South-East Asia's biggest humanitarian crisis: Issues surrounding the "stateless" Rohingyas

The article explores the plight of the "Rohingyas", the world's largest persecuted group, as per the United Nations. Hailing from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, they have been victims of state-sanctioned abuse and consequences of the same have been catastrophic; raising serious humanitarian concerns for the countries they have immigrated to in precarious boat journeys and the international community at large.


Article 1(2) of The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as The 1951 Convention, defines refugee as someone who due to "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

While the entire world is focusing on the biggest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century in the form of the refugee crisis faced by the Western countries due to the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2010, South-East Asia is facing a similar scenario, that of the Rohingyas. Despite the presence of similar circumstances, the attention in the third world is much lesser and situation graver, as will be demonstrated below.

Historical Background

The Rohingyas are an ethnic minority in the State of Myanmar from the western state of Rakhine that majorly consists of Burmese Buddhists.

Historical evidence demonstrate their presence in the region even in the 9th century under the Arakan Kingdom (Rakhine was formerly known as Arakan), but a significant number of them immigrated from Bangladesh in the colonial times and have been identified by Myanmar as "Muslims of Bengali ethnic origin."

The military government in Myanmar has practiced ethnic cleansing of this minority group in 1978, 1992 and 2012-13. Throughout their presence in the State, they have been victims of repression, discrimination and subjected to violence.

They have been made stateless and afforded no legal protection and discarded as mere refugees from Bangladesh. Anti-Muslim sentiments highly exist between the Rohingya Muslims and the Burmese Buddhists so much so that the Rakhine Buddhists have raised signs of "No UN, No INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organizations)" as a form of protest to any kind of humanitarian aid to these people.

The Rohingyas have been deprived a host of rights. They were stripped off their citizenship rights through the Citizenship Law of 1982, their movements restricted to their villages; they were denied the right to marry without authority's approval, not allowed to have more than two children, etc.
The 2012 violence left 140,000 of them displaced where after their precarious boat journeys started that was instrumental in assigning them the tag of "boat people."

Issues of the Rohingya Crisis

The tragic stories of men, women and children, travelling in large numbers in small boats, for days and weeks, deprived of facilities has triggered the biggest humanitarian crisis the region has faced in the form of irregular migration, human trafficking, resettlement problems, etc and is the biggest mass exodus since the Vietnam War.

United Nations has classified the Rohingyas as "one of the most persecuted minorities in the world."

The destination countries of these people have been Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines, Bangladesh and even Australia.

The unique feature of the Rohingya crisis is the fact that excluding Australia (where very few have managed to reach), none of the above-mentioned countries have ratified the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol, that ensures basic rights and protections for refugees there by implying that none of these countries actually have any international responsibility to accommodate this migrating group. In fact, Myanmar and Thailand have no legal definition of a refugee.

The Rohingyas identify themselves as native settlers of Myanmar as they have been residing in the State since the 7th century. But they have been subjected to extreme forms of discrimination with some international groups alleging the former military government of the State in practicing genocide against this group. Their lands have been confiscated by the Army.

The July 2012 violence erupted after a group of Rohingya men were accused of raping and killing a Buddhist woman. Groups of Buddhist nationalists burned Rohingya homes and killed more than 280 people. A state of emergency was declared in Myanmar. They have not been included in the Government's official list of more than 130 ethnic races in the country. More than 125,000 have been rendered internally displaced since then.

International Response

Initial migration (in the 1970s) has been to Bangladesh because of the proximity and cultural similarity between the Rohingyas and the nationals of Bangladesh. Some 250,000 had migrated to the neighboring State at that time and a similar number of them in the beginning of 1990s.

The Bangladesh government had accommodated them in the initial years and today, the nation has two official camps that provide shelter to some 32,000 documented Rohingyas while some 200,000-500,000 are undocumented. The government of Bangladesh despite offers of assistance from UNHCR and other international NGOs in providing of additional services and registering of refugees, has refused to act with the obvious reason being the nation's own inadequate resources and poverty. They have been deprived of many rights and the nation is now reluctant to accommodate more refugees. In fact, their movement and access to basic services were further restricted in 2012, following attacks on Buddhist communities in southeastern Bangladesh. Despite coming with a national refugee policy to deal with the Rohingya crisis in 2010, no concrete help has been afforded to the group mainly because of strained relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh over issues like border security and insurgencies in those areas.

Concerned countries view this group as "economic migrants" and not refugees as these people are stateless.

Although this problem has its origins in the last century, their plight was highlighted by international media only in 2012. Myanmar has constantly refused to recognize them as their citizens and has resorted to state-sanctioned abuse against them. Their attempts at making Bangladesh take this group and handing them over to the UN Refugee Agency has been rejected. Even Pro-Democrats in the State of Myanmar do not acknowledge them as Myanmarese citizens.

Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia had agreed to provide temporary refugee to them, but only till May 2016. But Rohingyas in large numbers continue to live in these countries. Thailand, in between had resorted to a draconian policy of "push back" wherein these people were provided with inadequate facilities/supplies and sent back thereby openly rejecting them from landing in its shores. They were also sometimes detained for indefinite length of time and became victims of human trafficking. Thai police forces in collusion with human traffickers took economic advantage of the plight of these people, as revealed by a 2013 Reuter investigation report.

In fact, mass graves on both sides of Thailand and Malaysia were discovered in May 2015. Later, Thailand announced a crackdown on human trafficking. But this involved a greater cost. Boat crews abandoned passengers at sea, their families were beaten and they had to pay heavy ransom. For its policies, Thailand has been internationally criticized for its brutal and indifferent policies and questions of the State being accused of "crimes against humanity" have been raised. It is questionable as to why General Manas Kongpaen, earlier implicated in Krue Se massacre was entrusted with leading the Internal Security Operations Command's (ISOC) Rohingya Policy from 2008-2015.

Thailand has now shifted its policy to "help-on" whereby the boat people are provided adequate help but not allowed to land in Thailand. In fact, Thailand has provided US$ 100,000 to Myanmar as humanitarian assistance.

Under the rule of President Thein Sein some attempts were made by Myanmar to afford some relief to this despised lot, however, the government's ping-pong strategy was subjected to international condemnation. The Organization of Islamic Countries' (OIC) offer of humanitarian aid to these people in Rakhine was subsequently rejected after initial acceptance.

The attitude of the Myanmar Government has also been condemned by Islamic countries like Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

It is fortunate to witness a shift of the international community from one of indifference and ignorance to one of action. In May and December of 2015, two international meetings among differently affected countries were held that discussed issue relating to protection of the Rohingyas, prevention of irregular migration and smuggling and human trafficking.

Finding a Durable Solution

The biggest crisis at this hour for the international community especially the concerned countries are in finding a durable solution to this looming problem. Local integration is out of question as Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand has made it clear that they will not naturalize this group. Resettlement (done in a third country) would mean, as history has witnessed, the refugees experiencing greater unemployment or working for lower wages in part-time positions and living in deplorable conditions, regularly dealing with security forces and facing resistance from local communities.

Countries affected by this crisis are reluctant to take in more refugees as they are aware of the additional demographic pressure of accommodating more refugees. There would be socio-economic inequalities if they enter the regional job markets and this might affect the local workforce.

Some are also of the belief that many Rohingyas have been radicalized for Islamist fundamental groups and have been recruited by groups extending as far as ISIS. The poverty and the helplessness of these people have been exploited by fundamentalist groups like Al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) of Indonesia, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harakat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami etc. It is believed that the bases of the Rohingyas for Jihad activities is situated at the areas close to Bangladesh-Myanmar border. This factor has caused a well-founded fear of accommodating Rohingyas in the territories of States.

Setting such fears aside, despite the absence of any international or even regional framework that the concerned countries are a party to, mandate now falls on these countries to coordinate effectively to tackle the issue on humanitarian grounds and come up with some framework/convention at the earliest.

Special responsibility lies on the State of Myanmar to initiate communal dialogue and conflict resolution and put a stop to the institutionalization of segregation. With the landmark win of National League of Democracy (NLD) party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 elections, the country's first civilian government was installed in Naypyidaw. However, the party has maintained a silence in this issue which is understood as the party's need to cultivate support from Buddhist nationalists.

However, a nine-person commission was established in August 2016 led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to discuss options for resolving the ethnic strife in Rakhine state. The advisory committee, whose final report is expected by the end of August 2017, is intended to make recommendations to reduce communal tension and support much-needed development efforts in the impoverished state. As a temporary measure, it is required that the State amend or repeal the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law and provide the Rohingya people with full citizenship in the country.
Also, United Nations that has been obstructed from providing any aid has now been allowed to do so. Unhindered access to aid, not just in Myanmar, but all affected countries must be allowed.

The European Union through its Human Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO) has been funding relief programmes in this regard to Myanmar and Bangladesh since 1994 and additional support to Thailand in 2013. Since 2010, the European Commission has also delivered humanitarian assistance to Rakhine.

Major responsibility lies in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) because ASEAN members represent the biggest investors in Myanmar. This can persuade the Myanmar Government to take affirmative steps for the restoration of normalcy in Rakhine which has failed to happen, despite the victory NLD party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015.


