The Rohingya: Where They Came From

The crisis that has enveloped Myanmar’s luckless Rohingya has been years in the making. They are hardly interlopers, with some of them having settled in Arakan Province, also known as Rakhine, on Myanmar’s west coast since at least the 15th century.

But as with so many modern-day conflicts, much of today’s tensions stem from colonial occupation. In this case, colonizers encouraged Bengali migration as farm labor to what was then Burma. The number of Muslim settlers before the British colonial period is unknown, but after the British annexed the territory in 1826 the numbers began to grow.

At that point, Rakhine’s population may have been 5 percent Muslim. It grew further during World War II when the British armed Rohingya recruits as what were then called V-Force guerrillas to stay behind to provide information on Japanese troop movements.

As the V-Forces flourished, they ran into tension with the mainly Muslim Maugh people against the Buddhist Arakanese, who supported the Japanese. The Maugh provided most of the V-Force recruits. The region became increasingly polarized, eventually with strongman Ne Win’s government enacting a citizenship law that denied the Rohingya citizenship. About three quarters of a million of them continue to live mainly in northern Rakhine townships where they form most of the population.

They are under almost constant attack from the majority Buddhists. International media and human rights organizations have described Rohingyas as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. More than 100,000 continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons, not allowed by authorities to leave.

Vicious race riots broke out in 2012, with the Rohingya turning to trafficking networks and seeking refuge status across Southeast Asia and all the way to Australia. The trafficking networks have expanded to cater to the now civilian-led state’s intolerance towards its Rohingya minority while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been unable or unwilling to address the problem.

“The solution lies with the Myanmar government itself,” Bunn Negara, a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, told the IRIN humanitarian news service. “Their policies and their attitude have contributed to the problem, even causing it. [But] it is no longer a national problem, it is an ASEAN problem. Myanmar does not have the right to say no other country should get involved.”

Regressive responses

“Previously, we did not have too many hurdles for people coming in, at least when it came to the Rohingya,” said Ramachelvam Manimuthu, who heads the committee on migrants and refugees at Malaysia’s Bar Council. “What has played out in the last few weeks with the push-back policy is of great concern. To say, we are pushing them out to sea and, ‘Go on your way…’ Go on their way where? It’s a regressive policy for Malaysia.”

Belatedly, Malaysia agreed to take in refugees after Malaysia’s foreign minister, Anifah Aman, met with his Thai and Indonesian counterparts. Indonesia has also begun to grudgingly accept a handful, as has the Philippine, although it’s unlikely that Rohingya boats would stray that far across the South China Sea.

“If you start to play the blame game, you won’t find a resolution,” said Syed Hamid Albar, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s special envoy to Myanmar and a former Malaysian foreign minister. “It’s not a border problem, it’s an issue for the foreign ministry. You cry looking at all these things happening. We are a rich region, we need to open our hearts and search our conscience.”

More than 150,000 people are currently registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Malaysia, just under a third of whom are Rohingya. But Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and treats Rohingya and all other refugees and asylum seekers as illegal migrants. Registration with UNHCR can take up to two years and even with the agency’s refugee cards, they have no right to work, cannot send their children to government schools and live at constant risk of detention.

Most eke out a precarious existence on the fringes of society, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Early marriage preferable to life in Myanmar

Ahjidah Nur Mohammad, for instance, arrived in Malaysia last month, after her brother-in-law paid traffickers RM6,000 (US$1,680) to free her from a house near the Thai-Malaysian border where she was being held after two months at sea. She has never been to school and she does not know how old she is, perhaps 16.

“My brother-in-law brought me here to give me away in marriage,” she said. It’s not what she wants, she admits, but she was happy to escape a grim hand-to-mouth existence in Myanmar where she lived with a bullying stepmother in a small village near Maungdaw in Rakhine State, close to the Bangladesh border.

“Sometimes mobs would come,” Ahdijah said. “We couldn’t sleep at night. Sometimes we had to run away and hide.”

Neighbors put the girl in touch with a broker who put her in a small boat with 24 other people that departed from Maungdaw. At sea, they joined a larger boat with many more people, but the women and girls were kept in a separate cabin. After being taken ashore to Thailand, they were told to call family and friends to pay the RM6,000. Ahdijah only spent two days at the trafficker’s house before her brother-in-law sent the money. It was just a one-hour walk to the border.

In 2012, the violence between Buddhists and Muslims left 200 people dead and many Rohingya villages destroyed. Land and businesses were seized and about 140,000 Rohingya were corralled into squalid camps where curfews were imposed. Tens of thousands have since opted to take their chances with the smugglers.

Six months at sea

The journey of a 29-year-old Rohingya Muslim who gave his name as Ahmad provides an indication of just how far-reaching the trade in people has become in Southeast Asia. First, he said, he paid a fisherman in Myanmar to take him on the short trip to Bangladesh where he spent three years working odd jobs to earn a living. His father, who had been tortured by the Myanmar military and spent four months in hiding, warned him not to return home. “My father told me, ‘You should save your life. Don’t come here, go to Malaysia’,” Ahmad recalled.

He paid about RM1,000 for the trip to an agent who was connected to his own family through marriage to an aunt. The boat set off from Teknaf in Bangladesh, picking up more passengers along the way to ensure it was as full as possible. The passengers including women and children, Rohingya as well as Bangladeshis, were customers of four different brokers. The traffickers smoothed the ship’s passage by dispensing bribes to local officials and maritime patrols.

They crossed the Bay of Bengal in just under two months, but when they arrived within a short distance of Thailand’s coastline, the traffickers said they were worried about naval patrols and headed back out to sea. They then spent more than four months at sea, watched over by armed and sometimes brutal guards, and surviving on meagre rations of rice and dried fish. By the time their ordeal came to an end, nearly 30 people had died and been tossed overboard.

Once on land, despite being so weak they could barely walk, the group trudged for almost 24 hours through the jungle to the Thai-Malaysian border. The traffickers threatened and beat those who fell behind. When Thai police stumbled on the group, they opened fire and during the confusion of the shoot-out, a small group, Ahmad among them, managed to escape. A rubber tapper then put them in touch with someone who, for a fee, could smuggle them to Malaysia.

After finally arriving in Kuala Lumpur, unlike most new arrivals, Ahmad had no family or friends to call on. He met a good Samaritan in a restaurant who offered him a place to stay.

“I cannot work, I don’t have any money, I cannot go anywhere and I’m afraid of the police,” he said. “But, I do have hope.”

With reporting by IRIN