Can We Allow Fate of those in the SS St. Louis to Repeat?

By Dr Habib Siddiqui

In recent weeks, Rohingyas stranded in rickety boats in the seas of Southeast Asia has caused international alarm. There are several thousand of these migrants in boats off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia with dwindling supplies of food and water. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times calls it ‘a scene of a mass atrocity.’ If the seas will not kill them, starvation will.
According to Tom Andrews, a former member of Congress who is president of United to End Genocide, “The Andaman Sea is about to become a floating mass grave, and it’s because of the failure of governments, including our own, to do what is necessary.”

In spite of their sad plight, these fleeing refugees are denied temporary shelter in any of these ASEAN countries.  “Not only is there not a search-and-rescue operation going on right now — with thousands out to sea — but governments are towing these people out from their shores back to open sea, which is tantamount to mass murder,” says Tom Andrews.

It is estimated that some 130,000 of them have fled by boat their ancestral home in the Rakhine state of Myanmar (also known as Burma) since mid-2012, and many – probably thousands – have succumbed to death just trying to do so. Many Rohingyas were smuggled or trafficked to Thailand and held in camps until they paid hefty sums of money to reach the Malaysian border, which has been a favorite destination for these migrants that has already housed some 45,000 of them; but now the Malaysian government has ordered its navy to repel them from its borders.

The Rohingyas have been fleeing Buddhist Burma for quite sometime. Soon after Burma’s independence many Rohingyas were “compelled to leave their ancestral homes as a result of a deliberate Burmese policy to remove them.” Massacres by armed forces occurred on 10 and 11 November 1948, and the military told surviving Rohingyas that unless they vacated Maungdaw and Buthidaung (northern Rakhine towns close to Bangladesh, then East Pakistan) they would be tortured and butchered like animals and that they were appointed to wipe out the Rohingyas from Maungdaw and Buthidaung. [Reference:  Confidential Records Branch CRiV-10/51 in the National Archives of Bangladesh.]

Soon after the military came to power in 1962, largely since the 1970s the condition of the Rohingyas worsened as a result of a plethora of state policies that are brutal, savage and an anathema to everything we consider moral, noble, right, fair and decent in our time. Not a single of the Articles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is honored by the Buddhist government in its treatment of the Rohingya people.  Most of them who had hitherto enjoyed full citizenship under 1948 legislation did not receive new IDs. Through its 1982 Citizenship Law, the Burmese government had effectively made them stateless in their own country with no rights and made them the most persecuted people on earth. As a result of such unfathomable violations of human rights, a majority of the Rohingya have ended up living as refugees or unwanted people in many parts of our world, especially, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Gulf States.

The repression of the Rohingyas has gradually intensified since the relaxation of international embargo on President Thein Sein’s government in 2011. In June and October 2012 there were large scale ethnic cleansing drives on Rohingyas in the Rakhine State to exterminate or drive them out of the country. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes, which were destroyed by the marauding and genocidal Buddhists with support from the local and central government and the racist politicians and monks. Some 140,000 of them are now forced to live in concentration camps. To make things worse for the persecuted Rohingya, the government in March revoked white cards – or “temporary registration certificates” – that had been issued to hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas. This meant that they no longer have the right to vote in upcoming elections in November.

In the last few days alone, dozens of Rohingya homes and boats were burned down by racist Buddhists and government security forces in northern Muslim majority areas of the Rakhine state further escalating the crisis and pushing them to the brink of despair. It is not difficult to understand why some 3500 of them are now in the seas of the Southeast Asia.

In utter desperation, the Rohingya have become the stranded boat people of our time. Aptly put, they are forced to brave death at sea to escape ‘open-air concentration camps’ inside Myanmar. Like the Jews on-board the SS St. Louis, fleeing Hitler’s Germany in 1939, who were denied landing in Cuba and the USA, the Rohingyas are denied landfall today.

Obviously, we have learned nothing from the experiences of those returning Jews of the SS St. Louis, many of them dying in the Jewish Holocaust!

In the midst of this rapidly worsening condition of the Rohingyas, a high level 3-day conference to end Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya people is scheduled to open on May 26 in Oslo, Norway. State Secretary Morten Høglund from Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ola Elvestuen, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party (Venstre) will contribute to the discussion of the plight of the Rohingyas. At the conference, iconic leaders from diverse backgrounds including George Soros, Nobel Peace laureates Mairead Maguire, Desmond Tutu, and José Ramos-Horta, and the former prime ministers of Malaysia and Norway – namely Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad and Kjell Magne Bondevik – will join hands with the representatives of the two generations of Rohingya refugees and activists as well as international human rights researchers and scholars of genocides and mass atrocities. Tomas Ojea Quinta and Yanghee Lee, former and present UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, respectively, will also share their expertise with the audiences and other participants. Dr. Maung Zarni, a human rights activist and co-author of the journal article, “The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya” will also share his views. [While I was invited, I declined because of a conflict of schedule, which won’t permit me to make the trip to Oslo.]

What can we do to stop the plight of the Rohingya people, esp. their desperate maritime movements? Finding the solution must start with Myanmar. Lately, the U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has stated, “Until the Myanmar government addresses the institutional discrimination against the Rohingya population, including equal access to citizenship, this precarious migration will continue.”

And yet, Myanmar government is in the denial of the very existence of ‘Rohingya.’ It considers the Rohingyas as the ‘Bengalis’ who had intruded from Bangladesh and refuses to attend a May 29 regional meeting with officials from 15 countries to solve the crisis. Zaw Htay who heads the office of Myanmar President Thein Sein said on Friday that Myanmar’s government “will not attend a regional meeting hosted by Thailand if ‘Rohingya’ is mentioned on the invitation”. What arrogance! And the sad reality is many of the states, including the USA, are caving in to such arm-twisting tactics of the rogue regime.

It is important that the world community press Myanmar to stop her persecution of the Rohingya people. As I noted before, ASEAN is partly responsible for ignoring the problem too long, which has now become a wider humanitarian crisis. It can’t afford closing its eyes like an ostrich to the crisis any more. It has a moral imperative – if not a legal requirement – to allow migrants to take shelter. It is understandable that some countries may be unwilling to act because by doing so they are more likely to be exposed to the principle of non-refoulement, whereby refugees cannot be forcibly returned to places where their lives or freedoms may be threatened. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May 2015 urged governments in the region to remember their obligations to keep their borders and ports open to abandoned people at sea and to ensure that “the prohibition on refoulement is maintained”.

“I am appalled at reports that Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have been pushing boats full of vulnerable migrants back out to sea, which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths. The focus should be on saving lives, not further endangering them,” U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said.

He said the latest report of the Thai navy forcing a boat carrying several hundred people back out to sea after supplying it with provisions was “incomprehensible and inhumane”.

I hope the Oslo Conference succeeds in mobilizing the world community to stop the persecution of the Rohingya people of Myanmar, including finding temporary homes for those stranded migrants in the seas. They need all our help before it is too late and we are forced to hear the same old tired statement of past generations of genocide apologists — “we didn’t know.”

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