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In Burma, Migrant Crisis Inspires Little Grief, But Plenty of Denial

The Burmese government refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for migrant Rohingya - since the official position is that no such people exists.

anti-Rohingya demo CROPPED

The Burmese government is facing increasing pressure from the international community to do something about the large numbers of desperate migrants fleeing its shores. Yet the pleas of diplomats and activists seem to be falling on deaf ears — for the simple reason that Burmese officials refuse to admit that there’s any problem in the first place.

This month, fishing boats carrying thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants approached the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia, while others remained stranded in waters off Thailand. All three of those countries initially refused to accept any of the migrants, instead pushing their boats back out to sea. That provoked international criticism, and on May 20, Malaysia and Indonesia announced that they would accept migrants landing on their shores (at least temporarily). International concerns intensified after the discovery of mass graves at illicit camps in Thailand and Malaysia where some migrants appear to have been held by traffickers.

The Burmese government responded to the rising indignation — at least initially — with a collective shrug. Why? Because, as the government sees it, there are no “Rohingya” in the first place. The official view is that the only Muslims living in western Burma are “Bengalis,” illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Burmese government has long denied them citizenship and the fundamental civic rights that go with it, for precisely this reason — even though most Rohingya (the name that members of the group use for themselves) have lived in Burma for generations.

As far as Burmese government officials are concerned then, the “boat people” at the center of the migrant crisis are not Burmese at all, but refugees from someone else’s country. This was the reasoning Burma cited when it rejected a request by Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for a regional meeting on the issue. “It’s very clear that Myanmar [Burma’s official name] is not the source of problems related to boat people in the Andaman Sea, but rather a partner for solutions,” said Zaw Htay, deputy director of the office of President Thein Sein. “The international community must understand that pressuring and blaming Myanmar is not the way to save lives at sea.”

This isn’t the first time that Burma has rejected international overtures on the Rohingya issue. Naypyidaw denied the existence of the Rohingya minority, for example, during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in 2009 in Thailand, when about 190 Rohingya crammed into a single wooden boat came ashore in southeast Thailand. The Thai army towed them back out to sea, and human rights groups later said that the Thais had beaten the migrants and abandoned them in international waters. The episode prompted the Burmese consul general in Hong Kong to tell diplomats and journalists that the Rohingya are “ugly as ogres.”

The United Nations estimates the number of Rohingya in Burma at 1.3 million, most of them in the state of Arakan in the west of the country. Over the past five years, Burma’s cautious political liberalization has encouraged some politicians to parade their Buddhist nationalist credentials by exploiting minority issues. Rohingyas, who are despised by many Burmese, make a convenient scapegoat. Following brutal sectarian violence in June and October 2012 that left more than 300 dead, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been forced to live in temporary refugee camps in Arakan state without proper education, livelihoods, or access to health care. Rohingya community leaders describe their situation as “utterly hopeless,” and this explains why so many Rohingya are doing anything they can to get away.

After Burma refused to attend the meeting, Malaysia and Indonesia (both majority Muslim countries) sent their top diplomats to Naypyidaw to calm their Burmese counterparts and urge cooperation. On May 21 Burma finally relented. The meeting is currently scheduled for May 29.

It may be, though, that the most powerful diplomatic pressure is coming from the United States. As it happened, the Malaysian and Indonesian foreign ministers were in Burma’s capital at the same time as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. Blinken was received by the two most powerful men in Burma’s current power structure, President Thein Sein and Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the armed forces — a welcome that underlined Washington’s importance as a regional mediator.

During his meeting with Blinken, Min Aung Hlaing insisted that Burma bears no responsibility for the migrant crisis, saying that it has never forced any citizens to leave the country. “So first we have to think about where they came from,” he said, according to a statement from Min Aung Hlaing’s office. The Burmese military chief told the U.S. diplomat that the refugees like to pretend that they’re from Burma as a way of qualifying for aid from the United Nations. Min Aung Hlaing’s remarks, in short, once again made it clear that Burma’s leaders don’t see the migrants as their problem.

Burma’s decision to attend the regional meeting in Bangkok was announced just hours after Blinken’s conversations with the two leaders, demonstrating that the entreaties of the Americans (and Burma’s regional partners) had some effect. The Burmese government says that it’s happy to participate in the planned meeting as long as other countries agree to use the term “illegal migrant” instead of “Rohingya.” “They can’t pressure us,” Zaw Htay said. “We won’t accept any pressure.”

Wai Wai Nu, a well-known Rohingya woman activist, notes that the government’s stance on the issue has changed little since the days of the old military dictatorship. “I’m very disappointed that the international community has agreed to ban the term ‘Rohingya’ to please the Burmese government, thus affronting the dignity and rejecting the existence of a persecuted minority group.”

Even though Burma relented in the face of outside pressure in this particular case, another development clearly showed the limits of the international community’s capacity to move Naypyidaw towards compromise. Shortly after Blinken left Burma, it emerged that President Thein Sein had signed a bill imposing family planning restrictions on people in certain parts of the country. Human rights groups have criticized the planned law as yet another anti-Rohingya measure. The bill is one of four proposed laws that conservative Buddhist monks and ultra-nationalists have been demanding over the past year as part of a policies to “safeguard the national race and religion.”

“The approval of this bill means that the government is supporting extreme nationalists,” said Khin Lay, director of the Burmese women’s organization Triangle. “This is dangerous for the country.”

On May 27, Burmese authorities allowed ultra-nationalist groups to stage a protest against a visit by Vijay Nambiar, special advisor on Burma to the U.N. secretary general (see photo above). About 300 nationalists plus 30 Buddhist monks gathered in Rangoon, holding banners reading “No to the UN and No to Boat People” and chanting slogans against “boat people pressure” from foreign critics. Some of those taking part in the rally happily resorted to hate speech, with frequent references to “stupid Bengalis.” One organizer threatened to “cut the throats of journalists” who reported negatively about the event.

“They’re lying about being ‘Rohingya’ and the UN echoes their lies,” said Aung Soe, one of the protesters. “We’re also targeting the foreign media. The BBC described the boat people as ‘Rohingya’ from Burma even though they’re from Bangladesh.” When asked where he had received that information, he responded that he’d seen it on the Facebook page of Ye Htut, the Burmese government’s minister of information.

Photo credit: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images

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