Submitted on Fri, 22 May 2015 - 03:36 PM
The world is aghast at the fact that up to 8000 members of the Rohingya people of Myanmar have ended up adrift in leaky overcrowded boats having to fight for food and being forced to drink their own urine. They have been shipped from port to port while the governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh argue over who is responsible for them and the government of Myanmar acts as if the problem is nothing to do with it. The real scandal is that almost 1 million people can be denied their right to citizenship in Myanmar and held in what are effectively prison camps under armed guard. The majority of Rohingya are now living in so called people resettlement camps following the outbreak of inter ethnic violence in 2013. The roads in and out of the camps are blocked by armed guards and the Rohingya cannot leave the area even to seek medical help for women going into labour.
The government of Myanmar will try to write this off as a temporary response to a critical situation, but the reality is that the Rohingya have been progressively impoverished over generations. Denied access to education and public services they are effectively isolated from the rest of the country and denied any chance to earn a living for themselves or build a future for their families. The government of Myanmar has created a situation in which a people, who are completely marginalised and denied even the basic decencies of life, are reduced to such a level of despair that they feel they have no option but to risk their lives on the open sea.
The issue of the Rohingya is a taboo subject in Myanmar. In schools and colleges Buddhists attend class in the morning while Muslim Rohingya students attend class in the afternoon when the teachers will often not bother to turn up. The 1982 Citizenship Act makes no mention of the Rohingya. Their national identity cards were taken away and replaced with white cards which confer no national ethnic identity or confer any right to apply for citizenship. Officially they do not exist and in the recent census they were given a choice between registering as Bengalis or other, thereby accepting that they are economic migrants rather than citizens. This, despite the fact that the history of the Rohingya people in Arakan state goes back at least to the 16th century. Even within the human rights community there is limited recognition of their plight and Rohingya human rights defenders speaking on their behalf are marginalised. Rohingya human rights defenders are also systematically harassed and intimidated by the author ties. Hardline members of the government have tried to link the presence of Muslims in the national students' movement to the Rohingya issue as a way to divide and conquer one of the main sources of opposition to the military government. As one commentator said recently: “the Rohingya are seen as a group to be eliminated,” and it seems that government policy is trying to do just that.
As pro and anti democracy elements within the government jockey for power it is clear that there has been a political decision not to allow the tragedy of Rohingya people to distract attention from the main political agenda. Political leaders refuse to address the Rohingya issue from fear that the resulting uproar would risk tipping the fragile political balance and stall the whole political process. On the other hand for some sections of the army this would be the perfect way to overturn the reform programme and stall the elections.
The situation of the Rohingya, whether inside Myanmar or in the refugee camps of Thailand or Bangladesh, has to be addressed. The EU and the United States must bring all their influence to bear on the search for a solution. The primary responsibility lies with the government of Myanmar and the international community must seek to hold it to account. However the governments of Thailand and Bangladesh must also ensure they respond in a humanitarian manner to the needs of refugees.
The Rohingya are but pawns in a political game in which they been denied a stake. Their situation is a political scandal – the ultimate triumph of realpolitik over any kind of principle. The Rohingya people are taking to the boats because any possibility they had of a meaningful existence in Myanmar has been eradicated and they have no other options.
About the author: Mary Lawlor is founder and Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, based in Dublin, Ireland. frontlinedefenders.org