In the past few months, the international media has been diligently covering the story of rickety boats full of Rohingya Muslims who are desperately trying to flee sectarian violence and systematic state persecution from Myanmar.
From January to March 2015 around 25,000 Rohingya people have braved dangerous seas to reach Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand through the Strait of Malacca, and hundreds have lost their lives. The horrific conditions faced by these migrants have been extensively commented on by the pundits. However, little has been said about the root causes that lead people to embark on such dangerous journeys, let alone the real solution that will once and for all rid the world of such horrendous sights.
The boats that these Rohingya migrants voyage on are barely stocked with clean water and food and many die of dehydration even before reaching the shores. Any person seen to be weak and close to collapse is sometimes thrown off the boat to spare some room. However, their journey does not end when they reach the shores. Malnourished women, children and men who have finally reached the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and other coastal ports are either denied entry, kept at the port while filing bureaucratic papers, or are held in detainment. In a worst case, they are sold to human traffickers to enter the sex trade.
Until recently, the migrants made their first stop in Thailand where brokers held them until they could collect “ransom” money from relatives. Only after the “ransom” was paid the migrants could continue onward, usually to Malaysia. However, a heavy state crackdown on human traffickers has disrupted this profitable enterprise. This forces traffickers, who are afraid of being arrested by the authorities, to abandon boats filled with hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees and migrants offshore. Closed borders and a heavy state crackdown on human trafficking thus have left thousands of Rohingya in the open sea.
The plight of the Rohingya Muslims is similar to the hundreds of thousands of migrants elsewhere who have left their homes because of civil wars and unemployment. The anti-immigrant sentiment whipped up by countries in South East Asia reflects the current backlash against refugees fleeing to Europe. In 2015, from January to April alone, 1600 people died trying to reach Europe in small fishing boats that capsized off the coasts of Italy and Greece. These “accidental deaths” are directly related to the EU’s funding cut back in search and rescue missions. (Read Tragedy in the Mediterranean: Immigration and the crimes of capitalism)
Who are the Rohingya Muslims and what are they fleeing from?
Myanmar was under a military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011. This period had been characterized by brutal state repression, not only against the democratic opposition but also ethnic minorities who have been fighting for greater self-determination. Even though the military junta was dissolved in 2011, today the military is de facto still in power, maintaining a quasi-military rule.
The Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslims, are an ethnic minority who have resided for generations in Myanmar. They reside in the Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal, with a population around 800,000. The Rohingya people have been subjected to systematic persecution for decades. They have been forced to flee because they have been rendered stateless in their own homeland, denied citizenship rights and opportunities to education and are subjected to forced labour. The Rohingya people have also been the target of communal violence. The most recent communal violence in 2012 left hundreds dead and forced Rohingya Muslims to abandon their homes, leaving 140,000 homeless within their own borders.
The ruling classes in Myanmar maintain their dictatorial grip over the whole of Myanmar society by relying not only on guns and batons but also on the poisonous mix of Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism. This has allowed for the use of divide and rule tactics by the military regime and its fringe reactionary groups.
Even iconic democracy activist of the oppositional party Ann San Suu Kyi has been silent on the systematic persecution of the Rohingya Muslims. Her deafening silence is a testament to the limits of the bourgeois democrats. With her sights set on the November election, her party needs to garner the support of the monks – many of them are reactionary – and be seen as patriotically defending the Buddhist state. Unable to wage a class struggle that could cut across ethnic and religious differences in society and unite the whole of the workers and peasants against the ruling junta, the Myanmar bourgeois democrats are forced to rely on formal democracy, which means winning the votes from the Bamar (the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar) and the Buddhist constituencies at the expense of other minorities.
Decades of violence and state oppression against the Rohingya people is ominously reminiscent of the hateful propaganda that was directed at the Tutsi population in the lead up to the Rwandan genocide. In November 2012, United to End Genocide warned the Obama administration to take strong and immediate steps to stop the systematic violence and attacks against the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State. The Obama administration instead has not only lifted sanctions against Myanmar but has given the regime military aid.
Dangerous waters and closed boarders trap migrants in hellish conditions
Left without a choice, thousands of Rohingya Muslims pay illegal brokers hundreds of dollars to escape resettlement camps for the shores of Thailand, Indonesia and Australia. The brokers are often Rohingya themselves who are desperate to make money out of this mass exodus of human cargo. To date, in South East Asia about 50,000 Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar by water ever year, and 25,000 have boarded boats between January and March of this year. There have been 300 deaths during these months.
Harsh anti-immigrant policies have completely closed the borders of receiving countries, keeping between 6000-8000 migrants stranded at sea. This horrifyingly high number is due to the fact that smugglers have abandoned their vessels because of engine problems or fear of being arrested by the authorities, leaving starving migrants floating at sea. More than 3000 migrants have tried to swim ashore or have been taken into Malaysian and Indonesian custody. While Malaysia and Thailand have taken in a number of refugees, the authorities claim this will only be temporary. A statement from the Malaysian authorities on May 13th, 2015 made it clear that they would not encourage migrant resettlement within their borders. “We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here,” said Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Junaidi Jaffar.
A vicious anti-immigrant policy has also been adopted by the Australian government that has openly denied entry of the Rohingya Muslim refugees. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has clearly stated that “Australia will do absolutely nothing that gives any encouragement to anyone to think that they can get on a boat, that they can work with people smugglers to start a new life.” Australia has established contracts with Indonesia to intercept boats full of refugees off their borders and direct them to holding centres in Indonesia or Malaysia. Australia is the only country out of the above mentioned three that has signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees but refuses to carry out its obligations to asylum seekers under this convention.