Author: Partha K.17 Jan 2017 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 15

The article has brilliantly presented the problem being witnessed by the international community at Rakhine state of Myanmar. The author has presented the perspective of Rohingiyas succinctly, but the problem has not been examined from the points of view of Rakhines, Myanmarese Government and various other countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia. Moreover, I have noticed various factual inaccuracies, which may be very difficult to be pointed out by persons who don’t have much idea about the region and the complex socio-politico-religious equations.

I am pointing out some of the factual inaccuracies:-
(a The author has stated that Rohingiyas were settled in the Rakhine state, which was earlier known as Arakan, in the 9th Century. In another place, she has stated that Rohingiyas settled in Arakan in the 7th Century. In actuality, the author has got confused between Muslim identity and Rohingiya identity. It is true that Muslims settled in Arakan in the 9th Century. However, the Rohingiyas are Muslims from present-day Bangladesh who went to Arakan after the British conquest of the region. Over a period of time, the influx from present-day Bangladesh to Arakan (presently Rakhine) continued unabated. Along with this, the higher fertility rate, marrying local girls, etc. have increased Rohingiya population to such extent that they have become majority in some parts of Rakhine state.
(b) The word ‘Rohingiya’ or ‘Ronjha’ is of comparatively recent origin. This word was first heard during early 1950s when these people met Muhammad Ali Jinnah and expressed their desire to join Pakistan. When their wish was not fulfilled, they coined this term to differentiate themselves from Kachin Muslims or Mou Muslims who have settled peacefully in Burma (Myanmar). The Rohingiyas even attacked the Kachin Muslims and Mou Muslims during the 1950s.
(c) In one place of the article, the author has stated that 1,50,000 Rohingiyas have been displaced. In another place, she has stated that 1,25,000 Rohingiyas have been displaced. The figure has again been changed to 2,00,000 to 5,00,000 in another place of the same article. What is the correct figure?
(d) Like many other authors who do not possess adequate knowledge about the region, the author of this article has got confused between Rakhine people and Myanmarese people. It is for your information that Rakhine (Arakanese) and Myanmarese (Burmese) are two different ethnic groups of the country. Even in the beginning of the 18th Century, Arakan was a separate kingdom, which was later annexed by Burma. Rohingiyas got settled in the Rakhine state much later.
(e) Since the very beginning, Rohingiyas never wanted to assimilate themselves with the local Rakhine population. Even today, Rohingiyas want to establish Islamic kingdom in that area and become part of pan-Islamic Ummah. With this aim, they wanted to join Pakistan after 1947, but Jinnah advised their representatives to try to establish a separate Islamic country instead.
(f) The initial conflict with the Rohingiyas was with the Rakhines. In 2012, large-scale violence erupted when some Rohingiyas brutally raped two Rakhine Buddhist girls. The brutality of the crime was such that Buddhist monks had to come out to protest against Rohingiyas. The consequent violence was the beginning of the so-called problem of boat-people. After the violence, many Rohingiyas tried to cross Naf river and entered Bangladesh at Teknaf border. However, despite sermonizing other countries on this issue, Bangladesh Government refused to entertain Rohingiyas, although they are ethnically of Bangladeshi origin. In spite of that, around 30,000 Rohingiyas are presently settled at Teknaf and at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Many Rohingiyas left Rakhine state by boat to settle in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia. Many Rohingiyas settled in these countries, but later, due to their activities, the Governments of these countries have closed their doors on Rohingiyas.
(g) Again violence erupted in Rohingiya territory in 2015. This time the opponent was Myanmarese military. Rohingiya militants hiding in dense jungles attacked military convoys and killed some soldiers. The Rohingiya villagers provided active support to these militants. Myanmarese military retaliated severely and again Rohingiyas started leaving Rakhine in boats. The author has remained silent on these issues.
(h) The Rohingiyas who settled in Bangladesh attacked Buddhist people of Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) of Bangladesh. Many of them joined Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. Some of them illegally obtained Bangladeshi passport, went to Saudi Arabia and committed various crimes there. Their activities embarrassed Bangladeshi Government internationally. Similarly, Rohingiyas settled in Indonesia joined Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and committed various terrorist activities. Some Rohingiyas have joined Al-quaida and ISIS. Even in India, some Rohingiyas have been arrested at Visakhapatnam for being engaged in anti-India activities. Same story was repeated in Thailand and Malaysia. Because of the activities of Rohingiyas, even the Australian Government, which had been very sympathetic to the Rohingiyas, started monitoring and restricting the entry of Rohingiyas in Australia.

Concluding my response, I would request the author to present entire facts truthfully and completely. If the complete picture is not presented before the readers, they will not be able to understand the genesis of the Rohingiya problem.

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