Sunday, February 15, 2009

The New Boat People

Can there be a more retched minority people anywhere that the Rohingyas? Of course, they’ve been treated abominably for years, but it wasn’t until Thailand began pushing their leaking boats back out to sea, leaving them adrift, that they finally impinged on the world’s conscience.

Fortunately, some have made it to Aceh in Indonesia, where the Indonesian Navy has been behaving with some more humanity than the Thais in rescuing the boats at sea and taking them ashore at as refugees. Being mostly a Muslim nation, Indonesians have at least some sympathy for their fellow Muslims.

The Rohingyas live mostly in the northern Myanmar state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan), close to the border with Bangladesh. The Rohingya population in Myanmar is estimated at about 750,000. Many thousands more live as refugees in Bangladesh or they have migrated elsewhere in South Asia and in the Middle East.

In ethnic terms, the Rohingyas are similar to Bengalis, speaking a dialect of Bengali, as well as other dark-skinned peoples of South Asia. They were converted to Islam by Arab traders and form the only significant Muslim population in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

Though considered one of Myanmar’s more than 100 indigenous peoples at independence, the Rohingyas were stripped of citizenship in 1982, becoming stateless. They are also subject to other discrimination, such as travel restrictions and limits on education.

They are discriminated partly on account of their religion but also because of their dark skin. They are often called kulas – a word meaning black.) Just how unapologetically racist Myanmar can be was demonstrated recently in an astonishingly insensitive letter circulated in Hong Kong by Myanmar’s Consul-General Ye Mint Aung.

In a Dear Colleagues letter, Ye tried to set the record straight about Rohingyas:
“In reality, Rohingas are neither ‘Myanmar people’ nor a Myanmar’s ethnic group. You will see in their photos that their complexion is ‘dark brown’. The complexion of Myanmar people is fair and soft, good looking as well. (My complexion is a typical genuine one of a Myanmar gentleman, and you will accept how handsome your colleague Mr. Ye is”

“It is quite different from what you have read in the papers. (They are as ugly as ogres.)”
Nobody, it seems has covered themselves with glory in this episode, with the possible exception of Indonesia. Thailand claims to be loathe to take on any more economic refugees, and it does play host to large numbers of refugees from Myanmar’s unending wars against other ethnic groups such as the Shan and Karen.

At least in that case, theShan and Karen and others are considered to be part of “Myanmar people”, merely rebels. It is only the Rohingyas who seem to have been cast out and treated a stateless people based in part on the belief in racial purity and the superiority of light-skinned peoples.

It has been common to berate China for its support of the military junta. In recent years, however, most of Myanmar’s neighbors have moved into a posture of appeasing the ruling junta. This includes not just Thailand but also India (which used to denounced Myanmar as undemocratic) and even Muslim-majority Malaysia, once sympathetic to fellow Muslims but now increasingly opposed to accepting any more foreign workers.


Post a Comment

<< Home