The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Unwanted: Dead or Alive
By SAW YAN NAING Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In a small courthouse in Ranong, southern Thailand, in late January, Mamoud Hussein begged for mercy.     

“Please don’t send me back! The Burmese army will kill me and my family,” he pleaded.

Rohingya boat people receive medical treatment at a temporary shelter in Idi Rayeuk of Indonesia's Aceh. (Photo: Reuters)
Nevertheless, the court fined him and charged him. He will be detained until he is repatriated to Burma along with the 77 other Rohingya men who were arrested in Thai waters in a small boat in late January.

Their crime: illegally entering Thailand to look for work.   

An estimated 4,880 Rohingyas were arrested in 2008 for illegally entering Thailand, 90 percent of who are still waiting to be repatriated, according to the Bangkok Post, Thailand’s English-language daily.          

Rohingya migrants are becoming a common pest for the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian authorities. Repressed and discriminated against in Burma, hundreds have taken to the seas to try to smuggle themselves into neighboring countries to look for work. It is a perilous journey and many have died trying.

When they are caught, the Rohingyas are reportedly often beaten, abused and threatened by authorities before being towed back out to sea and set adrift.

Rohingya refugees queue up for food at a temporary shelter in Idie Rayeuk, Aceh province, Indonesia. (Photo: AP)
However, there appears to be nowhere to send them back to: both Burma and Bangladesh—the two countries where Rohingya live—are denying them the right of return.

The Burmese military government recently said that the Rohingya “boatpeople” are not among the national races of the country. Similarly, Bangladeshi authorities have said the Rohingya are not their citizens either.

And Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva was quoted by reporters in Bangkok as saying, “They [the Rohingyas] are not refugees. Our policy is to push them out of the country because they are illegal migrants.” 
The plight of the Rohingya has recently gained publicity and the issue of their status—or lack of status—has finally drawn international condemnation. 

International rights groups and agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Amnesty International and other rights groups, have called for Asian countries to show mercy in dealings with the Rohingya migrants.         

The controversial issue of Rohingya migrants has been ongoing for centuries and is now spreading to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India.

The origin of the Rohingya is the subject of much dispute. Many Rohingyas claim that they are the true natives of Arakan State.

According to some historians, the region was visited by Arab traders from the seventh century onward and—having converted to Islam—cultural traits tend to support the theory that Rohingyas are part of the native population of the region.

However, local Buddhist Rakhine people (and the Burmese military government) claim that Rohingyas are migrants from southeastern regions in neighboring Bangladesh, in a process that started before the British colonial era, but has accelerated in recent years.

In 1948, shortly after Burmese independence, the Muslim immigrants called for the new central government to designate Arakan State’s Buthidaung and Maungtaw as their province. That same year, they launched an armed rebellion against the Burmese army through the Mujahid movement.        

The Rohingya people were first recognized in Burma by the government of U Nu. Some even served in his administration. A wealthy and influential Rohingya, Sultan Mahmood, became political secretary and was later appointed minister of health.   
U Nu and his colleague, Ba Swe, of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), publicly stated in their campaign speeches that the “Bengali Muslims” were recognized among Burma’s ethnic races under the name of “Rohingya.”    
Several political leaders released statements simply to win Rohingya votes. Some AFPFL leaders in the area even granted instant citizenship to the new influx of Bengalis to allow them to cast votes for their party.   

Despite the recognition, military campaigns aimed at stemming the flow of Rohingyas coming to Burma took place in 1966, 1969, 1971, 1974 and 1978. During the Burmese military operations, thousands of Muslim migrants living in Arakan State fled to Bangladesh fearing arrest.

Thakin Chan Htun, a veteran Burmese politician in Rangoon, said that the Rohingyas’ illegal entry into Burma was inevitable as they left Bangladesh due to economic hardships.

In recent times, Burmese officials from the immigration department have contributed to the continued influx of Rohingyas by accepting bribes and issuing national registration cards to illegal Bengali migrants. 

And, of course, some Rohingyas migrated illegally into Arakan State by themselves.    

Violence against Rohingyas in Arakan State—widespread killings, rape and forced labor—led to two mass migrations of refugees in 1978 and 1991.

In 1991, an estimated 250,000 Rohingyas were expelled from Arakan into Bangladesh and took shelter in the Cox’s Bazaar area of Chittagong region.

However, one year later, the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments held bilateral talks on the Rohingya issue and reached an agreement in 1992 to repatriate all Rohingyas to Burma within six months.

However, the de facto process of returning Rohingyas to Burma took several years. 

From 1992 to 2005, according to Burmese state-run The New Light of Myanmar, 236,495 Rohingyas entered Burma legally and settled.

Despite this repatriation, many Rohingya feel they have never been accepted into Burmese society.

Now the Rohingya migration issue has resurfaced its ugly head, and once again the regional players are turning a blind eye to these people’s predicament.

General-Secretary Surin Pitsuwan of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), told Al Jazeera : “This is not an issue for a particular country. It is a regional issue. It is also an issue for the international community.”  
However, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have refused to offer asylum to any Rohingya boatpeople, saying that they are economic migrants and not refugees fleeing persecution.

Meanwhile, many Rohingyas turn to brokers to organize boats to smuggle them toward what they hope are better conditions in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand.

Thailand’s House Committee on Security said that international human traffickers were behind the recent massive influx of Rohingya boatpeople.

Committee Chairman Jehraming Tohtayong said that his panel had discovered that networks of traffickers were bringing Rohingya to Thailand en route to third countries. He said that some of the boatpeople had telephone numbers they used to contact other Rohingyas who have already settled in Thailand.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 protesters gathered in Thailand’s southern port city of Ranong on February 3 to demonstrate against suggestions that the UNHCR is seeking to establish a Rohingya refugee center in the area.
Thai residents told The Irrawaddy that they feared it would lead to problems similar to those in Thailand’s southernmost provinces, where Islamic extremists have been waging a violent struggle for independence for years.

For now, Rohingyas like Mamoud Hussein prefer to take their chances on the high seas—despite the probability of ending up dead or in a foreign jail—than carry on living as a discriminated group.

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