By Rama Ramanathan
Yesterday I was at a Proham-Aman-GMMF discussion titled Human Rights Violations and Remedies: The Rohingyan Case. The 3 hours I spent there caused me to think deeply about asylum seekers, citizenship, Asean diplomacy and Malay Supremacists.
The Rohingyas are Muslims of Indian origin who are being erased in Myanmar. The Rohingyas comprise the largest number of asylum seekers in Malaysia. The Rohingyas are a vocal group of dispossessed, frustrated, marginalized people in Malaysia.
Why are Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar and arriving in Malaysia?
A February 2009 article in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) explains:
“The Rohingyas, an ethnic minority not recognized [as citizens] by Burma’s military government, number about 800,000 in that country. Hundreds of thousands have fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Middle East.”
Bangladesh doesn’t even allow relief agencies to assist Rohingyas in Bangladeshi camps.
Malaysia on the other hand, in 2004, under Prime Minister Badawi, granted “legal status to some 10,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar, which should enable them legally to reside, enjoy some freedom of movement, seek employment, and send their children to school” (source).
Four years later, at an Asean summit, Badawi urged other nations to push asylum seekers back into the sea (source). Badawi may have said this to elicit a response of horror from Thailand which was reported to have pushed Rohingyas out to die at sea.
Badawi must have regretted Malaysia’s 2004 decision to give asylum to Rohingyas, as the decision was viewed as a signal that Malaysia would welcome Rohingyas.
From the same Asean summit, a BBC correspondent reported Myanmar’s stance:
“The Burmese foreign minister told his Thai counterpart that his country might be willing to take back Rohingyas - but only if they were categorised as Bengalis who reside in Burma, not Burmese citizens.
This is in keeping with a bizarre official policy which denies Rohingyas official status, the right to move around, even to marry without permission, despite the fact that they have lived in western Burma for more than a thousand years.
A memo faxed to journalists by the Burmese consul in Hong Kong last week insisted Rohingyas could not be real Burmese, as they were dark-skinned and "as ugly as ogres".”
Rohingya? Bengali? Burmese? Indian?
A Wikipedia entry about Rohingyas was affirmed by Datuk Kuthubul Zaman, Chairman of Proham in his welcoming speech yesterday:
“The Rohingyas have been described . . . as a ‘fabricated people’ – in fact, one of the biggest debates in the Rohingya crisis is the use of the term ‘Rohingya’ itself. Burmese historians and scholars deny the use of the term ‘Rohingyas’. . . and prefer to call these people as Bengali Muslims.
This is despite the evidence that in 1799 Francis Buchanan published “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” where he chronicles a language “spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga”.
Wikipedia also says “the word Rohingya is not used in the 1824 census conducted by the British.
Since race was so important to the British, the absence of Rohingya as a census classification probably means self-identification as Rohingya was rare 2 centuries ago. I find it hard to believe they could have grown to 800,000 strong now.
I do know Burmese Indians are labelled non-citizens in Myanmar. Burmese Indians are disenfranchised because of how they came to Burma.
Indians first came to Burma as soldiers in the British army which defeated the Burmese in 1824. The Indians thus humiliated the Burmese. Indians next came as workers in all classes of occupations to rapidly develop Burma. The Indians thus limited the opportunities available to the Burmese.
The second wave included Chettiar moneylenders who, by the late 1930’s, had acquired over a quarter of the agricultural land. Though businesses were soon dominated by Indians, the vast majority of Indians in Burma were poor, being greatly indebted to Indian maistries (source, page 36: Raj Rai, University of Singapore).
In light of that history, rather than split hairs over the origins of Rohingyas, it seems better to ask: What prevents the Burmese and the Indians in Myanmar from living together harmoniously? Can the Indians forgive the Burmese who nationalized their wealth? Can the Burmese “forgive” the Indians who invaded their land? Why bother with ethnic/racial classifications? Should citizenship be based on ethnic considerations?
Current events concerning Rohingyas
Yesterday I learned much.
A visiting Thai-Buddhist photographer (Mr Suthep Kritsanavarin) gave a heart-rending presentation about the hardships Rohingyas endure in their journeys of escape.
A visiting Rohingya-Muslim (Ms Win Win Nu) spoke of the hardships Rohingyas face in their own country: being brutalized instead of being treated at hospitals; having their homes and businesses burned down; being compelled to identify themselves as “Bengalis” in a census funded by the UN Population Fund, and the list goes on.
Resident Rohingya-Muslims spoke about their disappointments with the Malaysian authorities, access to healthcare, schooling, UNHCR, etc.
A Malaysian spoke about the biggest fear of Rohingyas in Malaysia: RELA members who get money prizes for each undocumented Rohingyas they take captive.
Debbie Stothard, Secretary-General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) spoke about the ‘special way’ in which the Myanmar regime is treated by the world despite the atrocities it commits against minorities.
They did not say whether Rohingyas speak Bengali or any other Indian language.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Myanmar
On 24 March 2011 Myanmar underwent a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva. The word “Rohingya” appears 6 times in the report of the review. The following nations used the word “Rohingya:” Algeria, Ireland, Belgium (x 3) and the USA. The word “Rohingya” was never used by an Asean nation.
Malaysia gave Myanmar this recommendation: “106.46. Intensify cooperation particularly at the regional and bilateral level with neighbouring States in the effort to find a lasting solution to the issue of the Myanmar refugees.”
Belgium gave Myanmar this recommendation: “107.26. Put an end to racial discrimination against the Rohingya and join ICERD.” Malaysia cannot support Belgium’s recommendation because Malaysia has refused to even consider joining the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Does a nation which espouses Malay Supremacy have the moral credibility to demand just treatment for Rohingyas in Myanmar?