Features

An Idiot’s Guide to the Rohingya Boat Crisis

Words by: Sophie Raynor


Thousands of people are stranded on boats somewhere in the ocean in a diplomatic tussle the UN is calling “a dangerous game of human ping pong”. They’re members of an ethnic minority group in Myanmar, and are fleeing systematic state-sanctioned abuse, violence and discrimination in their home country. Australia has – unsurprisingly – said that we won’t take them in as refugees. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter to us – in fact, our government’s refusal to accept the Rohingya makes it all the more critical that we talk about them. Who are these people, what’s happening to them, and why should we care? Read on for your introduction to something that’s a whole lot more serious than your average backyard baby tennis game.

Rohingya migrant women, who arrived in Indonesia by boat, hold plates as they queue up for breakfast inside a temporary compound for refugees in Kuala Cangkoi village in Lhoksukon, Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 17, 2015.  REUTERS/Beawiharta
Rohingya migrant women, who arrived in Indonesia by boat, hold plates as they queue up for breakfast inside a temporary compound for refugees in Kuala Cangkoi village in Lhoksukon, Indonesia’s Aceh Province on May 17, 2015. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Who are Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority group from Myanmar, who live in Rakhine province in the country’s west, on Bangledesh border. The government of Myanmar views its population of around 1.1 million Rohingya as illegal Bangledeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship – in fact, they don’t even recognise them as an ethnic group. That has the effective of leaving the Rohingya stateless in their own land, says the Human Rights Watch, and is part of the reason why they get on boats and try to leave.

Another reason? The widespread violence between the Rohingya and the majority Buddhist population, which has escalated in recent years, killing and displacing thousands. The most recent UN data says nearly 100,000 people have fled Myanmar, and around 140,000 are internally displaced and living in refugee camps. The rest of the Rohingya are living in “apartheid-like conditions” in Rakhine.

How can they be treated like this by their own government?

The Rohingya are denied access to education. They can’t register their marriages, they’re subject to religious violence and if their houses are seized, they have no recourse to get them back. It’s all state-sanctioned because they’re Muslim: the modern Myanmar state is built on the premise of Buddhist supremacy, which allows the government to demonise the Rohingya and blame them for the country’s problems.

It’s worth touching briefly on Myammar’s history to understand this. The country, once known as Burma, was a British colony from 1824 until 1948, when it became an independent republic. It had a president and a prime minister, and multi-party elections were held in 1951-2, 1956 and 1960. But in 1962, the military took control of Burma through a coup d’état, and for the next fifty years, the government was controlled either directly or indirectly by the military.

During this time, Burma became one of the most impoverished countries in the world, and its leaders ruled with iron fists. Violent protests lead to students being killed, opponents of the government were kept as political prisoners, martial law was imposed and conflicts between junta troops and ethnic minorities have caused the displacement of thousands of people. It’s widely considered one of the world’s most oppressive and abusive regimes.

Religious rioting: Residents walk past buildings burning in riot-hit Meiktila. (AFP: Soe Than Win)
Religious rioting: Residents walk past buildings burning in riot-hit Meiktila. (AFP: Soe Than Win)

Things have changed a bit in the last decade. A referendum was held in 2008 to create a new democratic constitution, and in 2010 Myanmar had its first democratic general elections. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won a contest plagued by accusations of fraud, but was dissolved in 2011 and in 2012 by-elections the previously illegal National League for Democracy, lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 43 of 45 seats.

There’s still a whole lot of talk about whether Myanmar is genuinely transitioning to liberal democracy, or whether the military’s continued involvement indicates more sinister motives (in 2009 it tied with North Korea as the region’s least free economy, and in 2007 it tied with Somalia as the world’s most corrupt country). Regardless, the Rohingya are still treated so badly by the government that the Human Rights Watch has called it a crime against humanity that borders on ethnic cleansing.  And that’s the plan, evidently: Sunai Phasuk, the Human Rights Watch’s senior Thailand researcher, recently told the ABC: “The Burmese authorities, particularly the military, have a clear policy to push them out from Burma using persecution in almost every form possible.”

