Myanmar officials has been fielding questions about the persecution of the Rohingya minority in his country for some time now. In 2009, the then-consul general in Hong Kong wrote a letter to newspapers and other diplomats “addressing concerns over the treatment of refugees from Burma’s Rohingya population” to dissuade them from criticizing the Myanmar government. The letter stated that the Rohingya “are ugly as ogres” and that their skin tone was too dark in contrast to the “fair and soft skin” of other local ethnic groups, concluding that as a result they “are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar’s ethnic group.” A few years later in 2014, during an interview with the VOA Burmese Service Chief, he stated that this was all a “media fabrication” and the international response “overblown.” “It is just a media story that boat people are fleeing torture,” he said.
As the international spotlight focused more on the Rohingya crisis in May of 2015, naturally the conversation centered even more closely around the responsibility of the Myanmar government. While President Thein Sein did not continue to make such comments, he refused to take responsibility their involvement in the crisis. “We will not accept the allegations by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem” he said. Further, the government refused to attend meetings that mentioned the word ‘Rohingya’ in the invitation. This is in line with this government’s refusal to use this term, using Bengali instead. In fact, they refer to the crisis and ‘the Bengali issue.’ Eventually, under the immense pressure from other nations and international organizations, Myanmar did agree to attend a meeting to be held in Bangkok about this crisis at the end of May, however they did not concede to allow the term ‘Rohingya,’ insisting instead on ‘irregular migrant.’ “They can’t pressure us. We won’t accept any pressure. We need the right approach to resolve the problem” said Mr. Htay of the president’s office.
Seventeen countries attended this meeting in Thailand and adhered to the rules set about appropriate language to refer to this group of people. While many other attendees stressed that Myanmar needed to take responsibility, Myanmar representatives and officials repeated that “finger pointing” was not productive. Htein Lin, the head of the Myanmar delegation when on to announce that ‘”every country has its own challenges and they often fall within a domestic jurisdiction. You cannot single out my country.” This was of course, a meeting dedicated to the Rohingya issue. After the meeting, U Zaw Htay, a deputy director general of the Myanmar president’s office announced that ““There is no change in the government’s policy toward the Bengalis.” Instead, local newspapers publicized that officials were able to successfully “refute accusations that the boat people were from Myanmar” at the meetings.
Much of the backlash has also focused on the lack of response from Myanmar, particularly from Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and Leader of the Opposition. She is celebrated for her commitment to human rights and work towards creating a democracy in Myanmar. Yet, she remains silent on the massive crisis within her own country: the Rohingya crisis. She too, will not even call them by this name. She has done a considerable amount of work that focuses on women, but has nothing to say on the “systematic rape of the Rohingya women caught on the border between their two countries nor the proposed laws requiring a Buddhist woman to obtain permission before marrying a Muslim man.” Articles began to surface with titles like, “Myanmar elections: Aung San Suu Kyi must act to stop the Rohingya Muslim genocide” and “Why is Aung San Suu Kyi silent on the plight of the Rohingya people?” in publications from countries worldwide. When pressed directly in interviews about the topic, she downplays the events and denies that there is any ethnic cleansing taking place, surely because her political power hinges on this silence.
In November of 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party overwhelmingly won seats in the first freely elected government of Myanmar. It is important to note that because they are not given citizenship, Rohingya people were not permitted to vote in the election. The issues surrounding the crisis were noticeable absent during election time. While Aung San Suu Kyi herself cannot take Sein’s place because she is married to a man with foreign (British) citizenship, the new leader who will take power on April 1, 2016 will certainly face more questions about this ongoing crisis.
The Dalai Lama was questioned about the Rohingya Crisis during an interview with The Australian. He urged the Buddhists in Myanmar to “remember the face of the Buddha.” He particularly called on Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel peace prize laureate and Leader of the Opposition in Myanmar, to take acti on and “do something.” He told the newspaper, “I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated.” Nevertheless, he urges her to use her position of power to help the Rohingya people.
Nations with the Highest Populations of Rohingya
Bangladesh is certainly closely tied to the Rohingya crisis because the politics surrounding these people in Myanmar insists that they are Bengali people. There are also hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people living in the country. The Bangladeshi government however, shows no sympathy for these refugees. The Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina described these people as “fortune-seekers” and “mentally sick” and expressed concern that they are “tainting the image of the country along with pushing their life into a danger.” In fact, she nearly equates the actions of people fleeing persecution with traffickers who are taking advantage of them and states that both ought to face punishment. She has historically been quoted as denying that the Rohingya people were the responsibility of Bangladesh, stating instead that Bangladesh was “already an overpopulated country.” In the wake of the 2015 crisis, the government announced that they would relocate the Rohingya people living in camps to a small island away from the tourist spot where they were at the time. The Economist writes, this is “consistent with Bangladesh’s long-standing policy of making itself as unappealing as possible as a destination for Rohingyas.”
