Yet again, the situation surrounding the ethnic Rohingya community of Burma has burgeoned from a national disgrace to a regional shame. Despite what had appeared to be a coincidence of timing and opportunity to finally allow for a concerted effort on this long-festering problem, it now appears as though the Burmese generals, backed by inertia in the capitals of Southeast Asia, will preclude any movement on the status of this beleaguered community.
International outrage regarding the Rohingya situation revived suddenly in December. At that time, reports arose that the Thai navy had for weeks been intercepting boats carrying some thousand Rohingya attempting to flee Burma, as well as a few dozen from Bangladesh, where they have been living as refugees. Unable to work in either country due to policy proscription, the desperate ‘boatpeople’ had set off on a dangerous journey in search of work in Malaysia and Thailand. The Thai military, upon finding the Rohingya, was accused of disabling their engines and leaving them helpless, to drift for upwards of three weeks in the Bay of Bengal. According to accounts by survivors, it is now estimated that some 300-400 perished in the experience.
Yet if the Bangkok government came in for well-deserved ignominy following the revelations, the international reverberations have done nothing to affect the Rangoon junta’s stance on the issue. As they have maintained since 1982, when new citizenship legislation was passed in Burma, the generals remain firm in their contention that the Rohingya are not Burmese citizens, but rather illegal Bangladeshi migrants. In fact, the roughly 800,000-strong Rohingya community traces its roots to Arab merchants that settled down in the modern-day Burmese state of Rakhine (or Arakan) during the seventh century. Many observers point to nationalistic xenophobia as the cause of this longstanding bias, with the predominantly Muslim Rohingya appearing out of place in Buddhist-majority Burma.
While Dhaka and Rangoon have expressed their individual weaknesses, the regional grouping ASEAN, which represents 10 Southeast Asian countries, has not exactly covered itself with laurels. It seems to be buying into the Burmese argument that the Rohingya are actually Southasian ‘Bengalis’, Bangladeshi citizens illegally migrating into Burma. Dhaka even recently decided to take back 49 of the 67 recently rescued Rohingya found marooned in the Andaman islands after attempting escape from Cox’s Bazar. Through its silence and inaction on the matter, ASEAN as a whole gets identified with the junta. This was certainly clear at the 14th annual ASEAN Summit, which finished in Cha Am, Thailand, on 1 March. This was the first full meeting to take place since the ASEAN Charter went into effect in mid-December, and the central rhetorical focus at the summit was, in the words of ASEAN Chairman and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, to make the Association increasingly “people-centred”. We suggest that ASEAN include the Rohingya within the definition of ‘people’, so that their rights to life, livelihood and ownership is preserved.
The summit’s eventual reaction was doubly frustrating because the summiteers also mulled over the first-time drafting of an ASEAN Human Rights Body (AHRB). In fact, a quick look at the new committee’s terms of reference is enough to realise that little has changed within ASEAN, despite the new speechifying. In the face of suggestions that the AHRB would pay particular attention to atrocities committed by the Burmese junta, it turns out that the new body will only be mandated to investigate abuses in member countries if invited to do so by that country’s government. ASEAN as an organisation is clearly not yet ready to delve into the ‘internal affairs’ of member countries, and unwilling to create mechanisms that can effectively tackle human-rights abuse.
Whether or not the affairs of the Rohingya, now fleeing to many countries in the region, can continue to be considered an ‘internal’ Burmese affair is a looming question. But ASEAN’s continued unwillingness to engage on the issue was definitively underlined I Cha Am. Referring euphemistically to illegal migrants of the Indian Ocean (at a press conference, Prime Minister Vejjajiva was forced to deny that the word Rohingya was taboo amongst Southeast Asian leaders), the summit attendees decided that the venue for discussion on this issue was not ASEAN at all. Rather, the matter will now be forwarded to what is known as the Bali Process, a seven-year-old umbrella mechanism of some 50 countries throughout the world. While the Bali Process is set to take up the issue during its next meeting, in Indonesia on 14-15 April, there is one notable gap in this ‘solution’: Burma itself is not one of those 50 members.
In the course of this disgrace ful shrugging-off of official responsibility, ASEAN has committed a more significant offence of denying cultural connection. In the process, the summiteers have only given legitimacy to the junta’s rationale on the matter. When ‘illegal migrants’ is not the euphemism of choice, the Burmese generals themselves still do not use the word Rohingya. Rather, these 800,000 people are officially referred to only as Bengalis, and this now appears to be the tack that the Rangoon government is planning to take. In a first-of-its-kind admission, during unofficial meetings on the summit’s sidelines, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win stated that his government does not actually deny that the Rohingya come from Burma. Rather, the Burmese contention is that they are simply not included on the country’s national list of 135 officially recognised minorities – and, hence, Rangoon needs to take no responsibility for them. On the other hand, he continued, ‘Bengalis’ are on that list, and thus Rangoon would consider repatriating the recently detained Rohingya migrants if they are to be officially considered as such. According to one anonymous ASEAN minister, such an admission is to be considered “helpful”.
In fact, it is not helpful but rather a malicious tweak of nuance. More to the point, it harks back to the early steps of ethnic-based discrimination and expulsions that have taken place in other countries, such as Bhutan’s rigid definition of that country’s national communities. The Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa have been charged with having allegiances to Nepal, and tens of thousands have been made refugees and stateless in the process by the Bhutanese state. A similar situation seems to be evolving vis-à-vis the Rohingya in Burma, particularly in the attempt to ‘tar’ them as ‘Bengali’. The Rohingya are citizens of Burma, not Bangladesh, and as such ASEAN has the specific responsibility to bring the issue into its ambit, not to continually turn away or pass the buck. If ASEAN leaders go along with this current gambit by the Burmese government, they will only be legitimising the revoking of citizenship from the Rohingya that originally took place a quarter century ago.