Ethnic strife and corruption – Myanmar’s two main issues – continue to frustrate any positive change toward the country’s stabilization and development as many thousands are in dire need of assistance. Myanmar’s war with itself has been one of the longest-running civil conflicts involving every ethnic group and tribe in all regions within its borders. Tensions in Rakhine state have contributed to a growing exodus of ethnic Rohingya people who have been risking their lives by crossing the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in search of relief in nearby states. Nearly all Rohingya peoples in Myanmar are deemed stateless after decades of institutional discrimination, which includes a law in 1982 stripping most of them of their citizenship.
Communal violence that broke out three years ago weakened the administrative status of Rakhine State and has caused the country’s refugee crisis to worsen. At a Union-Level Emergency Coordination Centre on May 21, Myanmar’s Vice President, Sai Mauk Kham met with International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and local officials and stated that measures to restore peace, stability, and the rule of law have been successful. “This success has enabled regional development activities to focus on new areas,” Sai said.
The basis of this crisis comes from the continuous resentment of the linguistic and religious minority Rohingya Muslims by Rakhine Buddhists. Mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists burned Rohingya peoples’ homes during a 2012 violent attack which resulted in the death of more than 200 people. In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the approximately one million Rohingya Muslims who remain are living in an apartheid status with tightly restricted movements and little or no access to health care and education. Like other mountainous zones, such as the Caucasus region, remoteness allows an uncommon diversity to flourish. Languages, ethnicities and customs differ across countries, and sometimes even across short distances. Minorities have used the terrain to protect their separate identities against more powerful states for centuries. Some would like to set up their own homelands while others may prefer being ungoverned in a stateless environment to whatever benefits a formal state might bring.
Evaluation from agencies within the United Nation’s humanitarian and refugee assistances arms, of Myanmar’s current situation, have proven that none of the country’s claimed efforts have even gone near what could be considered an achievement of desired outcomes. A June 12 report from the UN’s humanitarian arm, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), states that nearly half a million people continue to require humanitarian assistance three years after inter-communal violence broke loose in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. More than 415,000 people remain in need of urgent relief, with another 140,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) struggling to survive under perilous conditions in camps. Plus, many others have fled to isolated villages in each of the five neighboring countries and live without citizenship status.
Myanmar is located in the south-eastern section of Asia – bordered by China on the north-east region; Laos and Thailand, to the south/south-east; Bangladesh on the southwest; and India (northwest). These countries are feeling the brunt of Myanmar’s woes as refugees pile up in their land and cause a strain on the economy, but further-away countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia are facing the strain as well. The lack of attention toward Myanmar by many of its neighboring countries, and also most of the international community, has greatly contributed to the injustice that the people of Myanmar face each day. The isolation strategies have been the salt added to the wounds of Myanmar’s people, further exacerbating the country's ages-old problems and leading to further degradation of Myanmar’s society.
Burmese citizens were said to have paid human smugglers to take them to Malaysia, but found out that they were scammed. The result was that migrants were being held hostage by traffickers in camps along the border between Thailand and Malaysia until their families could muster up and pay thousands of dollars. However, Thailand officials began making efforts to help out by hindering some traffickers, but the crackdown created a crisis at sea as smugglers either refused to land or, in many cases, abandoned the boats, leaving victims afloat and without hope. Thousands of boat people found themselves at the center of a regional emergency as Indonesia, and Malaysia refused to accept them, and more than 1,000 are believed to have died from abuse and deprivation at sea.
Malaysia and Indonesia eventually agreed to allow the boats to land at its shores, but only after realizing that fishermen in the Aceh state chose to ignore government policy and took a moral, ethical step to rescue people – bringing almost 2,000 to shore. One Indonesian restaurant owner, Yanah, sobbed as she said, “We too [the Acehnese] have suffered a lot, that’s why we understand the plight of the Rohingya,” she said. “We could not ignore the boat people’s predicament. It’s better if they stay permanently here.” Also, nearly 4,800 people from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been disembarked from smugglers' boats within the last month.
The UNHCR has reported that nearly 1,000 new Rohingya arrivals have so far been registered in Indonesia to whom relief supplies have been distributed. The UN refugee agency, along with other aid organizations, has helped with accordingly identifying and differentiating those who are refugees from economic migrants or trafficking victims in order to arrange the correct solutions. Dozens of new arrivals in southern Thailand and Malaysia are undergoing counseling and receiving other types of aid. “Some 120 women and children said they had been at sea for at least three months,” said UNHCR spokesperson, Melissa Fleming. “With the monsoon season imminent, thousands of people may still be at sea.”
Earlier in June, a regional meeting of countries affected by the humanitarian crisis was held in Bangkok, where Southeast Asia region countries made proposals to address the plight of refugees and migrants at sea. Thai authorities, in an effort to carry out a plan of action, teamed up with the UNHCR to have smuggler camps removed. The proposals were welcomed by UN agencies as it was a clear sign of forward movement in establishing some elements of the 10-point cooperative approach that the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) established in 2007. The UNHCR, last week, launched an international appeal for $13 million of funding in order to provide the needs of thousands of refugees and migrants who risked their lives crossing the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in seeking assistance.
Although Vice President Sai Mauk Kham still expresses what he sees as much success in Rakhine state, he then adds, “It is important for boat people at sea to be able to come ashore as there is a big need to provide health care to children under the auspices of the local government.”