In recent weeks, we have heard the devastating news of fishing boats filled with Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants being abandoned in the middle of the Andaman Sea. These smugglers have since abandoned their boats in fear of being persecuted by countries such as Thailand, which has recently embarked on a serious crack-down on human trafficking activities. This has resulted in a serious humanitarian crisis with these “boat people”, the name which they are often referred to, experiencing starvation and with some critically ill. Malaysia and Indonesia have since agreed to accept 7,000 “boat people” onto their shores and to provide medical and humanitarian assistance for a period of a year. As the international community struggles to find a solution to this humanitarian and political crisis, it is important to understand the situation back in Myanmar.
The Rakhine state in Myanmar, home to a population of about 3.2 million, is a diverse region, one that has a make-up of a Buddhist majority of 60 percent and a significant Muslim minority of about 30 percent. The crisis in Rakhine came into focus in 2012 after waves of violence sparked off between the Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas. A Human Rights Watch report alleged that these violence were the result of a collusion between Buddhist monks, state officials, security forces aimed at terrorizing and "forcibly relocating" the Rohingya. The Rohingyas were historically not viewed as rightful citizens of Myanmar by the government despite many having lived in Myanmar for generations. They are often viewed as illegal interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh and are not recognized as an indigenous ethnicity of Myanmar. This was further amplified by a citizenship law in 1982, which links citizenship with race, which led to these Rohingyas being effectively stripped of their citizenship. They are now held up in camps with poor living conditions and are continually being persecuted. Many Rohingyas, exasperated with their situation, have decided to take matters into their own hands and escape to neighboring Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia which have showed sympathy to Rohingyas in the past.
Much talk has been going around in Singapore with regards to whether Singapore should and could take in these “boat people” and to provide a shelter for them, similar to what Malaysia and Indonesia have done. It is of course easy to stand on moral high ground and to say that we as a society need to show compassion and accept these “boat people” and provide the necessary aid. But we too need to consider the practical aspect of housing these “boat people”: Where are we going to house them? How long are we going to house them? Will they be restricted to a confined space? What if there is no long-term solution for these Rohingyas? There is simply too much uncertainty with regards to these “boat people” for Singapore to take them in. Singapore did take in Vietnamese refugees back in 1978 with the condition that they will only be here for 90 days with the guarantee that they will be taken in by another country after that. However, the circumstances with these “boat people” is different, with no clear solution in sight, these “boat people” may end up staying here for years. Are we going to integrate them into the Singapore society then? Would it be politically and socially feasible? If Singapore were to accept these “boat people”, it may set the precedence of what is tolerable and make Singapore a hot-spot for refugee and human-trafficking activities. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for Singapore providing aid as a transition location if a clear diplomatic solution is in sight, but given the current situation, it is just not feasible.
Now that Malaysia and Indonesia has agreed to hold these Rohingyas temporarily for a year, time must not be wasted to find a political solution to this crisis. Given the lack of will on the Myanmar government to look out for the welfare of these Rohingyas in its policies and actions, I believe that international agencies and countries have a role to play in pressurizing the government to do what is right. In the short-term, more should be done to ensure that no more Rohingyas leave the Myanmar border by boat as they risk their lives and risk a greater humanitarian dilemma for countries that are already stretching their resources to take in the 7,000 refugees. Concurrently, the Myanmar government must be pressured to open up the Rohingya living space to international aid workers to enter to provide much needed humanitarian aid to the people. Independent observers must also be allowed in to ensure that authorities do not support and promote sectarian violence. In addition, the breakdown of the law and the justice system must be restored. Those who organize and participate in hate crimes and violence must be investigated and brought to justice; doing so will not only bring these people to justice but also reinstate the respect for the law and prevent further violence. These are short term measures to ensure the basic rights of these Rohingyas are guaranteed while a more complicated long term solution is discussed.
The conflict arose from two hard-line groups who are insistent on their respective positions: The Myanmar government who do not recognize these Rohingyas as rightful citizens of Myanmar and the Rohingyas who identify themselves as Burmese. The draft plan which the Myanmar government proposed was merely an attempt to appease the international community but it is clearly discriminatory in nature. Firstly, the draft plan requires Rohingyas to provide documentation proof that their families were in Myanmar before Myanmar’s declared independence. This is simply not possible because most families do not have such documentation or have lost it over the years of violence. Secondly, the panel who decides whether one gets a Myanmar citizenship contains representatives from the Rakhines community, essentially giving veto rights to the Rakhines over who gets accepted. And lastly, but most importantly, the state forces these Rohingyas to be classified as “Bengalis”, a move which signifies that they are foreigners first. The citizenship being offered is also a “naturalized” citizenship – a “second-class” citizenship which carries fewer rights and could be stripped at any time. These uncertainties can be used against the Rohingyas by the state and thus such a citizenship is not desired by the Rohingyas.
At the heart of it, the Rohingyas just want to be recognized as citizens of Myanmar and given the same rights and opportunities as the rest of the Burmese and they see their Rohingya identify as central to their argument; since if they were accepted as an indigenous group, they would qualify for full citizenship by birth. However, the 1982 law has linked citizenship to with race which discriminates the Rohingyas. To move ahead, a compromise must be made. Muslim leaders may consider dropping their insistence on being identified as “Rohingya” if there is a clear and sure path to citizenship. In other words, they can campaign to be offered citizenship under another identity marker that would not imply indigenous status and thus would be offered citizenship by descent rather than birth. They could be identified by the name “Rakhine Muslims” or “Myanmar Muslims”. Of course, for this to work, the government must be willing to accept these Rohingya to be part of Myanmar, if not no reclassification will work.
This is a problem that the international community has chosen to turn a blind eye on for too long, it has only became a topic of discussion recently because of the huge humanitarian crisis and the implications for surrounding neighbors. Political pressure on the Myanmar government cannot be softened even after these refugees are housed in Malaysia and Indonesia. Only sustained pressure and sanctions against the Myanmar government can force it to have the will to resolve this long standing problem. Without sustained effort and compromise from the Rohingyas and the Myanmar government along with international intervention, the scene of large masses of “boat people” stranded in the middle of the sea will continue to resurface.