The Pakistani government condemned Myanmar for their treatment of the Rohingya people and called for the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Countries to work together to resolve the situation. In fact, the senate passed a resolution that used the language of ‘genocide’ to describe the events. Following the recommendations of his ministerial committee, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reached out to the UN Secretary General and the Security Council for support in this endeavor while his advisor on national security, Sartaj Aziz contacted the OIC in an effort to establish a fund that would provide basic necessities to the Rohingya people. The government of Pakistan further agreed to contribute $5 million in aid that, through the World Food Program, would be distributed to the Rohingya people.
Thailand is one of the major places wh ere the Rohingya travel to when fleeing Myanmar. This journey is not often successful. In fact, near the beginning on May 2015, it was reported that authorities discovered numerous mass graves on the border between Thailand and Malaysia. While unlike Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand did not agree to house the Rohingya people, it did concede that it would not turn people away and would contribute aid.
In May of 2015, when journalists spotted a stranded boat of Rohingya people and garnered international attention for the crisis, Malaysia was questioned about their own complicity in turning away hundreds of people. Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi responded, “What do you expect us to do? We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this. We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here.” However, days later, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that Malaysia would help to deliver humanitarian aid and search for stranded Rohingya people in the Andaman Sea. A statement posted on his Twitter called these actions “basic human compassion.” This is certainly a pressing issue for the nation as one of the primary locations where Rohingya people are trafficked. However, the government is adamant that while they are sympathetic to the needs of these people, they feel unfairly burdened with the responsibility because they are not the “source” of the problem. Prime Minister Najib Razak instead called for a response from larger bodies such as the ASEAN, the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
In May of 2015 Indonesia announced that it would turn away Rohingya boat that reached it’s shores. However shortly after, the nation agreed to accept 7,000 refugees between itself and Malaysia, likely as a result of international pressure. Indonesia seemed very concerned with resettlement, stressing at the ASEAN meeting that it does not want these refugees to remain there, nor does it want to become a popular transit point. This agreement to accept the Rohingya was under the conditions that it was only for one year and that the international community would contribute financially.
The Philippines has a history of accepting people into it’s borders from Jewish refugees during World War II to Vietnamese refugees during the Vietnam War and pledged to extend the same welcome to Rohingya people who land on their shores. Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Charles Jose each released statements to this effect, citing their commitment to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.
Perhaps one of the most famous responses to the Rohingya Refugee Crisis comes from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who said, “Nope, nope, nope.” He believed that if he accepted any Rohingya people into his country than he would be encouraging them to “get on the boats,” which according to him, would only worsen the problem. “I’m sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door” he said. While Australia signed the United Nations Refugee Convention, the nation specifically rejects people who come by sea under this assumption that it encourages smuggling. Abbott instead points the finger at Myanmar (which he calls Burma) and suggests that this nation is solely responsible.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey spoke with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia and agreed to participate in efforts to help the Rohingya refugees. The Turkish Prime Minister also announced that navy ships were sent into the Andaman Sea to search for Rohingya people. Malaysian news sources responded positively to these developments and framed the Turkish involvement as “lightening the burden” on their own country.
Amidst the press frenzy in May of 2015 surrounding this crisis, President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia offered to take all Rohingya refugees. Despite being a faraway nation, the government felt it was their “sacred duty” to help their “fellow Muslims.” Interestingly, the government of Gambia does not extend the same hospitality to African migrants. The international community was dubious about this statement and many have suggested that by highlighting the nation’s commitment to Islam, Jammeh is looking to garner financial support from Muslim organizations. This is especially compelling in light of the fact that many countries are no longer giving money to the Gambia because of human rights violations perpetrated by the government.
Malala, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and well-known activist, announced in a statement, “today and every day, I stand with the Rohingyas, and I encourage people everywhere to do so.” This is particularly important because not only does she call on world leaders to take action and ensure the safety of the Rohingya people, but she is also incredibly high profile in the west, and thus this statement garnered significant media attention from major news outlets such as TIME Magazine and the Huffington Post.