The Plight of the Stateless: The Rohingya Diaspora

This article was written in collaboration with Eshpelin Mishtak for umnotablogger.com, a Bangladesh-based e-magazine, to address the recent Rohingya refugee crisis of Bangladesh.

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Photo courtesy: The Daily Star

The photo shows a Rohingya man pleading to officers of the Bangladesh Border Guards to let him and the children and women of the boat to land ashore on Bangladeshi land. The military officers then gave them food, water and fuel, and mandated them to return back to their home from where they had escaped to flee a murderous sectarian violence between the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhines in the state of Arakan.

Heart-breaking as the photo looks, it clearly symbolizes what the Rohingyas have been going through in Myanmar for decades.

Rohingyas are a particular ethnic tribal group of Myanmar who speak a local dialect of Bengali and are all Muslims. These two reasons make the Myanmar government claim that the Rohingya are actually Bangladeshi immigrants who have settled there when in fact the tribes have existed there for centuries at a time. During the partition of India in 1947 when the British packed all their belongings to leave, the Rohingyas asked Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, to include Arakan in Pakistan (which was formed as a separate state for the Muslims) because of the huge Muslim population prevalent there.

While the Myanmar government persistently claims that Rohingyas are actually Bangladeshis, the Bangladesh government in turn says that they are all

Photos from the conflict

Burmese(people from Myanmar). As a result of this, the government of Myanmar has denied citizenship to the Rohingyas, keeping them widely segregated outside the wider Buddhist communities. They are severely repressed and no family is allowed to have more than two children. Access to their basic human rights such as food, shelter and education are all controlled by the central government. They are not allowed to get posts in the government or in the private sector, and no Muslim minority is allowed to be employed in the police or army.

However despite all these problems the Rohingyas have coexisted peacefully with the Rakhines in Arakan. Most of the youth have crossed the seas and traveled into Malaysia and Thailand, where they work as illegal laborers with no security as the law enforcers there can arrest them off as illegal immigrants. But the majority have moved into the neighboring Muslim-majority state Bangladesh.

Now in Bangladesh, which is already brimming with a huge population of its own with a severe competition for resources, most of these stateless Rohingyas get captured by the Border Guards Bangladesh and are then dumped into the UN refugee camps found in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. An estimated 30000 Rohingyas live in these camps while the number of Rohingyas present in Bangladesh is actually around 300000. The ones who survive abuse and arrest from the Bangladesh border forces escape into the nearest villages. A significant portion marry off among the Bengali Muslim communities, get a Bangladeshi passport and a national id card and become Bangladeshis for life. A good number use the Bangladeshi passports to go off to the Middle-Eastern countries, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where they work as laborers and foreign expatriates.

But recently the plight of the stateless Rohingyas have escalated all of a sudden. When a group of three Rohingya men raped a Buddhist woman, the Buddhist communities fired assaults on the Muslim minorities. A bus carrying Rohingyas was burned down in response to the rape and eventually this fueled into a huge sectarian conflict between the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhists. Far from being rational, the state media and the political leaders of the newly-democratic Myanmar launched countless assaults on the Muslims and thus brought about a huge anti-Muslim fever among the apparently peace-loving Buddhists. Houses, shops and businesses were vandalized and openly Muslims were persecuted under the heat of the day by the locals and also the law enforcers. The people dubbed the Muslims as terrorists and compared the violence to that of 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks without having absolutely no knowledge of the events that led to the aforementioned attacks.

The widespread persecution have prompted a diaspora of the Rohingya populace into Bangladesh in boats and fishing trawlers. Now for Bangladesh, this has become much more than a problem. It is quite evident that the government of Myanmar will never accept these Rohingyas back into their land, and there is no way that the government of Bangladesh will be able to accede more people into the already impoverished country. Therefore the best thing that the government decided to do was to strengthen the Bangladesh-Myanmar borders and coerce the incoming Rohingyas back into their land, where they are almost sure to be persecuted by the wider Buddhist communities. This not only violated several international UN laws for refugees—-through which international human rights groups have asked Bangladesh to open up its borders—–but also brought about an ubiquitous dilemma for the Bangladeshis living inside the country. On the one hand, denying the Rohingyas into the land automatically increases the likelihood that they will be persecuted and discriminated against in their own homelands. While on the other hand, Bangladesh happens to be both one of the most populace and poverty-stricken country at the same time.

