Abu Tahay, a Rohingya Muslim activist who lives in Myanmar, says his people face a simple calculus when deciding whether to remain in their western Myanmar homes or escape via the Andaman Sea on overcrowded, hopelessly equipped fishing boats:
“Do — or die.”
Rohingya Muslims number around 1 million in a majority-Buddhist country of more than 53 million. Tahay is the leader of Myanmar’s Union Nationals Development Party — an all-Muslim party prohibited from running candidates in elections. Speaking on May 30 by telephone from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, Tahay offered up a grim checklist of what life is like for the vast majority of Myanmar’s Rohingyas (pronounced ro-heej-ah):
No economic rights. No citizenship. Overt state persecution. Violence by Buddhist extremists that’s sanctioned and sometimes assisted by the government. Horrifying levels of poverty, starvation, lack of medical care and more.
“They know they might sink and die” in the sea, Tahay said. “They know the danger. But circumstances forced them to leave.”
The plight of the Rohingyas — a small Muslim sect that lives primarily in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in neighboring Bangladesh — has suddenly become international news in recent weeks after The New York Times, in particular, published a jarring story about fishing boats packed with Rohingya men, women and children stranded in the Andaman Sea off the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia. Some were dead, others were dying, all are victims of “maritime Ping-Pong,” in the words of Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, who spoke to the Times.
It’s estimated that about 25,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, have fled Myanmar and Bangladesh this year, taking their chances on surviving the open seas, hoping to find refuge in any country that will accept them. Most of these refugees are from Rakhine state, where all but a handful are denied citizenship and basic rights despite their centuries-old roots in the region where many Rohingyas lived long before Myanmar (also known as Burma) became an independent state in 1948.
More than 100,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine state live in squalid displacement camps and ghettoized villages that are surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, embedded in heavily Buddhist towns and cities.
As disturbing as the images and reports are of desperate Rohingya migrants stranded at sea, or of those who have been taken into similarly destitute temporary refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia, or of those returned to Rakhine state, there may be some new hope for these people because of the attention that the current wave of desperate Rohingya boat people has brought.
Since 2011, Myanmar’s longtime military-ruled government has been on a gradual path to political democracy and economic liberalization in the hope of normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with the West and ending its internal civil war. The wave of reforms across Myanmar, though, has skipped the Rohingyas.
In fact, according to analysts who spoke with the Journal, the Burmese government has used the specter of democracy and open elections scheduled for this fall to stoke ethnic and religious fears among the country’s 80 percent Buddhist-majority population, particularly the Buddhists of Rakhine state. There, some extremist monks condone and even encourage violence against the Rohingyas, who they say will outnumber and dominate Buddhists if given freedom.
“The regime is playing on people’s fears that without this current leadership in power, the country will be overrun by Muslim minorities and Muslim extremists,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a division of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
Hudson served as the National Security Council’s director for African affairs at the White House, under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, from 2005 to 2009, when one of his main focuses was the genocide in Darfur; from 2009 to 2011, he was chief of staff to Obama’s Special Envoy for Sudan, during the period of South Sudan’s separation from Sudan.
If there’s a silver lining in the current boat people crisis, Hudson said, it’s that it may offer Western governments the opportunity to make continued normalization with the Burmese government contingent upon granting basic protections and rights to the Rohingyas.
For the Rohingyas on the boats, however, the present is desperate. Thousands are believed to be stranded at sea as countries such as Thailand and Malaysia are reluctant to allow the refugees onto their shores, making the plight of the Rohingyas all-too-reminiscent of the Vietnamese “boat people” of the late 1970s at the end of the Vietnam War, and of the 937 Jewish passengers from Germany and Eastern Europe who fled the Nazi threat in 1939 aboard the MS St. Louis. The ship was denied entry into Cuba and Florida and forced to return to Europe. Although Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands took in all the St. Louis’ passengers, 532 of them came under German occupation during the war, and 254 were murdered by the Nazis.
