by Faizal Nor Izham

The recent Rohingya crisis in South East Asia is nothing new — clashes between the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, have been ongoing since 2012 through a series of riots. By October of that year, Muslims of all ethnicities had begun to be targeted.

The riots were supposedly triggered by widespread fears among Buddhist Rakhines that they would soon become a minority in their own ancestral state. Riots sparked after weeks of sectarian disputes, which included a gang-rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by Rohingyas and the killing of ten Burmese Muslims by Rakhines.

It is the refusal from fellow South East Asian nations to
take in tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees which
has been the main source of recent controversy.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have been driven from their homes, their towns and villages razed to the ground by rampaging mobs. In 2014 the government even banned the use of the word ‘Rohingya’, insisting the Muslim minority, who have lived in that country for generations, be registered in the census as ‘Bengali’. Other oppressive conditions range from a denial of citizenship to Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims to severe restrictions on their movement, employment, and access to education and healthcare, as well as discriminatory laws imposing a two-child limit on Rohingya families within their own home state.

(© mintpressnews)

But it is the refusal from fellow South East Asian nations — such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand — to take in tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees which has been the main source of recent controversy. Unlike migrants who are frequently rescued in the Mediterranean by European governments, the Rohingya can’t even hope to trust in the goodwill of their Southeast Asian neighbours.

However, these refugees have been subjected to a game of regional ‘ping-pong’ between these neighbouring countries in recent weeks. Their boats are often pushed back by governments not keen on accommodating any more asylum seekers, while thousands more are believed to still be stranded on rickety boats — with dwindling supplies of food and clean water — off the coasts of these three countries. In a notable exception in mid-May, however, one vessel with 800 passengers was finally accepted by Indonesian authorities.

refugees have been subjected to a game of regional ‘ping-pong’
between these neighbouring countries in recent weeks

(© star2)

There are also claims that about 100 refugees have died in Indonesia, 200 in Malaysia, and 10 in Thailand, while on their journey after traffickers abandoned them at sea. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 25,000 refugees were taken to boats by human traffickers from January to March in 2015.

It is not just the refusal to accept them that has sparked outrage. On May 1, 32 shallow graves were discovered on a remote mountain in Thailand, at a so-called ‘waiting area’ for illegal migrants before they are sneaked through the border into Malaysia. A Bangladeshi migrant was found alive in one grave and was later treated at a local hospital. On May 24, Malaysian police discovered 139 suspected graves in a series of abandoned camps used by human traffickers on the border with Thailand, where Rohingya refugees were believed to have been held.

On the human rights front, Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has lately come under increasing criticism for failing to speak out on their plight, with friends voicing disappointment and former admirers blaming her silence on political concerns.

(Suu Kyi © bangkokpost)

Upon awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said it wished “to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.” Suu Kyi, the Committee added, was “an important symbol in the struggle against oppression.” However, her recent refusal to condemn, or even fully acknowledge, the state-sponsored repression towards her fellow countrymen and women, as well as the violence towards them by Buddhist extremists, now makes her part of the problem as well.

Imbued with “enormous moral and political capital,” said Penny Green, a law professor at the University of London and director of the State Crime Initiative, Myanmar’s opposition leader could have challenged “the vile racism and Islamophobia which characterises Burmese political and social discourse”. She didn’t. Instead, she has spent the recent years courting the Buddhist majority of Myanmar (whose votes she needs in order to be elected president in 2016 — if, that is, the military will allow her to to stand for election) by playing down the violence perpetrated against the Muslim minority.

It isn’t Buddhists who have been the victims of what
Human Rights Watch calls ‘ethnic cleansing’

Yet in Myanmar, it isn’t Buddhists who have been confined to camps where they are slowly succumbing to starvation, despair and disease. It isn’t Buddhists who have been the victims of what Human Rights Watch calls ‘ethnic cleansing’ and what the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar has said “could amount to crimes against humanity.” It isn’t Buddhists who are crowding onto boats in attempt to flee the country, and being assaulted with hammers and knives as they do so. It isn’t Buddhists who are facing genocide.

Furthermore, investigators who visited Rohingya internment camps and interviewed the survivors of violent attacks have concluded that genocide will remain a serious risk for the Rohingya if the Burmese government does not immediately address the laws and policies that oppress the entire community.

(Rohingya gather at a mosque in an internment camp © ushmm)

Human rights continue to remain a thorny issue when it comes to the true development of South East Asian nations. With European nations regularly having to accommodate refugees across the Mediterranean and Australia having to do the same with ASEAN countries, perhaps it’s high time that some of the more affluent and developed nations within ASEAN itself should strive to do the same.

Booming economies and high-scale infrastructure may be indicative of development to an extent, but refugee and immigration policies that cater primarily to this type of development alone, as well as the continuation of oppressive and single-minded political regimes, leave much to be desired if these nations aspire to make any real advances within the field of human rights.

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