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world wide wednesdays :: castaways

news is starting to filter through to the mainstream media in north america- dependably the last major news outlets to report about anything outside the continent- that there is a humanitarian crisis unfolding in southeast asia. "boat people" are said to be washing ashore in indonesia, malaysia and even farther afield. they arrive desperate in every sense of the word: desperately poor, desperately malnourished, desperately hoping to find a place where they can live in safety. they are known by the name rohingya and they come from myanmar's rakhine state, where they've been waging a little-reported battle for their own survival for decades.

myanmar, the country that many still think of as burma, held an unenviable position in the world for many years: being a pariah to both the right and left wing. the incredibly repressive military government identified as socialist, allowing cold war hawks to point to it as an example of the evils of the leftist state. for progressives, they were socialists in name only, much like north korea's kim il-sun, but were in practice a police state where power was maintained through threats and violence. [side note :: the frequent confusion over the use of myanmar versus burma is not just down to western forgetfulness or disinterest. many political opposition groups within the country continue to use the name burma, because acknowledging the legitimacy of the name change would imply acknowledging the legitimacy of the military government, who seized power through a coup d'état in 1962.]

although myanmar has made some moves toward democracy, the military still occupies a prominent position in its governance and policies. the country continues to live under laws established during the half-century of authoritarian rule and the rohingya are in the precarious position they are because of one of them: the 1982 burmese nationality law.

the burmese nationality law established three different types of citizenship, all of which are based on familial and racial ties to the country. the law restricts citizenship to those who are descended from people who lived in the country before 1823 [when the british invaded and colonised it], those who were made citizens in 1948, when the country became independent from britain and those who lived there prior to 1948, but had never applied for citizenship. furthermore, citizens must be able to prove racial descent from one of burma/ myanmar's recognised "indigenous races". when drawing up the list of "indigenous races", the rohingya were conspicuously omitted and ever since, they have been officially stateless, in violation of article 15 of the 1948 united nations declaration of human rights [of which burma was a signatory].

by law, the rohingya are foreigners from bangladesh working in myanmar. genetically and linguistically, the rohingya are related to begalis from the chittagong area and not to the burmese. religiously, they are muslim, whereas myanmar is buddhist. in other words, they are a visible minority in many ways, which makes them into an easy target for a government that seeks to propagate a sense of racial nationalism. by drawing the "dividing line" for full citizenship at the time of the british takeover, the burmese government was deliberately excluding those who had been encouraged to immigrate to burma [or who had been moved there by force] to work for them.

as with many things in history, however, the truth isn't so clear cut. there is evidence that the ancestors of today's rohingya had been in the area known as arakan [now rakhine province, which is a significant name change we'll address shortly] for hundreds of years, going back to the fifteenth century. in fact, the the buddhist population may have arrived there later depending on whom you listen to. the territory was even part of the bengali empire at one point. in modern history, it has been home to two main groups: the rohingya and the rakhine [there's that name]. although they are genetically and linguistically related to the burmese, the rakhine have been culturally distinct for a long time. unlike the rohingya, however, they are recognised as an indigenous race within burma/ myanmar and therefore are citizens. the renaming of the province was a political maneuver, and a successful one. since the area had come under burmese rule less than fifty years before burma came under british rule, there was a considerable secessionist movement within the province after the second world war. by making the majority rakhine a stakeholder in the new country of burma, the government ensured that they held the territory and bound them to the central government. [for a quick view on what some of the conflicts are, check out the "talk" page for the wikipedia entry on the rohingya.]

PLEASE NOTE: THERE ARE SOME IMAGES AFTER THE BREAK THAT MAY MAKE SOME PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE



conflict between the muslim rohingya and the buddhist rakhine has been an ongoing problem since at least the burmese occupation of 1784. at that point, the flourishing independent kingdom was turned into a peripheral territory in a much larger empire and its wealth and influence dwindled. flare-ups of ethnic tensions have been a regular occurrence and, as such, there are tales of atrocities on both sides. the difference is that, since 1982, the rakhine have had the protection of law. the rohingya have few rights, since they are viewed as illegal immigrants, and are afraid to report violations of the rights they do have, since the authorities are all burmese. [side note :: nor will that change under the current laws. government jobs require fluency in at least one of the official indigenous languages, which most rohingya do not have. education in an official language is difficult to come by in their homeland and their status as "resident foreigners" prevents them from traveling to other areas, even if they could afford to do so. furthermore, secondary education is reserved for citizens, which prevents any rohingya from attaining a certification that would allow them to get a middle class job.]

you might think that in a country where the fight against repression has been a constant state of affairs for half a century that the rohingya would find allies among the country's political opposition. you would be wrong. aung san suu kyi is an icon of peaceful protest, democratic belief and perserverance; she won a nobel prize for her work and won myanmar's 1997 elections- the first since the military takeover, although the government reversed itself and refused to cede power afterward. but she has maintained what british journalist mehdi hasan calls an "inexcusable silence" about the plight of the rohingya. fellow buddhist and nobel laureate the dalai lama has pressed her to take a stronger stand on the issue, to no avail. the reluctance of one of the world's best known campaigners for freedom and justice to speak in support of the rohingya gives a sense of how deep the anti-muslim, anti-immigration sentiment runs: even in her beatific position, she can't afford to be seen allying herself with them in the run-up to an election.

the rohingya who flee say that they are doing so in fear of their lives and that the conditions in which they find themselves in myanmar are tantamount to genocide and a 2014 report from the group united to end genocide agreed with this claim. since 2012, violence in rakhine province has escalated, resulting in the displacement of almost one hundred fifty thousand rohnigya to "internationally displaced persons" camps. conditions in the camps are bad enough that tens of thousands have chosen to brave the deadly journey by water [often falling victim to humann traffickers who may also be myanma authorities] rather than staying and waiting to die. in february 2014, doctors without borders was kicked out of rakhine state by the government, charged with favouring muslims over buddhists and with employing too many rohingya. since by-laws enacted by the provincial government forbid rohnigya from seeking medical help from clinics and hospitals in the rakhine-dominated southern part of the state, doctors without borders were virtually the only organisation offering treatment for the rohingya, so it is certainly possible that they were directing their efforts disproportionately towards muslim patients. they were able to return earlier this year, although they have had to scale down their services.

working against them, the rohingya have a government and a large part of the population who want them out and view them as intruders, neighbouring countries who are unwilling to take them in, larger world powers who are mostly disinterested in burmese affairs [although the u.s. has urged myanmar to recognise the rohingya as citizens] and a global tide of suspicion against all muslim groups. denied entry into any country, thousands of rohingya refugees are simply sitting on boats in the indian ocean, waiting. in a story equal parts heartening and heart-rending, indonesian fishermen from aceh, themselves some of the poorest people in the world, rescued eight hundred refugees from a sinking boat after they had been denied entry into thailand and malaysia. there are rumours that the thai government towed at least one boat out to open waters and left it there, essentially a death sentence for those on board.

the immediate problem is that someone needs to rescue the thousands currently on the water before they drown. but allowing the humanitarian crisis to continue in myanmar will just encourage more refugees to flee and will eventually accomplish the aim of removing the rohingya from the country entirely. in an ideal world, indonesia, malaysia and thailand would relax their policies on accepting refugees and start landing boats, and china and india- who for years have supported burma/ myanmar through trade and shielded her from the brunt of international disapproval- would put pressure on the burmese government to start restructuring its laws to make sure that the rohingya are no longer strangers in their own state. the problem is that these things take time and, of course, that is one of many commodities that the rohingya just don't have.

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