Today, Hudson said, Western European countries are unwilling to allow the Rohingya crisis to impact the growth in business that European businesses have seen thanks to greater access to Myanmar’s economy after the end of the European Union’s economic sanctions in 2013.
Hudson traveled to Myanmar in March and there, he said, he saw Rolex stores, new casinos and hotels, and Mercedes and Porsche dealerships — direct results of the end of the EU sanctions. “All the trappings of new money are just flooding in, and that’s really difficult to turn off,” Hudson said.
And although the Obama administration continues to raise the issue of the Rohingyas’ persecution in meetings with Burmese officials, a senior State Department official told the Journal that the Rohingya issue is just one of several items on Washington’s agenda as it watches Myanmar’s slow transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
Sowing hatred’s seeds
The story of the animosity toward Myanmar’s Muslims, particularly toward the Rohingyas, from the central government and the nation’s Buddhists, particularly by the Rakhine Buddhists, goes back centuries and, in modern history, has certain notable flash points.
But it’s a history that started in relative harmony.
The Rohingyas were first recognized in Myanmar by the Buddhist government of U Nu, the country’s first leader after Burma gained independence in 1948. Some Rohingyas even served in Nu’s administration and, to win the support of potential Rohingya voters, some government officials granted instant citizenship to Rohingyas who entered the country from Bangladesh.
The past three decades, however, have seen a quick dissolution of Buddhist-Muslim relations, which had already been disintegrating for decades because of Buddhist fears of Muslim domination. Myanmar’s central government has used those fears to strengthen its own power, and a handful of attacks by violent Muslim and Rohingya separatists have reinforced the notion that Rohingyas are not to be trusted.
Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law stripped most Rohingyas of Burmese citizenship and left them with few, if any, legal rights under either Burmese or international law. It also gave credence to xenophobic rhetoric from the government and Buddhist monks, including claims that the Rohingyas are not indigenous Burmese at all, but economic migrants who crossed illegally into Myanmar from Bangladesh with the intent of creating a separatist radical Muslim state. It was an overblown claim, but nevertheless contained some kernels of truth.
In 1948, shortly after Myanmar gained independence from the British, some Rohingya Muslims tried to pressure the central government to give them full control of Buthidaung and Maungdaw, two Rohingya-heavy areas in Rakhine state. In 1948, Muslim separatists launched an armed rebellion against the Burmese army that ultimately failed.
Over the decades, subsequent occasional rebellions strengthened Rakhine Buddhists’ fears that the Rohingyas pose an existential threat.
The Rohingyas’ sudden loss in rights in October 1982 pushed them through the cracks of the international human-rights legal framework, which aims to protect refugees (such as many Vietnamese after the Vietnam War) and the internally displaced (such as many Haitians and Nepalis today after natural disasters).
“The stateless community is kind of a third group for which there are no real legal guarantees,” Hudson said. Instead of citizenship, many Rohingyas (estimates range from 600,000 to 800,000) have “white cards,” temporary government-issued identification cards.
In February, the Burmese parliament gave all white-card holders the right to vote in a pre-election constitutional referendum. But Buddhist protests in Yangon ensued, and the day after the ruling was announced, President Thein Sein reversed the law and went even further, ordering that all white cards be surrendered by May 31. As this story went to press, Sein’s order remained in effect, and the central government was moving forward with requirements for all Rohingyas to prove their ancestral roots in Myanmar going back to the 18th-century colonial era if they wished to receive any political or economic rights.
In 2012, Buddhist riots against the Rohingyas in Rakhine state followed years of anti-Rohingya state propaganda that intensified Rakhine Buddhist fears of being outnumbered and overpowered by the Rohingyas.
The riots were sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men on May 28. One week later, on June 3, a Rakhine mob attacked a bus full of Muslim visitors from central Myanmar traveling through the Rakhine state town of Taungup. Ten passengers were murdered, setting off months of brutal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state that left hundreds dead and more than 100,000 people displaced, mostly Rohingyas, but also many Rakhine Buddhists.
Those riots and subsequent outbreaks of violence — usually led by extremist Buddhists — led the government to force an estimated 140,000 Rohingya into internment camps and neighborhoods sealed off from the outside world.
