By Lara Kajs
Helplessly adrift at sea in makeshift and rickety boats, the world has watched as thousands (by some records 8,000 or more) of Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar have been abandoned by the captain and crew and left to die.
The plight of the Rohingya is not new, but it has been thrust deeper into the international mainstream as thousands have taken to the sea to escape the dire conditions of their existence in a country that has banished even the mention of their name. Reports indicate that many have been at sea for more than four months. In one instance the Thai navy delivered food and water to passengers; however they then towed the boat back out into international waters claiming that they could not offer any other assistance. The Indonesian and Malaysian navies responded similarly.
Although some survivors have been rescued off the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia; the vast majority are still adrift waiting to see if anyone will show mercy and help them.
One part of this tragedy rests in the hands of human traffickers and smugglers. The desperate individuals willing to pay any cost to escape their circumstances is a trafficker’s dream. They make their livelihood on the lives of distressed individuals and they count on countries like Myanmar, whose deepest desire is to drive the Rohingya out of the country, to fill their pockets.
Survivors of human traffickers who have made it to shore tell of brutalities at sea including being beaten with objects such as wooden planks and hammers, of murder, the smell of corpses piled below deck and entire families being toss overboard. There are documented cases of the Myanmar navy towing boats filled with Rohingya people out to sea, as well as documented cases of Myanmar authorities paying traffickers to help them rid the country of an ethnic group they do not want.
Human traffickers must be held accountable for their actions, as well as the Myanmar authorities and personnel that work with them and are complicit in trafficking (human trade) behavior.
Human Rights Violations and Government Policy
The fact remains that until the core issue at the heart of the situation (the unjust persecution and reprehensible treatment of the Rohingya people) is addressed and dealt with – nothing will change in Myanmar.
In a report released by the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, it was revealed that “increasing poverty and blocking economic development of the Rohingya is a deliberate and integral part of the Burmese government’s Rohingya policy.”
These policies include “restrictions on Rohingya travelling from some townships to others, and even within some townships, checkpoints on roads targeting only Rohingya which include body searches and extortion of money, restrictions on marriage through a tax fee requirement, arbitrary taxation on a wide range of activities, even including death of cattle, forced labour, land confiscation, arbitrary arrests and extortion for releasing the person arrested, almost no provision of government services such as health, education or infrastructure in Rohingya areas.”
Furthermore, since Thein Sein took office, there has been an increase in repressive laws (including denying citizenship to the Rohingya) enacted as well as an increase in the number of human rights violations including reports of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. President Thein Sein’s mission is to remove the Rohingya from Myanmar and he has repeatedly asked the United Nations for help in accomplishing his goal.
Thein Sein should be – must be – held accountable without impunity for creating and implementing the policies that have lead to mass human rights violations in Myanmar against the Rohingya.
The Silence of Aung San Suu Kyi
One of the perplexities of the situation is that Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent throughout the situation. How is it possible that a leader in human rights defense could choose not to speak out on the horrible and despicable maltreatment against an ethnic minority from her own country?
While her reasons for remaining quiet have been to prevent escalation of the situation – many have been left to question – if those reasons are truly valid. The persecuted Rohingya have taken to the sea to escape the horrors of a country drenched in Islamophobia led by persons who create horrific tales of Muslim slaughter and destruction… a tale far removed from reality.
For many outsiders, the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be the path that supports her best interest and not necessarily in the best interest of the Rohingya people. Would speaking up change the situation – it is hard to say, but NOT speaking up against mass atrocities seems to be the low road.
Waiting for Change
As the world waits to see if sanctuary will be granted to the thousands stranded at sea, in the simplest of terms – the Rohingya people are human beings and are worthy and deserving of the same basic human rights as every other person on Earth. Until Myanmar embraces this fundamental human fact (or their peers call them out on it) – the government will continue to persecute the Rohingya, human traffickers will stay in business, and the exodus at sea will continue.
Featured Image: Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees and migrants wait on board a fishing boat before being transported to shore, off the coast of Julok, Indonesia, on May 20, 2015. Photo: Syifa/Antara Reuters