Thousands of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing persecution at home, and now their refugee boats are being turned away by neighboring countries, leaving them stranded at sea. Others had been locked up in jungle camps in Thailand. An untold number have died of starvation, sickness and abuse.
Here’s a brief look at their plight and history:
WHO ARE THEY
Rohingya are a Muslim minority in predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar, also known as Burma. They are concentrated in western Rakhine state, which is adjacent to Bangladesh, but are not recognized by the Myanmar government as an official ethnic group and are denied citizenship. Their numbers have been estimated at about 1.3 million.
Since Burma’s independence in 1948, the Rohingya have gradually been excluded and became persecuted amid repeated outbreaks of violence, the latest of which has been occurring since 2012, with hundreds killed and 140,000 displaced.
The U.N. has called them one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, effectively stateless.
WHAT THEY WANT
Rohingya want equal rights in Myanmar. Myanmar’s government say they are not eligible for citizenship under the country’s military-drafted 1982 law, which defines full citizens as members of ethnic groups that had permanently settled in modern-day Myanmar prior to 1823. Even the name “Rohingya” is a taboo in Myanmar, where they are referred to as Bengalis — immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya define themselves as an indigenous Burmese ethnic group descended from Arab merchants who settled in South Asia from the 8th century onward.
WHAT THEY FACE
In Myanmar, the Rohingya have limited access to education and medical care, cannot move around or practice their religion freely. In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others into crowded camps just outside Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, where they live under abysmal, apartheid-like conditions, with little or no opportunities for work.
So they try to flee abroad, most hoping to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia in search of jobs and security. To do that, they crowd small wooden boats nearly every day — an average of 900 people per day. Many of those migrating sell everything they have — land, cattle, gold — to pay human traffickers, who typically charge $2,000 per person for passage to Malaysia. Many end up in secret jungle camps in neighboring Thailand, where they face extortion and beatings until relatives come up with money to win their release.
Starting in May, Thai authorities uncovered more than 30 corpses buried at the traffickers’ abandoned jungle camps bordering Malaysia and launched the crackdown, including arrests of police and local officials. That alarmed traffickers, who abandoned their ships and left their human cargoes at sea without fuel, food and clean water.
THEIR CURRENT PLIGHT
Thousands of Rohingya as well as Bangladeshis are now believed to be abandoned at sea close to the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. About 2,000 have landed on shore, but the three governments have turned away others. An estimated 6,000 are still stranded at sea.
The U.N. and international aid agencies and rights activists say their lives are at risk.
Sources: Arakan Project, Center for International and Strategic Studies.
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