OnePacificNews, June 10 2015, Wednesday

The suffering and humiliation of probably the world’s most oppressed people today provide a disgraceful moral reminder of what Asia still needs to do to try match its many material achievements. Depending on whom you ask, the Rohingya population living in southeastern Myanmar numbers anything between 700,00 and 1.5 million. But there is little disagreement that the mostly Muslim inhabitants in Rakhine state live in extreme poverty and are cruelly treated by almost all they come into contact with: Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, corrupt local government officials, and opportunistic business people and thugs from neighbouring countries Malaysia, Thailand and China.

After years of festering, the wounds have become too ugly and dangerous for the world to ignore as tens of thousands have been recently found starving and dying on rickety boats at sea, locked up in slave camps or dead in mass burials sites in border areas in Thailand and Malaysia. A few lucky ones have made it to be resettled in the West but the majority remain stuck in Myanmar including an estimated 150,000 locked up in refugee camps. Whether in Myanmar or other parts of Asia, Rohingyas have suffered as victims of mass killings, and death by starvation and diseases as well as slavery, rape and plunder to qualify their collective experience as genocide.

The continuing flight and plight pf the Rohingyas at the hands of the Myanmar government testifies to a widespread lack of compassion in Asia. Every Asian government with a stake in Myanmar has tried not to know although they’re now forced to confront the Rohingya question out of embarrassment as the genocide is openly occuring inside or near their borders. On the people level, there is little expression of mass outrage or demonstration in Asia.

The most notable of the genocide’s missing stakeholders: Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi who heads the National League for Democracy, the Dalai Lama widely seen as the world’s leading Buddhist, China which recently launched a pair of oil and gas pipelines on the Rohingyas’ homeland, Thailand and Singapore which have profited from long-standing close ties with Myanmar’s military-backed establishment, and Japan which is too busy courting the regime. Muslim-controlled Malaysia and Indonesia have only fared slightly better but they too have hardly pressured Myanmar to stop ill-treating and expelling the Rohingyas. Southeast Asia’s governments are afraid to even criticise the government of president Thein Sein.

Aung San Suu Kyi, official Facebook image
Aung San Suu Kyi, official Facebook image

Ms Suu Kyi has been criticised by other Nobel Prize winners and human rights activists for failing to speak up for her oppressed Muslim countrymen as she doesn’t want to offend her Buddhist supporters, many of whom practise a twisted Nazi-version of the religion. Myanmar’s Nazi Buddhist movement is led by the Mandalay-based monk, U Wirathu, who has been openly running his anti-Muslim, anti-Rohingya campaign for over a decade. His uniquely violent brand of Buddhism, which runs completely counter to the Buddha’s teachings of compassion and mercy, is responsible for fuelling numerous violent attacks on the country’s Muslim minority.

Apart from making two public comments in April 2013 and May 2015, the Dalai Lama has barely used his overrated religious influence and moral standing to stop the Myanmar government and Wirathu from killing their fellow citizens. Widely revered in the West, the Dalai Lama is invisible in Asia and only commands an audience when denouncing China.


China's flag
China’s flag

For its part, China is focused solely on protecting its access to Myanmar’s natural resources and use of a pair of new pipelines to deliver oil and gas from a new deepwater port in Rakhine state to the western Chinese province of Yunnan. Beijing is sticking to its foreign policy principle of not interfering in the affairs of other countries, especially since the Rohingyas have no political power. To China’s relief, they are also fleeing to nearby Thailand and Malaysia as Yunnan, the Chinese province nearest Myanmar, lies further away from Rakhine and is blocked by more difficult terrain. As contrast, just weeks earlier, China extended relief support and rescue efforts to the quake victims of Nepal, which has far greater immediate strategic value.

Japan’s late entry into Myanmar means it is even more dependent on the regime’s goodwill than China. The Rohingyas offer Japan no strategic value; in fact, they are a liability if Japan expresses any concern for their plight.

For years, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand turned boatloads of Rohingyas back out to sea to drift or die. Amid the growing embarrassing glare of media attention, Indonesia and Malaysia changed policy this year by agreeing to provide temporary shelter for the refugees until they are resettled in third countries. Many Rohingyas who fled on foot to Thailand and Malaysia have ended up working as slaves or are robbed and killed by human trafficking gangsters working with local corrupt officials. Malaysian police recently announced it uncovered a total of 139 grave sites and 28 human-trafficking camps in its northern border region where remains of Rohingyas and other ethnic groups were found.

Singapore, which has a sizeable population of Myanmar expatriate workers and has supported the regime for years in return for business opportunities, has offered a grand total of US$200,000 for relief efforts after declaring itself unable to even temporarily house any Rohingya refugees.

The US alone has offered to accept some of them for resettlement while the lobby group, US Campaign for Burma (USCB), is also campaigning for the Rohingyas as part of its push for political freedom in Myanmar.

Another surprise supporter, US actor Matt Dillon visited a Rohingya refugee camp last month and met with its residents to learn about their personal struggles, according to the AP news agency.

Calling it a “heartbreaking” experience, he said Rohingyas are “being strangled slowly” with “no hope for the future and nowhere to go.”

Reluctantly and out of necessity, the UN Security Council held its first briefing — behind closed doors — to discuss the Rohingya issue last month.

This is as good as it gets for now. The oppression is unlikely to stop.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State (ISIS) is expanding its influence across the world, and is working hard to set up base in Southeast Asia. How far and how long more will Asia’s governments let the Rohingya issue fester?




One Pacific News Editor