Rohingyas – the forgotten people of Burma turning up on Thailand´s paradise beaches

23. Feb 2009

Martin Gemzell, Asia Program Manager Olof Palme International Center

During the last couple of weeks the international press saw a new name being added to its vocabulary – “Rohingya”. After 60 years of severe discrimination from Burmese authorities, the fate of this Burmese minority group finally draws international attention. Photos of odd scenes from the beaches of a Thai tourist resort were covering the front pages of papers never before having mentioned the word “Rohingya”. The pictures showed people lying on the beach in the hot sun. However, it was not the sunbathing western tourist we are used to, but instead dehydrated boat migrants, trying to escape economic and political hardship in Burma. The pictures from the tourist paradise showed Burmese migrants being forced to spend hours, arms tied together, lying on the beach in the burning hot sun. On the surrounding beach tourists were watching the brutal spectacle offered by the Thai navy. Later reports spoke about the navy confiscating motors from approaching dilapidated ships carrying Rohingyas, to prevent them from landing in Thailand, instead leaving them to dehydrate and starve on the sea.

st1:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } Burmese refugees being led ashore by Thai navy soldiers. Photo by Urban Svensson

Sixty years of civil war, 45 years of dictatorship and the continuing mismanagement of the Burmese economy have brought millions of Burmese refugees to Thailand. A recent WFP report speaks about as many as one third of all Burmese children being malnourished. At least two million but perhaps as many as five million Burmese are living as illegal migrants in Thailand. Burmese are having dirty, dangerous and low paid jobs in textile, fishery, sex and construction industries. Burmese workers are denied the rights to unionize and frequent reports show evidence of nearly systematic abuse by Thai employers and authorities.  In some provinces draconian laws have prohibited Burmese from owning a mobile phone, driving a motorbike, attending meetings – including religious ceremonies – wearing Burmese clothes and decrees also force them to stay indoors between certain hours.  Extorting bribes from Burmese has become an industry in itself and the town of Mae Sot, the nexus of Burmese migration on the border between Thailand and Burma, is said to be a very attractive posting for Thai police looking for lucrative opportunities to get their share of the pie. Employers in the local garment industry often have close ties with authorities, and sometimes they have themselves been high ranking police and border control officials.[i]

A great number of Burmese are also working as low paid – if paid at all – illegal workers in the tourist industry.  No more invisible, the corpses of thousands of unidentified persons that were found dead after the Tsunami were thought to be illegal Burmese workers. One of many signs of the size of Burmese migrant labour in the Thai tourist industry.[ii]

Brutal treatment of Burmese migrants is nothing extraordinary in Thailand.  Burma has always been seen as the arch rival and historic enemy of Thailand and sentiments towards Burmese are often very negative.  However, Rohingyas are denied respect of basic human rights not only for being Burmese but they also suffer from islamophobia. Following the insurgency in Muslim, southern Thailand Rohingyas are sometimes claimed to be a security threat.

Rohingyas also suffer multifold discrimination in Burma. Rohingyas are residing in the Arakan state, in western Burma, bordering to Bangladesh. Since centuries the Burman kingdom based in the mainland of what is today’s Burma, and later the military junta, oppressed Arakanese aspirations for autonomy. However, within the Arakan state itself there are also tensions between the Buddhist Arakanese majority and the Muslim minority.

The Rohingya community in Burma is estimated to constitute about 725 000 persons. Muslims have been living in the Arakan state for at least a thousand years – old grand monuments like mosques bear evidence of this and the area used to be multi ethnic and multi religious. Still it is claimed that Rohingyas are not true Arakanese, and even less, Burmese. Instead Arakanese and Burmese chauvinists claim they are of Bangladeshi origin and do not have a long enough history in the Arakan state.

Language-wise they are very close to Bengali, and Rohingyas do occupy both sides of the border drawn by the British between Burma and what later became Bangladesh. The colonial era brought with it a great influx of Indian migrants and resulted in an ethnic division of labour which worsened ethnic tensions. Today it is claimed by the military junta, that Rohingyas were part of this colonial time labour migration.[iii]

The British tactics of divide and rule resulted in ethnic minorities siding with the British and the Burman majority with the Japanese during World War II. In the Arakan state, Rohingyas supported the British while the Buddhist majority sided with the Japanese. After the war ended the stage was set for ethnic tensions and a number of massacres on Rohingyas followed. Anti Muslim sentiments were given full state legitimacy after the military coup in 1962. General Ne Win launched two campaigns against Rohingyas in 1978 and 1991-92, including the tactics of mass rapes. At least 250 000 fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh. In 1982 their right to hold Burmese citizenship were withdrawn and Rohingyas were required to show evidence of roots in Burma dating from before colonization and the first Anglo-Burman war in 1824 – which of course is near impossible.

Today, even after the international outcry against the treatment of Rohingyas in Thailand, Burmese authorities show no embarrassment for openly showing the true nature of their attitudes towards Rohingyas. Recently the Burmese junta’s consul in Hong Kong, General Ye Myint Aung, called them “ugly as ogres”.[iv]

However, looking for explanations for the sudden attention given to the fate of Rohingyas it has probably more to do with the spectacular pictures from the tourist beach, than Rohingyas suddenly starting an exodus from Burma. This exodus has been going on for several years. 2007 it was estimated that between five and six thousand Rohingyas undertook the risky journey on unseaworthy vessels taking them either to Thailand or to Malaysia. At least two boats sank with hundreds drowning.  21 boats were detained in Thailand. One boat was detained as far away as Sri Lanka but 20 out of 91 passengers had by then died of starvation.[v]

The end destination of the boat refugees is normally not Thailand but Malaysia. Here Rohingyas are spared from Islamophobia, but never the less they have to endure severe discrimination and exploitation. There are convincing reports of networks of traffickers operating in collusion with law enforcement personal in Malaysia, Thail
and, Burma and Bangladesh. Thai immigration authorities are for example handing over Rohingyas to traffickers who detain them close to the Thai-Malaysian border in camps where they are routinely beaten and pressured into arranging costly payment to traffickers – usually by borrowing huge sums from relatives or friends. If they fail to pay they are sold to plantation owners or to fishing boats as bonded labour. Those who reach Malaysia have to live with fear of the armed volunteer militia, RELA, which rounds up migrant workers and frequently robs them of their savings before deportation.[vi]

The number of Rohingyas leaving misery in Burma is increasing and so is the number of families desperately seeking for news about missing, but not forgotten relatives.

Martin Gemzell

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[i] See for example ALTSEAN Burma, Burma Bulletin November 2007[ii] Tetz Hakoda.  Invisible Victims of the Tsunami – Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand[iii] Martin Smith (2006). The Muslim “Rohingya” of Burma.[iv] South China Morning Post, 11 February 2009[v] ALTSEAN Burma, Issues & Concerns Vol. 5, 2008.[vi] Cris Lewa (2008). Asia´s new boat people. In Burma´s displaced people. Forced Migration Review 30, 2008