Southeast Asia seen failing Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya Muslims

International rights groups are calling for neighboring countries to protect Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar, where leaked documents allegedly reveal state-sponsored persecution.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Rohingya from Myanmar, who were rescued from human traffickers, are held at a detention center near Thailand's border with Malaysia February 12, 2014. Two police raids last month freed a total of 636 people, mostly Rohingya, who were en route to Malaysia.

As Myanmar defends itself against allegations of state-sponsored persecution of its Rohingya Muslim minority, attention has turned to what neighboring countries are doing to protect Rohingya asylum seekers. International refugee rights organizations say a coordinated response is needed for what is a growing refugee crisis in the region. 

The mistreatment of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, is consequential for neighboring countries trying to cope with a rising number of refugees while also making economic inroads into Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Police and immigration officers in countries from Thailand to Australia are accused by rights groups of gross mistreatment of Rohingya, who live mostly in Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh and are essentially stateless under Myanmar's law. 

Rohingya are widely disdained by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar. The community is not recognized as a legitimate ethnic minority under a 1982 citizenship law, despite Rohingya having lived in Myanmar for generations. 

Since 2012, when Myanmar began inching towards democracy, sectarian violence has erupted against Muslims, including Rohingya. Arson attacks and killings have displaced over 140,000 Rohingya; many live in camps in Rakhine state where their movement and access to basic services such as healthcare and education are severely limited. 

State-sponsored discrimination? 

On Tuesday a report published by the Southeast Asia-based human rights organization Fortify Rights claimed to have obtained evidence of state-sponsored policies that deny Rohingya the same rights as other ethnic groups in the country and severely restrict their freedom. 

It cited leaked government documents that detail a raft of measures allegedly used to restrict the size of the Rohingya population including limits on who they are allowed to marry and the number of children they can have.

The Myanmar government flatly rejected the findings. A spokesperson for President Thein Sein told the Myanmar Times that the government “Do[es] not remark on baseless accusations from Bengali lobby groups.” The government does not recognize the term Rohingya and refers to the community as Bengalis.

Regional implications 

The policies are designed to make life so intolerable for Rohingya they leave the country, says Matthew Smith, director of Fortify Rights. He says Southeast Asia needs to face squarely what is a growing refugee crisis, and is critical of the response from Thailand, in particular. 

It's unclear how many Rohingya have fled Myanmar since violence escalated in 2012. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR) estimates that 27,000 asylum seekers left by sea in the year ending June 2013. Some left from Bangladesh and are thought to be Bangladeshi migrant workers. However, Vivian Tan, a regional spokesperson in Bangkok for the UNCHR, says most are Rohingya seeking asylum. Those who survive the treacherous journey end up in neighboring countries including Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

“There is an increasing sense of hopelessness in [Myanmar] that is pushing more and more to flee,” says Ms. Tan. "We urge countries in the region to keep their borders open and to give these people the protection they need.”

Malaysia, a majority Muslim country, is a top destination for Rohingya: Over 34,000 are registered with the UNHCR there. Malaysia has won praise for its humanitarian response to refugee arrivals, but rights groups say that it lacks a clear legal policy, putting migrants and refugees at risk of exploitation and arbitrary arrest. 

Australia has also been criticized by rights groups for its treatment of boat people, many of whom are Rohingya. Recent riots in an Australian-run detention centre for asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea left one detainee dead and injured others. 

In Thailand, the government has come under increasing pressure after a series of media reports have shown Rohingya in cramped and inhumane detention centers and even implicated the Thai authorities in selling refugees to brokers for international human trafficking rings.  

Thorny diplomacy

A change of attitude towards Rohingya in Myanmar is the only thing likely to stem the flow of boat refugees in the long term. But influencing the Myanmar authorities – notoriously suspicious of outside interference – is a thorny diplomatic issue.

Singapore-based analyst Alistair Cook, a research fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Studies at Nanyang Technological University, says countries including Thailand and Malaysia are cautious about raising the Rohingya issue with the Myanmar government at a time when they are building trade and economic ties. 

“Myanmar is very sensitive to the outside world and this is an incredibly delicate issue,” says Mr. Cook.

He says there’s a need to humanize the issue and reframe it so the Rohingya are no longer referred to constantly as a burden. 

“The Rohingya are presented as inanimate objects that suck state resources and cause problems wherever they go. This undermines their basic humanity,” says Cook. “We need to shed light on the complexities of their situation and encourage greater understanding of their long history in this region.”

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