In search of home

During the recently concluded Asean Summit on May 7 and 8, 2011, there was little emphasis on how to deal with the issue of human rights, particularly the plight of the Burmese Rohingya community. Even as Burma stated its preparedness to be the chair of the Asean in 2014, the unresolved problem of the ethnic Muslim Rohingyas

will place international pressure on Asean to ensure that Burma does not hold the Asean chair.
Since April, the issue of Rohingya refugees has once again received international attention. The ethnic community’s attempt to escape by makeshift rickety boats, through the seas in search of a new home, has rekindled memories of the boat people of the Nineties. “Boat people” is a term commonly used for refugees who use boats and travel by sea to escape ethnic cleansing in their home country, in search of a “home” in a more accommodating host country, where their rights are more likely to be respected and protected.
The Rohingya community, which originally belongs to the Arakan (Rakhine) regions of Burma, has moved to countries in South Asia, particularly Bangladesh which has hosted hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas for more than three decades. But at least 2,00,000 Rohingya refugees have no legal rights there and many have migrated to both Pakistan and India. However, given the security situation within South Asia and the stricter control along the Bangladesh border, their entry into India has become more problematic now. This has pushed the community to look to Southeast Asia, which means a perilous travel by sea.
In 2009, the Thai government incurred international condemnation for turning away nearly 1,000 asylum seekers who had taken to the seas to escape from Bangladesh. The Thai government escorted the boats back to sea and left them adrift, without adequate food and supplies.
In an attempt to cross the seas, Rohingyas often have to pay huge amounts of money to unscrupulous businessmen who promise to ferry them to other destinations, including Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Rohingyas, numbering two million, are today considered one of the largest homeless communities in the world and there is overwhelming concern over their plight, especially after the publication of a report — “The Silent Crisis”, by Refugee International (a US-based rights group) which documents their desperate situation.
One main concern is that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recognised only about 50,000 Rohingyas and registered them as official refugees with legal status and refugee rights. The rest of the Rohingyas, who have migrated to Burma’s neighbours, have not been given the “refugee” status and are considered to be illegal migrants, which makes them easy victims of abuse and extortion.
Ethnically, the Rohingyas are Sunni Muslims who originate from the Rakhine provinces of Burma. In the initial years after Burma’s Independence in 1948, the Rohingya community was not in the same condition as it is today. During the early years of the U Nu government, Rohingyas held government jobs and were part of the administrative structure. Till 1981, the community had citizenship rights within Burma. It was in 1982, when the Ne Win government consolidated its position in favour of the ethnic Burmese community and denied the rights to other ethnic minorities, that the Rohingyas lost their right to statehood.
They remain one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities in Burma — they have been denied even the basic rights to citizenship, the rights of free movement within the country and remain woefully backward in terms of education and employment. The Burmese government treats the Rohingyas as Bangladeshis. The junta has often used the community as cheap and low cost labour for projects funded and carried out by the military. Regions and villages with large Rohingya population often report incidents of human trafficking and extortion.
Two factors drive the movement of the Rohingyas from Burma and Bangladesh to Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries. First, as predominantly Muslim majority countries, their integration will not face the same challenges as their status within Burma. Second, as a community in search of a better economic future, Southeast Asia represents a viable destination compared to Bangladesh.

In 2009, the Asean initiated a process called the Bali Process to look into the plight of the Rohingya Muslims and offer them “status” within the countries in which they were seeking asylum. The process initially emerged as a mechanism by which the issue of human trafficking across the Asia-Pacific region was to be addressed. The Bali Process that emerged as early as 2002 was an initiative in which over 50 countries participated — all countries that faced the problem of Rohingya migration were members of the initiative. However, Burma, which lies at the root of the problem, was not a part of the process. This was the biggest lacuna in the attempts to find a solution to the Rohingya issue.
Given the political impasse in Burma and the opaqueness of the junta, there is little effort to address the condition of the Rohingyas there. And that is why the Asean countries need to focus on the plight of the Rohingyas. Since the initiation of the Asean charter in 2008, the issue has become more urgent. Under its charter the Asean has a three-pronged approach to building a security community, an economic community and a socio-cultural community. In the efforts towards a socio-cultural community, the Asean has looked at community-building through a people-centric approach in which it intends to create a new legal framework to push forward the formation of a more humane and caring society. The violation and denial of the most basic of rights to nearly two million people of the region cannot be ignored if the vision of the Asean is to be realised.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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