Of the hundreds of thousands of other Rohingyas fortunate enough to have thus far avoided forced displacement, most nevertheless suffer a similar system of apartheid, face a pervasive threat of violence, have little or no access to basic government services or jobs, and are banned from traveling even short distances beyond their towns without official government permission.
Gregory Stanton is a professor in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University in Virginia and the founder and president of the group Genocide Watch. In 1996, he created what has become the defining list of the eight stages of genocide (now expanded to 10): classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.
Using these standards, the racist elements within Rakhine Buddhist society and the flame-fanners within the Burmese government have pushed the Rohingyas into the eighth stage (persecution) and on the doorstep of extermination, Hudson said.
“The regime is playing on people’s fears that without this current leadership in power, the country will be overrun by Muslim minorities and Muslim extremists, and they are the enemy, and we have to get the enemy before they get us,” Hudson said. “It’s a common narrative in pre-genocidal societies and it’s a common narrative for regimes that are facing an existential threat on their hold on power.”
That potential threat to the government’s rule isn’t existential, but political, and it stems in part from its recent introduction of greater political and social freedoms — pushed hard by internal democratic parties and by Western governments — and the upcoming democratic elections in the fall.
In March, Hudson traveled for 10 days to Myanmar and Thailand, along with staff from the USHMM’s Simon-Skjodt Center, on a fact-finding mission — an attempt to witness firsthand the human rights crisis that they’d previously only heard about through anecdotes and news reports.
They visited Rakhine state, spent four days in Rohingya internment camps and ghettoized villages, and traveled to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. The group chronicled its trip in a disturbing report available online, “Early Warning Signs of Genocide in Myanmar,” and, speaking with the Journal, Hudson described what he saw three months ago as “worse than apartheid.”
“It’s not like segregation — it’s forced internment in many cases, and people don’t have access, period, to most services,” Hudson said.
He described his visit to Aung Mingalar, a fenced-off, open-air ghetto for Rohingya Muslims in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. At least 4,000 Rohingyas are confined to Aung Mingalar, which was set up by the government in 2012 after the explosion of Buddhist-Muslim riots.
Barbed wire and government checkpoints make leaving Aung Mingalar all but impossible for those without official government transit papers, which are difficult and costly to obtain. Hudson said one of the most surreal aspects of Aung Mingalar is that it’s set in the midst of the otherwise open and bustling city of Sittwe.
“At one point we were talking to a family in the street, next to the barbed wire, and on the other side of the barbed wire, not 50 feet away, there are electricity poles,” Hudson said. “You can see a market, you can see normal life from the ghetto. But for the people on the side of the ghetto, they have no electricity.”
In a January 2014 article in The New Republic, journalist Graeme Wood’s description of Aung Mingalar read like that of a sort of post-apocalyptic village — buildings falling apart; shops closed; and doors, windows and signs either crookedly hanging by their hinges or missing entirely.
Hudson described “row upon row of barracks” in Aung Mingalar, which reminded him of the most infamous Nazi concentration camp. “The camps are so large and spread out along this road that runs out into the jungle,” Hudson said, “it’s just eerily reminiscent of a tropical sort of Auschwitz in some ways.”
Food and medicine in Aung Mingalar are scarce, and without sufficient electricity or farmland or basic government services, earning money to live on is all but impossible. To survive, Rohingya residents depend on the generosity of aid groups and the occasional shopping trip to markets outside the ghetto — trips that can require cash to bribe the government guards at Aung Mingalar’s entrance and to pay for a security escort through the potentially hostile surrounding Rakhine Buddhist area of Sittwe.
The destitution and poverty that engulfs Aung Mingalar and its approximately 4,000 Muslims are the norm, not the exception, for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, even in towns that are not as obviously ghettoized and sealed as Aung Mingalar.
