The Rohingyas: Caught Between Two Countries, Watched by the Rest of the World

December 18, 2017 shutterstock_714606670

For the annual International Migrants Day (18 December 2017), under the theme of Safe Migration in a World on the Move, Mangala Namasivayam of ARROW (Programme Manager, Information and Communications for Change) zooms in on the plights of the people of Rohingya, and how it is an amalgamation of the issues surrounding migration, serving as a dark reflection of the perceived positive roles of migration in development. 

December 18 is celebrated as International Migrants Day to show support and solidarity with all immigrants, the theme for 2017 of which is Safe Migration in a World on the Move. The world today is going through an unprecedented era of migration; while this movement takes many form and is driven by a host of different forces, displacement or forced migration is a defining feature of conflicts today. Perhaps none in recent times has gripped our region quite as much as the ongoing Rohingya crisis.

Reports state that more than 624,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the last three months, many more have fled to neighboring countries in the region. Numbers may vary but the situation remains dire and heartbreaking as the region and the world watches helplessly the plight of the group considered to be the “world’s most persecuted minority”. There is nothing simple about this long-ongoing crisis, caused by colonial baggage, ethno-nationalism, the perceived (or real) threat of radicalization and a fight for limited resources[1] caused by geo-politics.

The Crisis – A Historical Background

This is not the first time the world has talked about the Rohingya crisis. The Rohingya is a Muslim ethnic group living primarily in the Buddhist nation of Myanmar (or Burma). There are approximately 1.1 million Rohingyas living in the country, predominantly in the Rakhine State.

Who really are the Rohingyas? There are two prevailing theories on the origin of the Rohingya – they are believed to be descendants of Arab, Turkish or Mongol traders who in the 15th century migrated to Rakhine State (the Kingdom of Arakan). Others are of the opinion that they emigrated from Bangladesh at different points of history, and this is the prevailing view held by most Burmese. The Arakan kingdom was conquered by the Burmese in 1784 and then by the British after the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824-1826. The British occupation saw a massive influx of Muslims from the neighboring Bengal to work as laborers. By 1912, more than 30 percent of the population of Arakan state were Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW)[2], during the more than 100 years of British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant amount of migration of laborers to what is now known as Myanmar from today’s India and Bangladesh. The migration of these laborers was not well received and was viewed negatively by the majority of the native population, who were afraid of being outnumbered.

The Rohingyas were recruited as soldiers during World War II, pitting them against Buddhists aligned with the Japanese as the war played out on Burmese soil.[3] The animosity with the Buddhist was made worst when their status was strengthened in 1947 (when a new Constitution was drafted), enshrining them with full legal and voting rights. This didn’t last long, as the 1962 military coup that brought the Junta into power ushered in a new era of repression and brutality. The Rohingyas were stripped off their citizenship and made stateless in 1982 when the junta issued a new law on citizenship[4], requiring minorities to prove they have lived in Myanmar prior to the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1823 to obtain nationality. As such the conflict between the majority Buddhist and the Rohingya goes back many decades. Many Buddhists consider the Rohingya to be Bengali, rejecting the term Rohingya as a recent invention, created for political reasons by what they term as ‘outside forces’. After the junta rule was dissolved in 2011, the country saw a rise in Buddhist extremism, which further sidelined the Rohingya and marked the beginning of the latest era of tensions.

Tensions mounted again in October 2016, when a small and previously unknown militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), staged a series of deadly attacks on Burmese military forces. The army responded with a massive security crackdown, sparking a new wave of refugee arrivals into Bangladesh.  The latest round of the mass exodus of the Rohingyas was caused by clashes in the Rakhine in August 2017, killing more than five hundred people after ARSA claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army posts. The military mounted a brutal campaign that destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages and forced more than five hundred thousand Rohingya to leave Myanmar. While the ARSA believes that it is working for self-defense of the Rohingyas, the government has declared ARSA a terrorist organization.

What is our collective responsibility?

While it is convenient to squarely place the blame on one high profile, Nobel prize winning individual, the world needs to acknowledge the fact that the crisis is far more complex and has been further exacerbated by the Burmese government’s long-standing institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya through restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement.

It’s obvious that the high-decibel criticism of Myanmar and the government’s handling of the crisis is not matched by efforts of countries like Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Malaysia or by regional blocs like ASEAN. One argument that has increasingly gained momentum is concerns of radicalization and terrorist threats, in what is perceived as attempts by ISIS to gain grounds in Southeast Asia. While this has made the public debate on the plight of the Rohingyas and responses needed from receiving countries deeply divided, we cannot deny that the region has a moral responsibility to address the humanitarian crisis that is upon us.

More concerted effort and resources are needed to ensure the humanitarian needs of the refugees are duly met. Besides essential aid, humanitarian aid need to ensure that access to health service covers sexual and reproductive health services, ensuring safety for women refugees to reduce violence, harassment and exploitation. Receiving countries can no longer push their responsibility towards refugees to just UN agencies. It is high time these countries ratify the UN Refugee Convention to ensure treatment of refugees is according to accepted standards. It has to be noted that some of the largest receiving countries in the region- Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand—all ASEAN members—have yet to ratify to this convention, somewhat ironically.

Regional blocs like ASEAN, who operate from a policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its members states need to accept that the Rohingya crisis is not just Myanmar’s internal problem; rather, its spill-over effect into other ASEAN countries is already evident and needs to be addressed.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have recently signed a repatriation agreement on November 2017 to return close to a million Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh back to Myanmar. Various rights groups have raised concerns over the repatriation process, including issue such as where the persecuted minority will be resettled since hundreds of their villages have been razed, and how their safety will be ensured in a country with continuing raging anti-Muslim sentiment.

As we celebrate International Migrants Day, we need to rally our calls to guarantee stronger rights and protection for the Rohingyas. We need to stay vigilant to ensure that the agreement and the eventual move in not merely a political agreement by the two countries but one that respects the right of refugees to return to Myanmar in a safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable way.



[1] Rakhine State is Myanmar’s least developed state, with a poverty rate of 78 percent, compared to the 37.5 percent national average, according to World Bank estimates.



[4] Under the new citizenship law, Rohingya were again not recognised as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. The law established three levels of citizenship. In order to obtain the most basic level (naturalised citizenship), there must be proof that the person’s family lived in Myanmar prior to 1948, as well as fluency in one of the national languages. Many Rohingya lack such paperwork because it was either unavailable or denied to them.

[5] Suu Kyi formal title is “state counselor”, she leads the party in charge of the government, the NLDC and is seen as the country’s de facto leader[5]. The NLDc’s power to govern was also curtailed by another constitutional requirement that guarantees 25% of the seats in parliament to the armed forces. It kept absolute authority over the country’s defenses, internal security and border control — and over the entire Civil Service.


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