The Rohingya refugee crisis refers to the mass migration of Rohingyas from Myanmar to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. An estimated 87,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh since late 2016, as a result of “clearance operations” undertaken by Myanmar military to root out ARSA (Rohingya Armed Group) which attacked Myanmar police post recently. During such operations, lives of large number of Rohingyas got affected, who then fled to countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Rohingya are an ethnic Muslims minority, who predominantly live in Western Myanmar province of Rakhine, formerly known as Arakan. They speak Bengali as opposed to the commonly spoken Burmese language and practise a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam. They differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously. Rakhine State is Myanmar’s least developed state, with a poverty rate of 78 per cent. The Rohingyans claim that they are natives to western Myanmar with a heritage of over a millennium and influence from the Arabs, Mughals and Portugese. Myanmar(Burma) local people consider them migrants who had migrated from Bangladesh and other Bengali colonies to their land as labourers during the British Colonial rule. Britishers considered this type of migration an internal movement as the British administered Myanmar was a province of India. After independence of Myanmar in 1948, migration was rendered illegal and citizenship was denied to Rohingyas rendering them stateless. They were not included in the Union Citizenship Act and denięd recognition as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups.
According to 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law, a Rohingya (or any ethnic minority) is eligible for citizenship only if he/she provides proof that his/her ancestors have lived in the country prior to 1823. Else, they are classified as “resident foreigners or as “associate citizens” (even if one of the parent is a Myanmar citizen). The Myanmar Government has effectively institutionalised discrimination against the ethnic group through restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. Myanmar’s government has stopped recognizing them as “Rohingya”, a self-identifying term that surfaced in the 1950s, which experts say provides the group with a collective political identity, and prefers to refer to the community as Bengalis. Rohingya groups, notably the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, demand the right to “self-determination within Myanmar”. In 2014 the government held a UN-backed national census, its first in thirty years. The Muslim minority group was initially permitted to identify as Rohingya, but after Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott the census, the government decided that the Rohingya could only register if they identified as Bengali instead.
Similarly, under pressure from Buddhist nationalists protesting the Rohingya’s right to vote in a 2015 constitutional referendum, the then President Thein Sein cancelled the temporary identity cards in February 2015, effectively revoking their newly gained right to vote. (White card holders were allowed to vote in Myanmar’s 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 general elections.). In the 2015 elections, which were widely touted by international monitors as free and fair, no parliamentary candidate was of the Muslim faith. “Country-wide anti-Muslim Sentiment makes it politically difficult for the government to take steps seen as supportive of Muslim rights,” writes the International Crisis Group.
United Nations have found evidence of increasing propagation of hatred and religious intolerance by “ultra-nationalist Buddhists” against Rohingyas while the Myanmar security forces have been conducting “summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment and forced labour” against the community. UN terms the human rights violations against the Rohingyas as “crimes against humanity”. The Rohingyas have faced military atrocities in 1978, 1991-1992, 2012, 2015 and 2016-2017. Poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of employment opportunities in Rakhine has increased the gap between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. This tension is deepened by religious differences that have at times erupted into conflict.
Recent clashes in Rakhine broke out in August 2017, killing more than five hundred people after a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army posts. The government declared ARSA a terrorist organisation and told the Rohingya to leave Myanmar. This resulted in Rohingya migration to other countries.
Bangladesh hosts tens of thousands of registered refugees and hundreds of thousands of unregistered Rohingya refugees are also believed to live in the country, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates. Conditions in most of the country’s refugee camps are dire, driving many Rohingya there to risk a dangerous journey across the Bay of Bengal to South-East Asia. In January 2017, Myanmar agreed to begin talks with Bangladesh on refugees, yet border posts in Bangladesh have at times forcibly returned Rohingyas. Amid the refugee influx in September, Bangladesh announced that it would create special identity cards for Rohingya to help bring order to the surging migrant flow and expand the existing camps for refugees. Thousands of displaced refugees are currently living in temporary shelters in Cox’s Bazar and in Bhasan Char (Bangladesh).
As of August 2017, more than 88 per cent of Malaysia’s 149,100 registered refugees were from Myanmar, including sixty-one thousand Rohingyas, according to the United Nations. Thailand is a hub for regional human smuggling and serves as a common transit point for Rohingya. Dozens of people, including a general, provincial officials, and police, were found guilty in 2017 of the deaths of trafficked Rohingya. The Rohingya refugee number here is relatively small. Amid international pressure, Indonesia admitted one thousand Rohingya and provided them with emergency assistance and protection.
Rohingya community living illegally in India is a cause of concern for the government because of security reasons. The government is looking for ways to deport over 40,000 Rohingyas living in the country. In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, the government said that some of the Rohingyas with militant background were found to be very active in Jammu, Delhi, Hyderabad and Mewat. They have been identified as having a very serious and potential threat to the internal and national security of India. The government is worried about the suspected infiltration of terror outfits among the displaced people living in various camps. The Centre has told the Supreme Court that many Rohingyas have acquired documents meant for Indian citizens only like Aadhaar, PAN and Voter-ID. This raises the concern of naturalisation of illegal migrants by fraudulent means.
The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the Amnesty International, however, asked India to adopt humanitarian approach in dealing with Rohingya problem. Refusing to bow under international pressure over Rohingya crisis, India made it clear that it would not compromise with the security concerns of the country. However the Government of India also decided to extend assistance to Bangladesh in the form of relief material (rice, sugar, pulses, mosquito nets, tea, cooki) under “Operation Insaniyat”. India also asked Myanmar to end persecution of Rohingya.
The UN has established a 9-person commission led by former UN Secretary Kofi Annan to discuss the options to propose a solution. The committee submitted its final report to Myanmar Government on 23rd August, 2017 which included the recommendations to reduce communal tension and support much-needed development efforts in the impoverished state. More recently, UN has reminded the world community to come forward and provide humanitarian assistance to Rohingyas at the same time asked the Myanmar Government to provide safe and dignified life to refugee Rohingyas who have come back to their land.
In the end it won’t be wrong to say that Rohingyas are an unfortunate set of stateless people, stuck in a terrible crisis with no place to call home. The countries of South and South-East Asia need to decide whether it is right to push Rohingya refugees back to violence torn Myanmar or it should be dealt at the regional level in a more comprehensive way. If a long-term solution is not reached, the spillover effect of this crisis will have to be faced by all the neighbouring nations of Myanmar.