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Adrift at sea without hope or help

19th Jun 2015

More than one million Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (Burma) have long been labelled as among the world’s most severely persecuted ethnic groups. The Myanmar Government has gone to extraordinary lengths to pretend they do not even exist. They have been excluded from the recent census and refused citizenship. Many are locked into squalid camps and their desperate plight has become such that they have become Asia’s latest “boat people”.

It is not known precisely how many thousands have been forced to flee on rickety boats at the serious risk of dying a slow and dreadful death from dehydration and starvation with most countries burying their heads in the sand like ostriches as if they do not exist. It’s not just the Government of mostly former generals in Myanmar who have been complicit in the genocide but the country’s very own human rights champion and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been conspicuous in her silence while seemingly more interested in her personal ambition to become president next year.

The rest of the world have been adopting a rather ambivalent attitude towards Myanmar since it ostensibly ended military rule in 2011. Sanctions, on the whole, have been lifted to encourage the country’s transition towards genuine democracy. The EU has even described Myanmar as embarking on a “remarkable path of political and economic reforms, departing from five decades of authoritarian rule.”

For more than three decades, the Rohingya have been subject to a government-organized and systematic campaign of mass killing, terror, torture, forced labour, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest, summary execution and community destruction. Their ancestral home for the last 500 years straddles the strategically important Western region called Arakan (now Rakhine) , the neighbouring Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. Under colonial rule, their numbers were further increased by Britain encouraging migrations from Bengal to work as farm labourers.

With Britain having an unspoken special responsibility towards its former colony, Prime Minister, David Cameron, became the first Western leader to visit Myanmar in more than five decades when he went there three years ago. With a group of businessmen at his side, many would argue his visit was more related to looking for opportunities for deals and contracts for many of the resources Myanmar has to offer, such as tropical hardwoods, precious stones and oil and gas.

History has already proved that Myanmar along with many other colonies to be a particularly unwilling member of the British Empire. It took three Anglo-Burmese wars to bring the colony into the fold and rebellions against the colonial overlords erupted with regularity – not to mention resistance from ethnic groups who crowded the so-called Frontier Areas around the Burmese colony proper.

Since January, more than 25,000 Rohingya Muslims are believed to have attempted the perilous voyage by boat to neighbouring nations. Several thousand are still at sea after being repeatedly rejected by the navies of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia while it is thought that fewer than 7,000 have forced their way into being rescued. Australia too inhumanely closed its doors.

Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth who led the debate in House of Commons on Rohingya Muslims, said he was “hugely disappointed that the conference [in Bangkok on ‘migrant’ boat people on May 29] refused even to utter the word ‘Rohingya’. The conference, he said “refused to recognise that driving this issue is the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar and the fact that to this day Myanmar refuses to recognise the citizenship of the Rohingya.”

Foreign Office Minister, Hugo Swire, has insisted that Britain continues to press the Myanmar authorities for progress in a number of vital areas, including “improved humanitarian access, greater security and accountability, the protection of civil and political rights for everyone in Burma, and a sustainable solution on citizenship.” Among British support is military training which the UK continues to provide despite a campaign to stop it.

However, the UK, EU and US have refused to re-impose sanctions against Myanmar for its human rights abuses. The Foreign Office was not available to comment on its policies with the Myanmar Government.

Human Rights Watch, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Irish Human Rights Centre are amongst those who have equated the Rohingya persecution with ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘crimes against humanity’. Others including Nobel Peace laureates have described it as genocide. With almost 90 per cent of the country’s more than 60 million population Buddhist, it is also seen as distinctly and perniciously Islamophobic.

Under Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to citizenship, No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality”, it says.

Equally callously, the international community is increasingly playing the ‘migrant’ card instead of describing those fleeing persecution as refugees and the asylum rights that go with it. In the 21st century, it is difficult to believe how unscrupulous so many governments have become, especially in their attitudes and policies towards Muslims.

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