People Without a Country

When a boat carrying scores of starving Rohingya migrants was found drifting in Thai waters on 10th May, the world suddenly woke up to the ugly reality of the democratic experiment in Myanmar, a country which was a military regime until 2011 and is governed by an army-drafted constitution and the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party at present. Disowned by Myanmar, and rendered stateless, the persecuted Rohingya Muslims were fleeing from Burma to seek shelter in Malaysia and Indonesia with the help of human traffickers of the region, only to be abandoned in the middle of the sea as the south-east Asian nations declared them as illegal immigrants rather than persecuted asylum seekers.

Australia too has shown the same attitude, with the Australian PM callously saying ‘Nope, Nope, Nope’ to the demand that they take in the Rohingya refugees. The Socialist Alliance, which held a protest in Perth with the slogans ‘Let them land, let them stay,’ and ‘Rescue Rohingya Refugees’, observed, “Instead of calling for and joining a collaborative rescue effort, Tony Abbott has shamelessly stated his support of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in turning back Rohingyan asylum seekers. What's more Tony Abbott has advocated for more resources to be invested in securing the Burmese border to prevent Rohingya refugees from being able to escape their abuse and persecution.”

Eight other such abandoned boats carrying around 500-800 Rohingya migrants were found in the seas by international search parties in the next few days. One such boat carrying almost 800 Rohingya migrants, eventually rescued by the Acehnese fishermen of Indonesia, was said to be in waters for more than three months with little food and water. Many have died of starvation during this endless journey. The dead bodies of people were thrown into water during the course of the journey. It is said that more than 8000 such migrants are still in different boats seeking shelter in different countries around the Indian Ocean.

The plight of these boat people said a lot about the levels of desperation they had to face. A journalist in his blog writes: “Cries of ‘Please help us! I have no water!’ rose from the boat. ‘Please give me water!,’ said one on-board.” The boat people, comprising women, men and children looked visibly malnourished, pointing towards the fact they had no food or water for days. A member of the boat recalled how the captain of the ship abandoned them in the middle of the sea after having been refused entry into Malaysian lands.

Rohingyas from northern Burma have been denied citizenship and voting rights, even though they have lived in the country for generations. Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar since 15th century and worked under the Buddhist rulers in Arakan region of northern Myanmar. However, they have not been recognised as citizens of The Union of Burma, now republic of Myanmar, since the 1962 coup d'etat by General Ne Win. After decades of oppression and marginalisation, the passing of the 1982 Citizenship Law deemed them officially stateless, forcing them to flee their own country.

Rohingya people are perhaps the biggest internally displaced community and one of the most persecuted minorities in the Indian peninsular region. Torn apart by years of civil war in Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims have been trying to seek shelter in many other countries of the Indian peninsula, including India, in the past. In a majority Buddhist nation, Rohingyas have continued to flee the growing sectarian violence. The continued violence against them by the government of Myanmar has forced them to seek shelter in extremely deprived refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh and along the Thai-Myanmar’s border. Most of migrants in boats seem to be fleeing the poor conditions of the refugee camps in Bangladesh and Thailand. These Rohingya boat people were forced to pay a hefty amount to the human smugglers to find a secure shelter over the last few years as the Myanmar government cracked down upon them.

More than one million Myanamarese Rohingyas face similar persecution. They reside mainly in the northern Rakhine townships in north Myanmar. Their situation worsened when the Myanmar government organised a pogrom in 2012 by pitting the Rakhine Buddhists against them – an episode famously called the Rakhine riots. Almost 1,40,000 Rohingya Muslims were displaced in the riots. UNHCR’s estimates suggest that more than 1 lakh Rohingyas of Myanmar continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons in apartheid-like conditions. The stranded boats are a symptom of the larger persecution Rohingyas face in their daily lives. Rohingyas – a people with nowhere to go – have become fish gasping in shallow waters.

The Myanmar government, which has received international flak after the plight of Rohingya boat people hit the limelight, has once again refused to accept Rohingyas as Burmese citizens and has claimed that the boat people are from Bangladesh and not from Myanmar. The head of the Rakhine state Maung Maung Ohn has said that the incident highlights the problem of human trafficking in the region and is not due to political or religious discrimination at all.

The plight of Rohingya boat people has triggered a diplomatic war in the Indian Ocean region. The United States of America, the most blatant human rights abuser in the world, sees this incident as an opportunity to score brownie points against the Myanmar government, which is seen to be close to the China. It is for this reason that the USA has said that the Rohingya situation has to be understood within the context of political and religious discrimination faced by the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Yet, most allies of the US have refused to provide any permanent shelter to Rohingyas despite echoing similar criticisms against the Myanmar government. Only small countries like Philippines and Gambia have shown the heart to accommodate the stranded Rohingya victims. In this diplomatic warfare, the plight of Rohingyas has somehow been thrown into the backburner while the first world countries have criticised the Myanmar state on this issue.

While the situation of Rohingyas highlights the majoritarian-authoritarian nature of the Myanmarese state for sure, it is unfortunate that there are no critical voices within Myanmar too. The pro-democracy National League for Democracy led by the chief opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has strategically remained silent on the issue. Political observers believe that Suu Kyi does not want to risk her chances in the state elections scheduled later this year. The silence of Suu Kyi on the situation of Rohingyas speaks volumes about the larger political scenario in Myanmar. It is clear that the Suu Kyi does not want to dismantle the majoritarian vision of the state of Myanmar while aspiring to become the next president of her country.

India, a country in which the Rohingyas have earlier sought shelter, too is strategically mute on this issue. It may also be remembered that Rohingya refugees in India were subjected to vicious communal hate-campaigns by the Hindutva groups in 2012 (see ‘People With No Country?’ by Sucheta De, Liberation June 2012)

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given a clarion call last year in the north-eastern state of Assam that India would welcome the persecuted Hindus in Bangladesh with an open heart. The BJP has justified opposing Bangladesh Muslim immigration into India and welcoming Bangladeshi Hindus as it is of the opinion that the Bangladeshi Hindus, unlike the Muslims, are a persecuted lot and it is India’s responsibility to take care of a persecuted lot. However, the conspicuous silence over the Rohingya issue makes it clear that the BJP-led government at the centre seems worried about persecutions faced only by the Hindus and definitely not by Muslims across the region. While many observers have claimed that Modi is spinning India’s foreign policy in a new direction, it is clear that the new direction is a Hindu-majoritarian one.

The persecution of Rohingyas is yet another case in point to understand the increasing anti-minority nature of governments in the whole peninsular region. In the past, Sri Lanka saw large-scale persecution of minority Tamils. India has seen a blatantly anti-Muslim party winning the last elections. The governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan have also come down heavily on minority communities and critical voices within the country. It is clear that fascist-majoritarian politics have made deep inroads in these countries. Ethnic clashes have increased in the recent past in most countries of the region, with the government unashamedly supporting the majority ethnic group.

Similarly, the levels of socio-political discrimination against the poor peoples have increased. Identity clashes have given substantial ground for authoritarian governments to emerge through a democratic disguise, impoverishing more and more people in various countries. Amidst this geo-political environment, the struggle of Rohingya people to attain a permanent ground to live seems bleak until true democratic voices across the world speak in united voices and struggle together against imperialist governments.

Liberation Archive