, Aung San Suu Kyi is surprisingly silent.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian |
Updated: June 3, 2015 12:05:14 am
Rohnigya, Bangladeshis, Myanmar Internationally, security wonks are concerned that Rohingya camps in Myanmar, close to the border with Bangladesh, are breeding anger and could turn into recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda or its offshoots.

No one knows our story, people visit us, but our story never gets out,” Abdul Ghafoor told me back in November 2012, when I spoke to him at a camp for displaced Rohingyas at the edge of Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine province.

In the preceding months, there had been clashes across Rakhine, between the majority Buddhists and the Rohingyas, killing over 100 people and forcing nearly 1,40,000 to flee their homes. Set among paddy fields, lagoons and shrimp farms less than seven kilometres from Sittwe, there was nothing picturesque about the camp. It was part of a chain of Rohingya camps along an embankment teeming with people and a makeshift market. Te Chaung camp, where I spent two hours, had 20,000 people but it felt like twice the number. There were 80 to 100 people in each tent — children, women, old people all squashed together — living in squalid conditions. In Sittwe, at the camps for Rakhines who had also been displaced in the violence, there were rows of prefab housing with about 1,000 people to a camp. Bibi Mariam in Te Chaung related how a mob of 5,000 Rakhines had attacked her village. “They said we must become Buddhists. Through eight hours, they burnt everything.” She saw many people die in the violence in her village.

Three years later, the Rohingya tragedy has burst upon the world once again. Thousands of Rohingyas are stranded in the seas off Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Victims of a massive human trafficking racket between Thailand and Malaysia, they were abandoned by their mules when the Thai police broke the ring. The people in those “floating coffins”, the UN’s description of the boats, were trying to escape their futureless existence in Myanmar, which refuses to accept them as full citizens and just about tolerates their presence in camps or villages from which they cannot move out in the western Rakhine province.

“They don’t think of us as their country people. They call us Bengali,” Abdul Karim, another man at Te Chaung said. “But we call ourselves Rohingya, that’s what our parents and grandparents told us.” The Myanmar government has been determined in its efforts to reject the Rohingya nomenclature internationally. The official name for the 1.2 million people who call themselves Rohingya is, as Abdul Karim said, “Bengali”. The government holds that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In 2014, Myanmar held its first census in 30 years, but did not include the Rohingyas. In December 2014, Myanmar began a pilot project to give some Rohingyas citizenship cards, but abandoned it after opposition from the Rakhine Buddhists and others in Myanmar. The division between Myanmar’s various Buddhist ethnicities and the Rohingyas is almost apartheid-like. The Rohingyas’ movements are restricted to their villages or camps, partly because of their fear of being attacked, and partly by government security “for their own safety”.

Before travelling to Sittwe from Yangon, I called a journalist there. “How do you look?” the journalist asked. “What do you mean?” I asked, taken aback. “I mean do you have Indian features? Are you Hindu?” were the next questions. I was told: “If you want to come, wear a Hindu dot for your own safety”. Sittwe turned out to be not as threatening, but only with great difficulty could I find a cab driver to take me to the site of the Rohingya camps.

Faced with a humanitarian crisis in their seas, representatives of Southeast Asian countries met in Thailand last Friday and decided to intensify search and rescue operations. There is resentment about being dragged into a problem that is not of their making, and the feeling that Myanmar must be the one to take steps to prevent such a tragedy from recurring, but Asean does not talk about the internal affairs of member states.

Internationally, security wonks are concerned that Rohingya camps in Myanmar, close to the border with Bangladesh, are breeding anger and could turn into recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda or its offshoots. India, as the only country in the wider region with a long-standing policy of not turning away refugees, should be interested in Myanmar’s plans for the future of the Rohingyas. After 2012, fleeing Rohingyas arrived at several points of India’s eastern coastline and took refuge in some cities. There is some surprise that China has been silent through the unfolding crisis in a region it considers its sphere of influence, not even offering to join in the search operations in the seas.

But what has caused the most surprise is that Aung San Suu Kyi, held up as an icon of democracy and human rights, has said nothing against her country’s treatment of the Rohingyas. The Nobel peace laureate’s silence has disappointed the international community. Last week, the Dalai Lama appealed to her to break her silence, revealing that he had asked her twice before in 2012. In an interview to me in 2012, Suu Kyi was guarded as she spoke about the Rohingyas, stressing that, had the government maintained the “rule of law”, the clashes of that year could have been prevented. She also said that for years, she and her party, the National League of Democracy (NLD), had been pointing out that “something has to be done about the porous border with Bangladesh” or it would lead to “grave problems” for Myanmar. “People talk as though I were some sort of an icon or on a pedestal,” she said, to a question about how easy it was for her to plunge into the give and take of political life, and pointed out that she and her party had been prepared to make political compromises all through.

As Myanmar moves towards an election later this year, the first full election in which the NLD will participate since 1990, and with Suu Kyi engaged in a battle with the military to change the constitution so that she becomes eligible to run for president, it is unlikely that the Dalai Lama will get a response to his appeal.

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