Abroad doesn’t want them

What’s going on with the Rohingyas? Why are some thousands of them stranded in boats in the Andaman sea? What’s the deal?

The BBC has a backgrounder.

The Rohingyas – a distinct Muslim ethnic group who are effectively stateless – have been fleeing Myanmar for decades. But a combination of factors means that they are now stranded in rickety boats in the Andaman sea, causing international alarm.

There are believed to be several thousand Myanmar migrants in boats off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia with dwindling supplies of food and water, and not wanted by any of these countries.

Wait. Back up a step. What does that even mean? What does “a distinct Muslim ethnic group” mean? What does “distinct” mean? What does “ethnic” mean?

Those look like pretend-dumb questions, probably, but I’m really not clear about what that’s supposed to mean, or on what the BBC thinks it means, and it seems to matter since the “distinct ethnic” (along with the Muslim) is why they’re stranded in those boats, it appears. So why do people use words like “distinct” and “ethnic” with such seeming confidence that they have a firm crisp meaning and that they explain something?

Successive Myanmar governments have been introducing policies to repress the Rohingya since the 1960s, according to Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (Brouk). They argue that Rohingyas are not a genuine ethnic group but Bengali migrants who represent a divisive leftover from colonial times.

See what I mean? What’s the difference between those two things? What’s a “genuine ethnic group”? What makes Bengali migrants not a “genuine ethnic group”? Why are they “divisive”? Why is any of that a reason to repress them?

Is the BBC using “ethnic” as a code for “religious”? Is all this waffle just because they don’t want to say the majority in Burma is Buddhist so Muslims are seen as “distinct” and “divisive”? Fun fact: the word “Buddhist” doesn’t appear in the article. An explanatory background piece that carefully omits an important fact. What’s that about?

They are denied basic services and their movements are severely restricted. The repression of the Rohingyas has gradually intensified since the process of reforms introduced by President Thein Sein in 2011, Brouk says. In June and October 2012 there were large scale attacks on Rohingyas in Rakhine State.

In addition, 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.

Next stop: genocide.

So inflammatory is the Rohingya issue that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised for failing to raise it.

In the past three years, more than 120,000 Rohingyas have boarded ships to flee abroad, according to the UN refugee agency.

But abroad doesn’t want them either.

They would like to go to Malaysia or Indonesia, which are majority-Muslim and in need of labor. Solution! Except that Malaysia and Indonesia don’t want them, and won’t let them land. Neither will anyone else.

What was that about the Ummah again?


  1. says

    The question on my mind is, why haven’t other countries (those that claim to oppose genocide, ethnic cleansing and leaving migrants to drown at sea) pressured Burma to let them have their land back? Then again, when have those countries pressured Israel, Bhutan or China?

    It’s like world governments are using the playbook of HMOs: avoid “making a decision” until the people die (lack of medical care, the boat sinks) and then claim, “We did our best.” They can get away with doing nothing, so they will do nothing.

    And then they will wonder why there is blowback sometime in the future. Their complete lack of action is perfect propaganda material for ISIS and Al Qaeda.

  2. quixote says

    If the Rohingya are originally from Bengal, then, indeed, they’d be a very distinct ethnic/racial group. Burmese are part of the Tibeto-Burmese group. Bengalis are an Indian group. The language and alphabets are different, besides the physical characteristics. They’re a bit further apart on many parameters than, say, Russians and Portuguese. So, not really wrong to say “distinct ethnic” group. It’s not primarily about religion, but I’m sure the religious differences don’t help a bit.

    Is any of that a reason to kill people? No.

    But the people who should be bearing the costs of finding them a harmless home are the colonial Brits who caused the problem, and who aren’t even alive anymore. It’s a horrible “Now what?” situation.

  3. David Evans says

    Burma was itself an expansionist empire when we Brits colonised it in 1824. Since the Rohingya or their ancestors settled there about 1,000 years ago, I don’t see that we are solely responsible for their problem.

    That said, I’m sure we made a tidy profit out of Burma. I wouldn’t object to giving money to (for instance) Bangladesh, to take more of them in and provide better living conditions.

  4. johnthedrunkard says

    ‘What was that about the Ummah again?’

    Well, since the Rohingya live in Burma, Burma is ‘ancient Muslim homeland’ and must be ‘reconquered’ with maximum bloodshed. The Buddhists must be driven into the sea….

    Oh, well, that ‘universal truth’ has to be quietly shelved.

  5. quixote says

    (I didn’t know the Rohingya had been there for centuries. That’s a long time for the rest of the Burmese to be bent out of shape. And, no, not all the Brits fault!)

  6. says

    johnthedrunkard, what are you saying exactly? You seem to be saying that the Myanmar government is justified in discriminating against Myanmar’s Muslim residents.

  7. Pen says

    ‘Ethnic group’ is a term applicable to the situation throughout much of the the Old World in which people, often from quite small geographic regions, formed semi-closed distinct cultural units and largely intermarried with each other. They may or may not seem distinct in appearance from neighboring groups, at any rate they usually (used to) dress very differently. Some of them have been semi-Nomadic or immigrants but many others emerged naturally in a context where 20 miles was further than most people traveled in a lifetime. They’re particularly common in mountainous or remote regions.

    They were much more common before, they make no sense whatsoever in a New World context which prefers a racial model (except among Native/First People, perhaps), they’ve been heavily eroded by modernity, sometimes deliberately by elites and governments, but hey, they still exist. It’s not unusual to find pockets with distinctive religious views, especially in Asia. As for the Burmese government, they’re playing a game. They have a number of ethnic groups on their territory , sometimes called ‘tribes’ whose right to diverge considerably from the mainstream culture the government would like to impose is protected, on account of their ‘indigenousness’ or ancientness or whatever you will. Whereas they would obviously like to label this particular group mere dissenters, if not foreign invaders and compel them to conform or leave.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Apologies if this appears twice; I suspect having included two links put the first version into moderation limbo (2 hours ago).

    Indonesia (population ~252.8 million) and Malaysia (population 30.6 million – see previous link & scroll down) have a labor shortage??!?

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