Nora Murphy, a physician in Chicago who has traveled several times to Rakhine state on aid missions, described life in Maungdaw, a majority-Muslim town 60 miles northwest of Sittwe, as well as other Rohingya towns in Rakhine state:
“The markets were devoid of vegetables and fruit. The poverty was so blatant,” Murphy said via telephone from Chicago. Given the region’s tropical climate, she said the Rohingyas ought to be in a position to have strong agricultural production and the resulting nutritional and health benefits that would follow.
“During the hot season, kids were always running around having colds, for an area where their nutrition should be good,” Murphy said. She spoke on the condition that the dates of her trips and her sponsoring aid group would not be published, out of fear that the Burmese government would restrict their future ability to deliver aid, as it has done in the past to humanitarian organizations.
Like Aung Mingalar, most Rohingya villages cannot economically sustain themselves. The government’s restrictions on the Rohingyas’ freedom to travel outside their towns, and its denial of basic services, along with the surrounding Buddhist population’s hostility, force the handful of Rohingyas who have been permitted limited travel to navigate the government’s complex and arbitrary checkpoint system.
“Even if you paid money, you waited, and when you got the permission to go out, there were checkpoints, and only the Rohingyas were searched,” Murphy said.
The lack of basic medication and health care for many Rohingyas is so severe, Murphy said, that once she even had to give emergency medical advice via Facebook chat from Chicago to a Rohingya Muslim who had managed to find an Internet connection and needed immediate advice on how to stem extreme bleeding in a pregnant Rohingya woman who had just had a miscarriage.
“People who have their rights respected and enjoy basic freedoms don’t usually feel desperate enough to flee in such dangerous circumstances,” said David Scott Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Burma. “All of the root causes of this problem start in Burma and Bangladesh, and that’s where long-term solutions should be found,” Mathieson said.
More than 25,000 people, most of them Rohingyas, have taken to the Andaman Sea since January, and thousands are thought to still be stranded aboard fishing boats, many abandoned by smugglers who charged hundreds of dollars — a fortune for the Rohingyas — for passage. A spokeswoman for the Pentagon told the Journal on May 29 that since May 24, U.S. Navy aircraft have conducted “regular maritime surveillance missions over the Andaman Sea, for the purpose of searching for vessels carrying Rohingya refugees.” That intelligence, the official said, is then shared with regional governments. She said the Pentagon has no official estimate for how many boats or people remain stranded in the Andaman Sea.
Meanwhile, even as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand recently agreed to offer temporary shelter to those Rohingya trafficking victims who make it ashore, decrepit refugee camps and graves filled with Rohingya refugees have been found in Thailand and Malaysia. A 2014 Reuters report revealed that some Thai officials had been complicit with smugglers in detaining and extorting Rohingya refugees, demanding more money from their families back home if they wished to survive.
“Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home of thousands of families.” — George Soros
In a prerecorded address broadcast at the Oslo Conference on Rohingyas in late May, billionaire investor, philanthropist and political activist George Soros said that when he visited Myanmar in January for the fourth time in as many years, he went to Aung Mingalar and recognized a ghetto similar to the one he lived in as a child in Budapest in 1944.
“In Aung Mingalar, I heard the echoes of my childhood,” Soros said. “Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home to thousands of families who once had access to health care, education and employment. Now, they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming. Fortunately, we have not reached a stage of mass killing.”
Echoes of 1939 — on land and at sea
Ruth Mandel is the longtime director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She’s also a member of the USHMM’s Committee on Conscience, and, as an 8-month-old in May 1939, was likely the youngest passenger aboard the MS St. Louis trans-Atlantic ocean liner, which carried 937 passengers, nearly all Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe fleeing Nazi persecution. Mandel was traveling with her mother and father, and the family ended up surviving the war in Great Britain.
The ship and its Jewish refugees were turned away from Cuba on June 2 and soon thereafter from a port in Florida. On June 6, out of options, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, took the St. Louis back to Europe. About half of the passengers fell under Nazi occupation during the war, and about half of those were murdered by the Nazis.
Although Mandel was too young to remember the voyage, reports of refugees stranded at sea strike an obvious emotional chord with her. In fact, while attending a meeting for the museum’s Committee on Conscience last year, a staffer’s report on the deteriorating situation for Myanmar’s Rohingyas moved her deeply.
