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Myanmar: Rohingya face discrimination, exploitation

Maryknoll Affiliate Chris Smith wrote the following article which appears in the July-August 2015 NewsNotes.

The recent surge of 4,000 Rohingya migrants that fled Myanmar and Bangladesh in April and May illustrates a story rooted in discrimination and ostracism based on anti-Muslim bias that permeates the Buddhist-majority nation of Myanmar. These desperate boat people sought refuge in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and other parts of Myanmar, victims of human trafficking and a regional paralysis by governments unwilling to extend a helping hand. Amnesty International has called the Rohingya "the most persecuted refugees in the world."

In Myanmar, the Rohingya are concentrated in the Rakhine State in the western part of the country, making up one-third of the population. The Myanmar government claims that the Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants. Ethnic discrimination has resulted in a lack of access to education, health care and employment. More than 140,000 Rohingya people crowd into woefully inadequate camps where "they are closely monitored by the authorities, conscripted into forced labor and barred from travel outside their villages without permission." [The New York Times, "Myanmar to bar Rohingya from fleeing, but won’t address their plight," June 12, 2015]

The Rohingya people’s roots in Burma/Myanmar are well established. Thousands of Muslims in the 1400s migrated to form the Arakan Kingdom, and an additional influx occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Bengal and Rakhine territories were governed by the British Empire. Since Burma was granted independence in 1948, the government has rejected Rohingya claims for citizenship despite their history in the Rakhine State. Ethnic Buddhists’ domination of the state has solidified this discriminatory treatment, and a 1982 law passed by the military junta formally stripped the Rohingya of access to full citizenship. Only in the 1990s was limited, temporary "white card" status granted, institutionalizing their status as second class citizens.

Anti-Rohingya passions exploded in 2012 when a Buddhist woman was raped and murdered, and Rohingya men were accused of the crimes. Rohingya villages were burned and over 280 people were killed, resulting in over 120,000 people fleeing the country. Human Rights Watch described this as "crimes against humanity as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing." A UN-backed census in 2014 was marked by Buddhist protests against the use of "Rohingya" registrations and they demanded that the term "Bengali" be used in its place. Buddhists also successfully protested the Rohingya’s right to vote in the scheduled 2015 constitutional referendum, even after the Rohingya voted in both the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 general election.

Additional political reforms in Myanmar were stymied on June 25 when the national parliament voted to retain the military junta’s guaranteed 25 percent stake in parliamentary seats, while maintaining the 75 percent threshold required to pass any changes in the Myanmar constitution.

The refugee emergency in Myanmar also intersects with the issue of human trafficking. The vulnerability of the Rohingya people has provided an opening for human traffickers to exploit, and many Rohingya seeking to leave Myanmar have been caught in Thailand, a major transit point for human trafficking. The U.S. State Department’s 2014 report on Trafficking in Persons downgraded Thailand’s rating to the worst level (Tier 3). The discovery of mass graves in migrant detention camps in Malaysia near the Thai border prompted the Thai government to crack down on smugglers and traffickers, but the danger to refugees seeking avenues to flee Myanmar remains. (See related article here.)

Efforts to address the Rohingya refugee crisis in a comprehensive manner have been largely ineffective. The summer monsoon season may serve to restrict the migration flow, but the exodus could easily resume in the fall. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League of Democracy (NLD), has not spoken out against the anti-Muslim rhetoric that is popular among ethnic Buddhists, and the NLD will need Buddhist support in the November elections.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has not provided a unified response to the Myanmar crisis, and Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand have failed to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and its Protocol, which establishes fundamental rights for refugees. The European Union could accept refugees, adjusting individual country quotas based on people accepted so far, unemployment rate and similar economic indicators.

Outside pressure on the Myanmar government has been limited. The United States and other western countries have normalized trade ties with Myanmar, even though analysts believe that Myanmar needs these relationships more than western countries need ties to Myanmar.

Any meaningful resolution of the Rohingya crisis must start with the strategy of the Myanmar government, which has resisted moving away from its harsh, discriminatory policy. The November 2015 elections may serve as a guide post for whether a path of reconciliation is chosen for the future. Neighboring countries, along with the larger community of nations, can certainly do more to mitigate the immediate refugee crisis. Effective measures to deter and stop human trafficking would also alleviate the suffering and exploitation of the Rohingya population. Ending the long history of discrimination and exclusion that has plagued the Rohingya people will require a significant change in policy by the Myanmar government. The current refugee crisis is simply the latest manifestation of how ethnic conflict can exacerbate national and regional destabilization and solidify roadblocks to building more tolerant and just societies around the world.

Photo: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO, Rakhine State, Myanmar/Burma, September 2013