Who are the Rohingya?
There was a sign on the floor of one of the boats abandoned off the coast of Aceh this week. ‘We are Myanmar Rohingya,’ it said in white capital letters. Its occupants may have been picked up by Indonesian fishermen, or they may have drowned. In the last couple of days, Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to give temporary shelter to 7000 or more people stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea, some for as long as four months. The Malaysian navy has also begun to look for boats in its own waters. Thailand won’t be joining them, though it has agreed not to turn the boats away for the moment. ‘Our country has more problems than theirs,’ the Thai prime minister said. He may well be right: a mass grave was discovered in the south of Thailand earlier this month, containing the bodies of 26 Rohingya. There are probably more. On 29 May, there will be a meeting in Bangkok of 15 countries including the US, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Burma, which is attending on condition that no one use the word ‘Rohingya’.
We have been here before. In January 2009, starving Rohingya were briefly in the news when their boats pitched up in southern Thailand and the Thai navy towed them back out to sea. The survivors made it to Indonesia and the Andaman Islands, but the crisis wasn’t on the agenda of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting that February. The difference this time is that the US State Department is taking an interest. The American military has said it will start looking for boats from the air. It seems that the Rohingya will be treated as refugees, and the Bangladeshi citizens on the same boats will be treated as ‘economic migrants’ and sent back.
Explanations of who the Rohingya ‘really’ are, whether indigenous to western Burma or the descendants of pre-Independence Indians who drifted between Bengal and Arakan (now Rakhine), run the risk of reproducing the discrimination that exists on both sides of the Bangladesh-Burma border. Perhaps it’s best to say that they are stateless. They are not included in the list of ‘national races’ in Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Act. The government, when it isn’t describing them as ‘illegal migrants’, refers to them as ‘Bengali’. Only a few of the estimated 300,000 Rohingya on the Bangladeshi side of the border are recognised as refugees; the majority live in unofficial camps. Last year the government in Dhaka began considering a new citizenship law which is framed deliberately, if not explicitly, to exclude the Rohingya.
The borders of 1947 and 1948 were never designed with more than a simplistic division between Hindus and Muslims and occasionally Buddhists in mind. The British were worried only about the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier. But since independence, the borders along the north-east have been a constant problem for India, which is suppressing several armed insurgencies there.
When a formal political entity like the European Union isn’t doing much to stop people drowning, it seems wise to have low expectations of ASEAN. The name ‘South-East Asia’ was first used in the early 1940s and has only once had any administrative force: during the Second World War when the Allied South-East Asian Command took all the territory between Burma and the Philippines that had been conquered by the Japanese.
There will be an election in Burma later this year. It’s easy to see why Aung San Suu Kyi has said nothing on the Rohingya: her National League for Democracy will get no extra votes by sounding sympathetic to a disenfranchised group of Muslims. But Aung San, the founder of the Burmese Communist Party and leader of the Burmese National Army, had a vision of a federal Burmese state with protected minorities. He negotiated the terms of the country’s independence but was assassinated in 1947, and it didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped. Across the region there are political traditions that rejected narrow nationalisms and they badly need to be revived.