“It was like there’s some kind of recipe or work plan that these oppressive, murderous regimes use against despised people,” Mandel said. “There were patterns in what I was hearing that were so reminiscent of what we know about the lead-up to the beginning of the [Nazis’] annihilation plan — ghettoizing people, preventing them from having education, preventing them from benefiting from employment, education, health care.”
Although the plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar is not as dire as that of Germany’s Jews in 1939 (there have been no comparable official calls from the government for extermination), their situation may be just as unyielding. Barring serious pressure from the U.S. and European Union, the Burmese government has little motivation to grant citizenship to any significant number of Rohingyas.
Thein Sein’s administration appears to believe it has more to fear from an angry, organized majority-Buddhist population than from an angry and disenfranchised minority-Muslim population, and foreign governments do not appear likely to spearhead the resettlement of stateless, impoverished Rohingyas en masse.
And although some countries may take in a few thousand refugees, as is happening in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, those grants of asylum are only temporary. “You can’t really ask countries to take them permanently,” a senior State Department official told the Journal on June 1.
As former University of Cincinnati historian and immigration expert Roger Daniels recalled in a May 29 interview with the Journal, in the late 1970s, during the Vietnamese boat people crisis, he asked a Japanese official he was having a drink with about the Japanese government’s role in helping the desperate Vietnamese.
“I asked him why Japan has only taken [in] two [Vietnamese] refugees,” Daniels said from his home in Bellevue, Wash. “He looked at me with a kind of grin and said, ‘So nobody could say we only took one.’ ”
Does anyone care?
In an email exchange, analyst Joshua Kurlantzick, the Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, made an obvious, yet ultimately unhopeful point, when asked which country — Malaysia, Thailand or the U.S. — should be leading the way in helping the Rohingyas.
His one-word response: “Myanmar.”
The diplomatic tragedy for the Rohingyas is they have never had a critical mass of sympathetic supporters within Burmese society — not even Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-renowned leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Suu Kyi has remained silent on the issue, despite a plea the dalai lama made in an interview with The Australian, in which he said Suu Kyi should do more on the Rohingyas’ behalf.
And even as the Burmese government’s gradual movement toward democracy, which began in 2011, has prompted the United States to ease some of its economic sanctions and the European Union to restore full economic trade with Myanmar, Hudson believes the EU is squandering its opportunity to use its leverage to help the Rohingyas.
“We met with European embassies and, frankly, they are so interested in the bonanza of investment in Myanmar right now that they aren’t doing anything to slow down the access of their companies to get into the Burmese market,” Hudson said.
Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh are focused on the immediate boat refugee crisis, but not on its cause. “They are not asking Myanmar to deal with the disease. They are simply trying to manage the refugee crisis,” Hudson said.
In 2011, Obama became the first U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 to send a secretary of state to Myanmar, when Hillary Clinton traveled there. The next year, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, a sign of Washington’s pleasure at the Burmese government’s political reforms, which to date include greater media and economic freedoms, anti-corruption laws and elections.
Hudson commended the Obama administration for continuing to discuss the Rohingya issue in private discussions with Burmese officials and in public speeches, but the USHMM’s report on its visit to Myanmar called on the U.S., EU and United Nations to use their economic leverage to make future agreements with the Burmese government dependent on its meeting humanitarian and civil rights benchmarks vis-à-vis the Rohingyas. “They’ve gotten a taste for it [foreign economic investment],” Hudson said. “They want more.”
But beyond economics, for Mandel, who traveled on the St. Louis and went on to serve on the USHMM’s conscience committee, the ongoing tragedy in Myanmar is just the most recent example in a long history of powerless groups that can’t find help from those in power: “The human race doesn’t have a very positive history of arms wide open, reaching out to people who are not in their clan.”
Saw Yan Naing is a Burmese journalist for The Irrawaddy magazine who is currently an Alfred Friendly Fellow at the Jewish Journal. Jared Sichel is a staff writer for the Journal.