Asia's New Boat People

A Muslim minority group unrecognized by Burma's military regime has sparked a diplomatic flurry, as they take to the high seas to escape persecution.

2009-04-16
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Rohingya-boat-305.jpg Rohingya asylum-seekers aboard a Thai Navy vessel, December 2008.
Photo courtesy of Thai Navy.
BANGKOKBurma's Muslim Rohingya minority are routinely persecuted by powerful local officials in the northern state of Rakhine, the Rohingya and their advocates say.

"In Rakhine state, it is as if martial law has been imposed," a Rohingya refugee now living in Malaysia said in an interview.

"The Rohingya have to get permission from local authorities just to go from one village to another."

Permits for movement between villages are usually only issued for periods of seven days to people needing to seek medical treatment, the refugee said.
There is very little advocacy done on the Rohingya people."
Chris Leewa, Arakan Project
"Additionally, one has to have his travel documents stamped at each stage of the journey."

The refugee said the Muslim minority groupwhich Burma has refused to recognize as citizens, saying they are from Bangladeshis also vulnerable to forced, unpaid labor for the military.

"On top of all these restrictions, we have to worry about being taken away by the military to serve as porters in their military operations," he said.

"They also take away our cattle, goats, and ducks when they come into our villages, and if they cannot get 'donations' they beat up the villagers."

Vulnerable group

Faced with a lack of legal status and the threat of persecution, thousands of Rohingya have left Burma in recent years.

Rights groups say they are particularly vulnerable to human traffickers, and their case is now being taken up by the Bali Process, a human-smuggling summit involving more than 40 regional nations.

The Rohingya drew global attention this year when the Thai military was accused of towing the boats of as many as 1,000 asylum-seekers out to sea and leaving them to drift at the mercy of the currents without adequate food and water.

Hundreds of thousands have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh or attempted the perilous sea crossing to Southeast Asia.

But talks between Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Burmese police chief Brigadier-General Khin Yi ended with little more than a reiteration of the Burmese government's refusal to recognize the Rohingya as Burmese.

Australia has pledged U.S. $3.2 million to aid programs set up for the Rohingya.
When Burma was under [British] colonial rule, these people came in from India to various parts of Burma to work as seasonal laborers."
Min Lwin Oo, lawyer

Local officials blamed

U Min Lwin Oo, a lawyer with the Asian Human Rights Commission, said orders imposing restrictions on the Rohingya, who are concentrated near the border with Bangladesh, are issued by local district and township authorities rather than the central government.

"The township local authorities have lot of leeway to do what they want," he said.

"We have found documents and papers which give the township local authorities the right to issue orders without receiving authorizations from the federal center."

These include "such things as requiring foreigners or persons suspected of being foreigners, whether they are government officials or not, to apply for permission in advance before they plan to travel."

"Also there are specific regulations requiring those persons to apply for permission from the local townships to get married and have marriage ceremonies," U Min Lwin Oo added.

A stark contrast

And Thailand-based rights activist Chris Leewa, who founded the nonprofit Arakan Project to raise the profile of the Rohingya, said the group is fragmented and disempowered through lack of education.

This is in stark contrast with the days of Rohingya political ascendancy during the U Nu government of the 1950s, which saw a number of high-profile Muslims enter the cabinet, with official support for the Rohingya language.

"There is very little advocacy done on the Rohingya people," she said.

"There are very few educated Rohingyas, and they do not know how to do things systematically," she said.

"On top of that they are not able to build up unity amongst themselves. The human rights organizations active in the Southeast Asian region are also not interested in the Rohingya issue."

Thousands of refugees

The Rohingya are denied citizenship under the laws of mainly Buddhist Burma, and rights groups say they face official repression and poverty.

More than 100,000 live in Bangladesh in refugee camps registered with the United Nations refugee agency.

In 1992, 250,000 Rohingya, around one-third of their total population, fled over Burma’s border into Bangladesh, citing persecution in Burma.

Rights advocates estimate that the number of Rohingya fleeing the Burma-Bangladesh border area to seek a better life elsewhere has increased from hundreds to thousands over the last five years.

The Rohingya take to the sea for a dangerous voyage in boats, putting their lives in the hands of human traffickers and facing brutal treatment by the Thai and Malaysian navies when they arrive, activists say.

According to Amnesty International, the Rohingyas’ freedom of movement is severely restricted, with the vast majority having been effectively denied Burmese citizenship.

"They are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage," the group said in a recent report.

"Rohingyas continue to be used as forced laborers on roads and at military camps, although the amount of forced labor in northern Rakhine state has decreased over the last decade."

Diverse roots

A senior Burmese senior official recent described the Rohingya as “ugly as ogres” and insisted that they should not be described as Burmese nationals.

The Rohingyas themselves say they are Muslim descendants of Persian, Turkish, Bengali, and Pathan traders, who migrated to Burma as early as the 7th century A.D. But their ethnic identity isn't widely recognized.

"These people were not known as Rohingyas in the past," rights lawyer U Min Lwin Oo said.

"When Burma was under [British] colonial rule, these people came in from India to various parts of Burma to work as seasonal laborers. Most of these people were from the areas that are adjacent to the borders with India and Bangladesh."

"If we look into the evidence of the past, we will not find these people specifically classified as Rohingyas. We will find them as being classified as Bengalis. What I can assume is that after Burma became independent those people living in Burma started to classify themselves as Rohingyas," he added.

Embattled Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has promised a full investigation into Thailand's treatment of Rohingya refugees, thousands of whom are also grouped in camps on the Thai-Burma border. He has also called for a regional solution.

Original reporting by Zaw Moe Kyaw for RFA's Burmese service. Director: Nancy Shwe. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.
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