The decision sparked massive outrage among the public in Dhaka and the rest of the cities. A poll carried out by the Daily Star shows that most of the people want the borders to be opened for the Rohingyas to come in. But the majority of the intellectuals think that Myanmar should solve its own problems. The Rohingya massacre should be stopped no doubt, but Dhaka is unwilling to comply with mounting international pressure to allow the Rohingyas into Bangladesh because of the obnoxious, racially-prejudiced Myanmar government which continues to call the Rohingyas Bengali immigrants.

According to international journalist and Myanmar specialist Francis Wade, more Muslims are being persecuted than reported by the media. This is what he had to say:

“The role of security forces in the violence has also been underreported, which contributes to statements like this one yesterday from an EU spokesperson: “We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult intercommunal violence in an appropriate way.” That does not marry with reports from locals on the ground.
At least four people have told me that police are acting alongside Arakanese in torching homes of Muslims, while several reports have emerged of police opening fire on crowds of Muslims (NB: Muslims are forbidden from entering Burma’s police force or army – this does carry significance when violence is of this nature). An NGO worker said last night that her family friend, a former politician from Sittwe, has been killed after being arrested over the weekend, while AFP reports that a Rohingya shot by Burmese police has died in Bangladesh.
The UN is unlikely to act unless there is clear complicity in the violence by state agents. The trouble is however that with few journalists or observers on the ground, those responsible for the deaths (which could well be in the hundreds by now) are hard to pinpoint. The UN has withdrawn staff from the region, but Human Rights Watch has urged the government to allow observers in.
There also seems to be something of a PR campaign to cast Muslims as those behind the killings (to make clear, Muslim groups are not innocent bystanders, but have also been involved in arson attacks across the state). One such example is the shaving of the heads of dead victims, often Muslims, and dressing them in monks robes – “and they (media) will take photos of this fake monk corpse to show to the world that these dead bodies were murdered by Muslim [sic]”, one source wrote.”

On the other hand, Rohingyas captured by BGB, Bangladeshi Border Guards, tell horrific tales of persecution and abuse by the Buddhists, who are normally perceived as peace loving and gentle. One family reportedly lost a daughter en route to Bangladesh, and were forced to bury her at sea since they could neither go to Myanmar to bury her, nor reach Bangladesh without being pushed back. Reports of robbers/pirates attacking refugee boats are also prevalent, with one boat captured by BGB with no-one but a malnourished new-born inside; supposedly, the elder members could not take him when they jumped out of board in order to save themselves from pirates.

Amidst all of these, the Bangladeshi Government is maintaining a strict policy of not calling them refugees, and nor allowing them entry. The newly formed democratic government of Myanmar agreed on principle, to take back 30,000 registered “non-refugees”, but the project has seen no light since the talks, and it appears that the Bangladeshi government is scared about taking in more of them because of the categorical denial of citizenship of the Rohingyas as Burmese.

In this situation, many Bangladeshis, who are in favor of allowing the Rohingyas to enter Bangladesh, have started publicly supporting the view. Facebook groups have opened up, and many are blogging in support of them. Some categorically suggest invading Myanmar, an improbable idea, while others opt for allowing entry on humanitarian grounds. Bloggers have even asked the widely popular Bangladeshi premiere, Shiekh Hasina, to intervene directly into the matter and not forget that the prime minister herself was given asylum by Germany when her life was in danger back in 1975.

While all decisions rest on the government, the enraged public is patiently waiting to see an end to this massacre. Because this is not only a crisis and a violence that disrupts interfaith and interracial harmony, but also prompts a huge humanitarian crisis for the world. After all, each drop of human blood, regardless of religion, castes and creeds is equally important.

6 comments on “The Plight of the Stateless: The Rohingya Diaspora

  1. An excellent post on this most harrowing situation. I have a much clearer understanding of the issues behind the news now. I still find myself appalled that the government has kept the borders closed but I can understand that this is not a simple case. There are repercussions whatever happens next. It is quite, quite horrible though and very, very tragic. My heart goes out to the Rohingyas.

    • It’s all real complicated. Although personally I think the Rohingyas should be allowed in, but in reality the situation is much more complicated. The Bangladesh govt. does not have a foreign ministry capable of any forms of intl. leadership. So once accepted, it will never be able to force the Myanmar govt. to take the Rohingyas back. But anyways, I am really glad I could propagate some information to you. :)

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