The hypocrisy of the ruling class does not end there. The Prime Minister went on to say that “if you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.” Rohingya refugees are stripped of citizenship in Myanmar and denied any kind of documentation and legal identification. The idea of entering the front door of Australia's immigration office is a sick joke on the part of the Australian ruling classes who play down the conditions of violence, rape and poverty that these refugees are escaping from. Abbot's anti-refugee policies do not stop there. This is the same Prime Minister who has sent out gunboats to patrol the waters for any vessels full of refugees and to immediately deport them back to where they came from or to countries like Cambodia, whom Australia has made an agreement with to hold refugees. Tony Abbot's “stop the boats” pledge, which he ran during his 2012 election campaign, even deports genuine refugees who are fleeing war-torn countries.
Recent reports have also discovered large makeshift jails and trafficking camps in Malaysia which contain mass graves of ex-migrants who escaped Myanmar years ago. Specialists have estimated that the mass graves have been there for at least five years. The typical route of a smuggler is to collect money per head of each migrant willing to travel to these destination countries by sea between the dry season of May and October. However, once the smugglers land the migrants they then force them off to trafficking camps in the northern province of Malaysia where they are brutally tortured and beaten until their family members pay up a ransom. The amount demanded rcan reach as high 6000 Malaysian Ringgits, about $2000 Canadian, an almost impossible amount to pay if you are living in the ghettos of the Rakhine state. Those who do not receive their ransom end their journey in the shallow graves.
The common route that the smugglers have used for decades could not have been established without the knowledge of both Myanmar and Malaysian authorities, who have taken bribes and extra cuts from illegal brokers. The ruling classes in Malaysia and Myanmar are both culpable and have bloodstained hands. They have profited just as the smugglers have on human trafficking. Tough immigration laws have left many asylum seekers hopeless in starting a new life free from violence and poverty. The subsequent consequences of harsh anti-immigrant laws have left thousands of Rohingya Muslims vulnerable to human traffickers disguised as immigration agents and brokers.
Poverty in Myanmar
It is important to understand that the recent intensification of communal violence is a reflection of the sickness of capitalism and the parasitic nature of the ruling classes both internationally and in Myanmar. Ethnic violence is, at its root, caused by generalized scarcity and the resulting desperation of the urban and rural poor. UNDP reported that in 2010 there was a 26 per cent rate of incidence of poverty, with rural poor accounting for 84% of the total poor. 32 per cent of children below the age of five suffer from malnutrition, with the highest level found in the Rakhine state (53 per cent) where the Rohingya people reside. This condition is further exploited by the Burmese military and the ruling classes to stoke ethnic clashes that divide the toiling masses and clear prime lands from its indigenous inhabitants for lucrative development projects.
One such example of land grabbing is the destruction of the Rohingya settlement in Kyaukphyu, the main town on Ramree Island off the coast of Rakhine state. Ramree Island is to be the centre of a multi-billion dollar Special Economic Zone (SEZ), that will be built with the involvement of CITIC Group from China and Japanese engineering company Nippon Koei. During the 2012 riots, more than 14 hectares of the Rohingya settlement were burnt to the ground (For the satellite image of the destruction, see here). This Rohingya area, with sea-frontage on two of its three sides, is now clear for private development. The SEZ is based around the Chinese-funded US$2.5 billion energy pipelines that will transport oil and natural gas from Kyaukphyu to Yunnan province, exploiting the newly found gas deposit west of Kyaukphyu (Shew gas field). The Shew pipeline project also traverses through the Kachin state that borders China, resulting in forced evictions and land grabbing in the area. Anywhere the pipe is laid, people are forcefully removed and armed conflicts erupt between the government forces and various armed independence organizations, such as the Kachin Independence Organization.
Myanmar’s capitalist economic development has led to further social decay. The so-called reforms in Myanmar do not solve the fundamental problems faced by the poor workers and peasants, but in turn exacerbate them. The abject poverty that prevails in Myanmar is felt throughout the country and leaves many Burmese people malnourished, unemployed and severely underpaid. This is in stark contrast to the fact that Myanmar is a country rich in natural resources. It is wealthy in gems and also has oil and gas deposits along its coastal land, not to mention fertile land that if tended correctly and not exploited by landlords and private corporations would be able to feed the entire population. However, these riches have so far only benefited the military junta, the capitalists, the big landlords, and their imperialist masters.
What the Rohingya Muslims are facing today is utter barbarity, but it is the same plight many migrants endure as they leave their broken homes in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, etc. They endure inhumane conditions on small leaky boats, travelling the dangerous sea in the hope of escaping communal conflict, barbaric living conditions and unemployment. We live in a society where the productive capacity exists to end poverty, hunger and unemployment. But the ruling elites of Myanmar and many other countries are holding back the whole of society for their own petty interest: profit. To end this barbarity we need to end the very capitalist system that it stands on, this system that produces for profit and not for need. Capitalism and imperialism have displaced tens of millions of people due to war and unemployment. The ruling elites hypocritically criminalize innocent refugees, and yet the only criminals that exist in this story are they and the capitalist system that they rest on.
The plight of the Rohingya people and other minorities in Myanmar, and in fact the whole toiling masses of Myanmar, can only be fought along class lines. The workers and peasants of Myanmar brought together in class unity, marching together regardless of their ethnicities and religions, will be an indomitable force against the military, the capitalists, and the landlords.