Ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers, who were rescued from their boat off Sumatra island, sit inside a bus to be taken to a detention center in Lhokseumawe, Aceh province, Indonesia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. The wooden boat carrying 121 hungry, weak Rohingya from Myanmar was found adrift by fishermen about 25 kilometers (16 miles) off the coast. Image Credit: AP

“Transparency is the most important word”. That was the pledge made by a Burmese official, Aung Kyaw Htoo on March 4, during a press conference in the capital Rangoon. It was aimed at wooing foreign companies to invest in his country’s energy sector. Largely untapped oil, gas and other industries in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, promise to magnify the country’s economic potential and reap huge profits for everyone involved — regional and western companies, and, of course, the Burmese government.

Kyaw Htoo, like other Burmese officials, knows how to iterate the needed key phrases that would tickle the soft spots of western media and governments. In fact, a whole democracy whitewash has been underway for quite some time now, taking the military junta in Rangoon through a most fascinating journey — from being perceived as an oppressive regime with a disconcerting human rights record to one managing a budding democracy. The official “promised international standards would be upheld in auctions for the rights to explore and exploit lucrative energy reserves,” Germany’s Deutsche Welle reported on March 5.

Reality, however, is much too removed from official newspeak. When such words as ‘lucrative energy reserves’ and ‘exploit’ appear in the same sentence, ‘international standards’ become much more malleable and open for interpretation. International human rights standards seem completely absent regarding the immense suffering and humiliation of the Rohingya people, who according to the United Nations, as reported in Reuters, are “virtually friendless” in the face of a relentless ethnic cleansing campaign threatening their very existence.

On February 26, fishermen discovered a rickety wooden boat floating randomly at sea, nearly 25km off the coast of Indonesia’s northern province of Aceh. The Associated Press reported there were 121 people on board including children who were extremely weak, dehydrated and nearly starved. They were Rohingya refugees who preferred to take their chances at sea rather than stay in Myanmar.

This is hardly an isolated event. Such deadly journeys are reported daily, although each with a traumatic twist of its own. Another large rescue took place off the coast of India’s eastern Andaman archipelago, the Andaman Sheekha website reported, where 108 Rohingyas in dismal conditions were rescued on February 28.

A week earlier, a group of Rohingya refugees were not so lucky. Writing from Phuket, Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison reported on the killing of at least two and the wounding of as many as 15 Rohingyas by Thai security forces. “The killings, which are said to have occurred on February 21, came during a botched attempt by the military to transfer about 20 would-be refugees from the large boat on which they arrived from Burma with 110 others, to a much smaller vessel,” the Phuket Wan reported. Stricken by fear that they will be separated from their families, witnesses said some of the refugees jumped into the sea, only to come under a barrage of bullets.

The stories are too many to count and the details are as frightening as ever, yet the plight of the “world’s most persecuted people” — another UN designation — remains a mere irritant to Myanmar’s supposed democracy transformation, which is hailed as a success story by western media, companies and political elites.

But who are the Rohingya people? Most Rohingya Muslims are native to the state of “Rohang” (originally a kingdom of its own), officially known as Rakhine or Arakan. Over the years, especially in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the original inhabitants of Arakan were joined by cheap or forced labour from Bengal and India, who permanently settled there. For decades, tension brewed between Buddhists and Muslims in the region. Eventually, a majority backed by a military junta prevailed over a minority without any serious regional or international backers.

Without much balance of power to be mentioned, the Rohingya population of Arakan, estimated at nearly 800,000, subsisted between the nightmare of having no legal status (as they are still denied citizenship), little or no rights and the occasional ethnic purges carried out by their neighbours. The worst of such violence in recent years took place between June and October. Buddhists also paid a heavy price for the clashes, but the stateless Rohingyas, being isolated and defenceless, were the ones to carry the heaviest death toll and destruction.

Reporting for Voice of America from Jakarta, Kate Lamb cited a moderate estimate of the outcome of communal violence in the Arakan state, which left hundreds of Rohingya Muslims dead, thousands of homes burnt and nearly 115,000 displaced. The number is likely to be higher at all fronts. Many fleeing Rohingya perished at sea or disappeared to never be seen again. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that nearly 13,000 Rohingya refugees attempted to leave Myanmar on smugglers’ boats in the Bay of Bengal in 2012. At least five hundred drowned.

Meanwhile, western countries, led by the United States are clamouring to divide the large Myanmar economic cake amongst themselves, and are saying next to nothing about the current human rights records of Rangoon. As Rohangya boats were floating (or sinking) in various waters, Myanmar’s President Sein met in Oslo, on February 26, with Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in a ‘landmark’ visit. Regarding the conflict in Arakan, Jens Stoltenberg unambiguously declared it to be an internal Myanmar affair, reducing it to most belittling statements. In regards to ‘disagreements’ over citizenship, he said, “we have encouraged dialogue, but we will not demand that [Myanmar’s] government give citizenship to the Rohingyas.”

Moreover, to reward Sein for his supposedly bold democratic reforms, Norway took the lead by waving off nearly half of its debt and other countries followed suit, including Japan which dropped $3 billion last year.

The perpetual suffering of the Rohingya people must end. They are deserving of rights and dignity. They are weary of crossing unforgiving seas and walking harsh terrains seeking mere survival. More voices must join those who are speaking out in support of their rights. Southeast Asian countries must break away from their silence and tediously guarded policies and western countries must be confronted by their own civil societies: there should not be normalisation with Rangoon when innocent men, women and children are being burnt alive in their own homes and mosques. This injustice needs to be known to the world and serious, organised and determined efforts must follow to bring the persecution of the Rohingya people to an end.


Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).