Segregated, stateless and at sea: Myanmar, the Rohingyas and Australia

Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr, will travel to Myanmar this week where he has stated he will raise the recent sectarian violence in Rakhine state, including the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority, with the President and the Foreign Minister. He has previously flagged that he may seek to personally visit Rakhine to assess the situation as part of this trip. 

Following two major outbreaks of violence in June and October 2012 which killed 192 people, the situation in Rakhine has been described as one that has descended into ‘a Burmese form of apartheid’ in which ‘Rohingyas are corralled into squalid, semi-permanent internal-refugee camps’. More recent episodes of violence have seen clashes between Rohingya communities displaced by the conflict and local security forces. Human Rights Watch has labelled the 2012 violence as ‘ethnic cleansing’ while the United Nations (UN) has criticised the perceived impunity and the alleged involvement of local authorities.

The origins of the Rohingya, of whom there are an estimated 800,000 living in Myanmar, are complex and contested. Under a 1982 Citizenship Law, most have found it difficult to have their basic rights recognised and the Rohingya are classified by the UN as one of the world’s largest known cohorts of ‘stateless persons’. Up to 140,000 people, most of whom are Rohingya, are estimated to have been displaced by the 2012 violence and are now living in temporary camps with little prospect of returning to their homes anytime soon. 

As well as the significant and immediate humanitarian needs, the violence in Rakhine has troubling implications for Myanmar’s future reforms and for wider regional security. 

First, the conflict highlights a dangerous uncertainty surrounding the future place of the Rohingya, and possibly Muslims more generally, within a multi-ethnic and plural Myanmar. Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the violence is how quickly it has spread into other communities where there are other (non-Rohingya) Muslim communities and, as a result, taken on an increasingly sectarian dimension. In March 2013, 43 people were killed in sectarian violence Meiktila in the Mandalay region, while a mosque and an Islamic boarding school were burned in Lashio in Shan state in May. These incidents, which followed crimes against Muslims by Buddhists and vice versa, have also resulted in significant displacement of communities. The spread of much of the violence beyond Rakhine has been attributed to anti-Muslim campaigns by extremist Buddhist groups, particularly those associated with the so-called ‘969’ movement. 

Second, it is clear that the conflict has ‘tested ASEAN’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises in the absence of regionally established mechanisms for registering or repatriating the “stateless” population.’ The violence in Rakhine has resulted in significant displacement and renewed asylum flows to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, from June 2012 to May 2013, nearly 27,800 people departed on boats from the Bay of Bengal, the majority of whom are believed to be from Rakhine. More than 800 people are thought to have perished in these journeys. According to the UNHCR, in addition to maritime accidents, vulnerability to human trafficking is a major risk for these populations.  In Thailand, there have been multiple allegations of criminality and brutality against Rohingya asylum seekers by the Thai authorities, including allegations of involvement in trafficking, inhumane detention, and shootings

Third, in both Indonesia and Malaysia there have been several high profile incidents of retaliatory violence involving both Buddhists and Muslims, inflaming sectarian tensions in neighbouring countries. The then ASEAN Secretary General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, warned in October 2012 that if violence against Muslim populations in Myanmar was not managed effectively, it could ‘radicalise' the Rohingya and ‘destabilise’ the region.

Since June 2012, Australia has pledged almost $6 million in humanitarian assistance for those communities displaced by the violence. Australia has also registered its ‘serious concern’ over the violence in Rakhine with the Myanmar government, and has called for ‘a peaceful settlement of ethnic-based disputes, including those involving Rohingya.’ 

Further conflict and asylum flows could result in sustained increases in the number of Rohingya seeking irregular passage to Australia.  Australia is reportedly a destination of choice for many of the estimated 800 Rohingya currently in Indonesia. As with asylum flows more generally, it is important to note, however, that the burden is being overwhelmingly felt by neighbouring countries, with an estimated 220,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh and around 24,000 currently in Malaysia.

The Parliamentary Library will publish a research paper on the situation in Rakhine and Australia’s response following the Foreign Minister’s visit.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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