Rohingya: A new exodus?

The new year of 2013 has seen an increase in numbers of Burmese refugee arriving Malaysia -- especially by sea route. The Burmese refugees, primarily the Rohingya from Arakan State west of Burma, are now taking a direct sea-route to reach Malaysia. Numerous lives have already been lost at sea, as this AFP report indicated [ 1 ]. We can certainly feel apprehensive about this situation now, but we all need to look back, reflect and see what went wrong.


The Arakan state is one of the most economically deprived areas within Burma. The local Rakhine population has been under severe economic stress and that many of its young were being forced to leave and move out to the other parts of Burma. On the one hand -- be the truth or just an exaggeration -- undocumented migrants from Bangladesh are increasingly taken over Arakan [ 2 ] . Local Rakhine people have long held racial and religious resentments against Rohingyas, and now they see the new influx of migrants as a threat to their livelihood and of existence.

In late May 2012, a Rakhine woman was sexually assaulted and murdered by three Muslim villagers. The state media -- both radio and print -- had inflamed Rakhine population by selective reporting of that incident. With tacit approval by Arakan State authorities, the local Rakhine youth group in Taunggok had mobilized the public against Muslims-Rohingya. This had led to the killing of 10 Muslims travelers in Taunggok on early June 2012, an observer concluded [ 3 ] . Following this incident, the communal riot broke out between Rakhine and Rohinga Muslims, attacking and destroying each other's properties. Loss of lives have also been reported as a result of the violence [ 4 ].


Following these incidents, the Burmese government in Naypyidaw had imposed a curfew and increased its security forces in Arakan State as a measure to contain escalating communal violence. Order was restored and communal violence was ceased. The Burmese government had been praised insofar as containing this communal violence is in concerned. Non-the-less, its overall approach to handling of the crisis has been far from satisfactory. To my assessment, the Burmese government's failure -- especially inability to project certainity about the Rohingya community for the future -- have largely contributed to recent increase in the exodus of Rohingyas.


In August, the Burmese government had set-up a 27 members commission to look into the incidents in Arakan State. However, the composition of the commission is not independent and outcome will not be seen as impartial, observers noted [ 3 ]. In particular, the Arakan State authorities who have failed to prevent mass killing of Muslim travellers on 3rd June 2012 were included in the commission. The negligence of Rakhine State authorities, along with security personnel, are seen as main contributing factor in escalation of the crisis. An independent commission, therefore, is needed to investigate the truth about these incidents.

Seen from the Rohingya's perspective, the independence of this commission and perceived effectiveness of Naypyidaw government's investigation will be most important. This is because the local political group, RNDP, as well as State security personnel at various level were involved in the campaign against Rohingyas. An investigator investigating its own crime is not going to produce the truth but, only cover-ups. The oppressed Muslim-Rohingya will surely feel helpless about the situation.


In July 2012, President U Thein Sein had told the UN that Rohingya would be allowed to resettled abroad [ 5 ]. As a result of continuing violence, the two communities have been segregated and Rohingya are placed in the internment camps. The UN had reportedly rejected the proposal to send Rohingya abroad. However, the RNDP, which believed to be main instigator of the violence and author of that policy, had supported the proposal [ 6 ].

Although the proposed resettlement option is impossible, it had sent incorrect signal to the Rohingya community -- who now are mainly in the internment camps -- that they cannot hope to return to their former homes. This combined with the hardship to make life under the restriction of movement that is in place [ 3 ], it is quite predictable that the Rohingya will contemplate leaving Burma.


There had been the opposition political parties and community groups calling to put a stop on violence in Arakan. The NLD, 88 Generation Student Groups and All Myanmar Muslim Association among them. Despite raising their voice of concern about violence in Arakan, there appears to be no substantative initiative to ameliorate the situation in Arakan. In particular, the muted response by the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the issue of Rohingya has been quite discouraging (we would have to find out why?). With such a lack of initiative on reconciliation in Arakan, more Rohingya are likely to resort to fleeing the country.

It is a high time for all concerned -- starting with the Burmese political and religious leaders -- to pave ways for these communities towards reconciliation and of peaceful co-existence. Failing to do so, our own Asian region will be experiencing more desperate Rohingya fleeing Arakan and witnessing many more heart-breaking loss-of-lives at sea.

U Ne Oo, Australia.


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6. Press release 14/2012 by Rakhine Nationalities Development Party () dated 26/6/2012.   ↩