BANGKOK – In Aceh on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, the refugees were in bad shape when they landed in early and mid-May after a long ordeal at sea. “They only had the clothes on their backs. Many had wounds from the fighting that had broken out at sea over food,” Nasruddin, a coordinator for the Geutanyoe Foundation, an Acehnese nongovernmental organization that has been working with the survivors, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
The arrivals in Aceh were the latest to make shore, after an exodus of some 25,000 people who took to sea from Bangladesh and Myanmar in the first quarter of 2015. This number was double that for the same period the previous two years.
Although the first rains are due around now in east Bangladesh and western Myanmar, bringing with them the threat of storms and squalls, it is likely to deter only for a short time the boatloads of Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar, who year after year attempt to cross the Bay of Bengal to the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Aung Win, a Rohingya community leader living in a Muslim ghetto near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state in Myanmar, told NAR: “For sure, unless the government does something to make our lives easier, [Rohingya] people will try to make for overseas after the rainy season.”
Government officials from 17 countries met in Bangkok on May 29 to discuss the crisis. Paricipants included host Thailand and the other refugee destinations, Indonesia and Malaysia, along with source countries of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Officials pledged to maintain search and rescue operations for the refugees. They even discussed addressing the causes of migration. But they failed to agree on any immediate concerted action to rescue and protect the asylum seekers.
Some governments even refused to regard the situation as a refugee problem. “We agreed that we will try and tackle human trafficking but we also agreed that we need to look at ways to make legal migration work as well,” Md. Shahidul Haque, Bangladesh’s foreign secretary, said.
Poverty and political unrest have driven up the number of people leaving Bangladesh since 2014, with the U.N. refugee agency in Malaysia telling NAR that of the 1,100 boat people who landed on Malaysian shores in May, around 700 came from Bangladesh.
The main focus of the meeting was on Myanmar, and in particular its treatment of the 1.1 million to 1.3 million Rohingya, as many believe it to be the root cause of their massive exodus. Roughly 140,000 Rohingya have been languishing in squalid camps in Rakhine state, near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, since outbreaks of sectarian violence in 2012. Almost as many again are estimated to have fled by sea to Thailand and Malaysia since 2012.
But Myanmar officials stuck to their mantra. “We are totally against the use of nomenclature Rohingya, which never [existed] as a race in [the] country,” Htin Linn, the Myanmar representative at the meeting, reiterated to NAR.
Consequently, the statement issued at the end of the Bangkok meeting did not mention Myanmar or the “Rohingya.” The statement just encouraged capacity building of local communities, providing economic incentives that create more local jobs, promoting trade and investment and development assistance to the “at-risk areas.”
The Rohingya were not included in Myanmar’s 2014 census, the details of which were published during the Bangkok meeting on May 29. Ahead of a national election scheduled for October or November 2015, it does not look likely that the Myanmar government will grant citizenship or something similar to the Rohingya anytime soon.
“To address this crisis, the countries concerned need to push Myanmar to end the discrimination against the Rohingya,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian opposition lawmaker and president of the group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
However, the Rohingya have scant support among Myanmar politicians and the country’s broader society. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also failed to comment on the refugee crisis or on the living conditions faced by Rohingya, despite having been a longtime political prisoner under house arrest herself, and a Nobel laureate.
The Dalai Lama called on Suu Kyi to speak up about the crisis. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Catholic Cardinal Charles Maung Bo said in a recent interview that Suu Kyi’s reticence could be down to her concerns about losing Buddhist backing for the coming election. “Ashin Wirathu and the Buddhist community would go against her, so much so that she seems afraid to make any statement,” said Bo.
The Bangkok meeting exposed more difficulties than hopes. It even failed to schedule the next round of talks, though Malaysia has proposed a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the next steps.Show