What are they doing?

The Rohingya are leaving. Since 2012, thousands of them have fled Myanmar to southern Thailand, in the hope of reaching Malaysia, which has a mainly Muslim population. Mr Phasuk told the ABC that after they leave Myanmar, the Rohinya fall into the hands of human traffickers, and are required to pay around $5,000 to join to sea voyage. When they get either Thailand or Malaysia they have to pay another fee in order to come ashore – and Mr Phasuk says that if they don’t pay, they risk being beaten, raped or left to die by starvation.

 More than 1,400 asylum seekers have arrived in Indonesia in the past week, including more than 700 Rohingyas (pictured) who were rescued by fisherman earlier Friday. (AFP: Chaideer Mahyuddin)
More than 1,400 asylum seekers have arrived in Indonesia in the past week, including more than 700 Rohingyas (pictured) who were rescued by fisherman earlier Friday. (AFP: Chaideer Mahyuddin)

Right now, at least 2,000 migrants are stranded in boats off the Myanmar-Bangladesh coasts, held in horrific conditions by human traffickers who are demanding that passengers pay to be released.

Why are we only hearing about this now?

Though the Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar for a while, it’s hit headlines this week because of arrests made after a recent crackdown on human trafficking, which has seen ship captains abandoning boats stuffed with refugees. More than 3,600 migrants have washed ashore since May 10, and thousands more are believed to be stranded at sea. Media coverage makes it tricky because the smugglers are believed to be Thai, and don’t want to deposit the refugees in Thailand, for fear of punishment. Thailand was the last country confirmed to resupply the boats with food and water, sometime last week.

How many of them are there?

The UN believes about 25,000 refugees have left Myanmar this year, which is about twice as many as this time last year. Of those, between 40 and 60 per cent are believed to be Rohingya (the rest are likely Bangladeshi migrants).

Of those refugees, 1,100 have been taken by Malaysia; 3,000 by Indonesia; 350 by Thailand, and it’s been reported that several hundred have died on the boats.

Rohingya and Bangleshi migrants wait on board a fishing boat before being transported to shore, off the coast of Julok, in Aceh province, on May 20, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.  REUTERS/Syifa/Antara Foto
Rohingya and Bangleshi migrants wait on board a fishing boat before being transported to shore, off the coast of Julok, in Aceh province, on May 20, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Syifa/Antara Foto

It’s difficult to tell how many boats are currently stranded in the ocean, but the UN estimates that however many there are, they’re housing about 2,000 refugees. No resupply of food or water to the boats has been confirmed since Thailand’s assistance last week, and the UN is understandably pretty concerned about the people on board.

What are other countries doing?

Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have typically taken the Rohingya, but this time around they all drew a line.

Malaysia, which has taken 120,000 Rohingya refugees, handballed it to Myanmar, saying it was the country’s responsibility to handle humanitarian matters internally. Prime minister Najib Razak said Malaysia must not be “burdened” with the problem, because there are so many more people waiting to flee.

Thailand also passed on the issue, saying in a statement that the people on the boats didn’t want to land in Thailand, but that if they did get there, they’d set up temporary shelters for them. This isn’t as comforting as you’d think – Human Rights Watch’s Sunai Phasuk also said in that ABC interview that because Thailand sees the Rohingya as illegal immigrants, they’re detained indefinitely in cramped cells in immigration detention, and not allowed access to UNHCR refugee screening processes.

So, not Malaysia, and not Thailand. Indonesia, whose fisherman have been rescuing the stranded boats, also confirmed that its navy was turning back boats. But last week, the Asian nations responded to international criticism and announced that they would take the boats, after all, provided migrants could be resettled or repatriated within a year. Thailand says it will also not push back boats in Thai waters.

Bowls and plates are seen inside the living quarters of an abandoned boat which carried Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants from Thailand, found off the coast near the city of Kuta Binje, Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 20, 2015.  REUTERS/Beawiharta
Bowls and plates are seen inside the living quarters of an abandoned boat which carried Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants from Thailand, found off the coast near the city of Kuta Binje, Indonesia’s Aceh Province on May 20, 2015. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Thailand has called for a regional summit on the crisis, to be held in Bangkok on May 29. Myanmar, obviously taking lessons from the Tony Abbott book of international diplomacy, has said it won’t attend if the word Rohingya is used – it’s a long story, but basically Myanmar doesn’t recognise Rohingya as an ethnic group because it’s a word that’s never been used in their censuses. Instead, Myanmar considers Rohingya people illegal Bangladeshi migrants. That’s a pretty good indication of how sensitive this issue is – and how likely it is that a resolution will require more than just a good chat.

Fortunately, other countries are stepping up, too. The African nation The Gambia has offered to take all Rohingya refugees, saying that as fellow Muslims, it’s their sacred duty to help the Rohingya out. The US has also offered to take refugees.

If only Australia was in the strong financial position The Gambia is in, and could help out, right?

What is Australia doing?

When asked whether Australia would take in the Rohingya refugeees, prime minister Tony Abbott bizarrely said simply: “Nope, nope, nope.” Apparently remembering he was the leader of a country and not a four-year-old, he later qualified the comment, saying:

“Australia will do absolutely nothing that gives any encouragement to anyone to think that they can get on a boat, that they can work with people smugglers to start a new life.

Don’t think that getting on a leaky boat at the behest of a people smuggler is going to do you or your family any good.”

Foreign minister Julie Bishop came out with something slightly more coherent, saying at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Seoul on Friday that Indonesia had told her only 30 to 40 per cent of the people stranded on boats were Rohingya refugees, and the rest were illegal Bangledeshi labourers. She said:

“They are not, in Indonesia’s words, asylum seekers, they are not refugees — they are illegal labourers. They’ve been promised or are seeking jobs in Malaysia.

“They said the Rohingya have gone to Bangladesh and have mixed up with the Bangladeshis who are coming to Malaysia in particular for jobs.”

Immigration minister Peter Dutton has come out in support of the prime minister’s position, essentially saying that because we give foreign aid to South East Asian countries, our hands are washed of all responsibility here. Australia will give $6 million to projects in Rakhine – which, incidentally, is the same amount it would cost to settle 120 refugees in Australia on bridging visas, according to the Commission of Audit.

There’s been a bit of criticism over our position – Australia’s former ambassador to Myanmar, Christopher Lamb, said the government needs to take advice on why people are seeking asylum in the first place; the Greens have implored the government to show “leadership and compassion” in accepting the refugees, and our on-again off-again buddies Indonesia have singled us out as the guys best placed to help out here. Human rights academic Matthew Davis also condemned Australia’s position in an opinion piece for the ABC, saying Australia is responsible for a general weakening in the protection of human rights for asylum seekers. There’s a neat segue here to my final point – he says we face a choice now about whether we revel in our power – the fact that we can be lax on this issue – or recognise that that won’t last forever, and it would do us well to be more long-sighted.

Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 11, 2015.  REUTERS/Roni Bintang
Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia’s Aceh Province on May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Roni Bintang

So, what needs to happen?

A whole lot of commentators are drawing parallels between the Rohingya boat crisis and the Asian refugee movements of the few decades. The rule of Communist governments in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 60s and 70s forced three million people onto boats, to be received as refugees all the way through to the 1990s. Elliot Brennan, writing for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, noted that Vietnam’s tense relationship with other ASEAN countries back then is incredibly similar to the passing of the buck that’s happening between Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar right now.

Clearly, we’ve seen this before and we haven’t learned from it. Brennan calls for a regional response to the crisis, saying that these refugee movements could be a boon if we have structures in place to accept these people. That makes Friday’s Bangkok meeting intriguing – for all the help the US is committing, if he’s right, it’s South-East Asia’s response to this that will matter most.

And, if you would indulge me a moment of opinion, we should be part of that.