Myanmar is neither Asia's common slave nor dumpster

Writer: 
Nay Htun Naing
People protested UN's statement and international media's writings on boatpeople (Photo-AFP)

Myanmar has been strongly blamed over the issue of boat-riding refugees trapped in the Southeast Asian sea (especially around Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca).

Human traffickers have long been using the Southeast Asian waters. Concerned countries have ignored this issue. But the inhumane acts committed in early May caught the attention of the international community.

In fact, the Bengalis from Bangladesh are the majority of the boat people in Southeast Asian waters. Even if there were some fleeing from Myanmar, their numbers are not that much as the accusations claim.

Bangladesh also acknowledged that the most of the boat people are from it. Indonesia also admitted that the majority of the refugees are not from Myanmar.

Then why is Myanmar open to blames? There are political manoeuvres behind this accusation.

Bangladesh and Myanmar

Bangladesh sits at the west of Myanmar and shares borders with Rakhine State.

The total length of the Myanmar-Bangladesh boundary is 168.7 miles (271 kilometres). It consists of two parts, namely the Naaf River boundary 39.5 miles and the land boundary 129.2 miles.

Bangladesh’s territorial area is smaller than that of Myanmar. Myanmar is the 40th largest country in the world and Bangladesh is 94th.

But Bangladesh's population surpasses Myanmar's. According to official figures, Myanmar's population is around 51 million and is the 25th most-crowded country while Bangladesh has 158 million, the 8th biggest population size.

Bangladesh also has denser population than that of Myanmar. It ranks 12 in the list of countries by population density while Myanmar ranks 125.

Moreover the population growth is rampant in Bangladesh.

Its population was over 66 million in 1970; more than 82 million in 1980; more than 102 million in 1990; more than 132 million in 2000. The size only got bigger and reached more than 151 million in 2010 and 158 million in 2014.

Its yearly population growth rate dropped in the past, but recovered since 2010. Bangladesh's population growth rate was at its peak in 1967. The rate was restored at 1.22 per cent in 2014.

Its per capita income is less than that of Myanmar. According to a UN report in 2013, a Bangladeshi earned US$980 a year; the number could be smaller in reality. A person in Myanmar earned $1,183/year at that time.     

Bangladesh's poverty rate by its population was 56 per cent in 1992; 40 per cent in 2005; 31 per cent in 2010, according to UN's figures. 

As stated by World Bank's statistics, the poverty rate of Bangladesh was 43.3 per cent in 2010. That of Myanmar is only 26 per cent for the time being, which clearly shows that Bangladesh is poorer than Myanmar.

Routes used by illegal immigrants in human trafficking and human smugglings (Source - Story Builder Website)

Pie chart showing Bangladesh's population vs. refugees (Source - Story Builder Website)

Bangladesh's refugee affairs

Another problem of Bangladesh is its enormous number of refugees.

Bangladesh separated from Pakistan and became an independent and sovereign state in 1971. It was the East Pakistan before the separation.

Before Bangladesh, there were wars between the east and west Pakistani states accompanied by genocide. At least a million lives perished in the conflict. More than a million people took refuge in India, and half of them were sent back after the war. Bangladesh has recognised them as refugees.

The refugees do not have any citizen rights except the right to vote. They are now calling for citizenship rights.

According to the figures of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, there were over 431,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Bangladesh as of January 2015. The number of refugees due to natural disasters was over a million in 2013.

The refugee camps totalled over 150 in Bangladesh, according to volunteers there.

Besides refugees, the homelessness problem also troubles Bangladesh. This can be clearly observed in a documentary clip 'Dhaka Dream: Street Children in Dhaka', filmed by the Plan International.

The 2012 figures suggested more than 680,000 children were on the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and the number increased up to 1.1 million in 2014. Over 80 per cent of them are boys, and roughly half of them are under 10. They are the target of exploiters and human traffickers.

This figure is only from Dhaka. The number could be larger if the entire nation is taken into account.  

The destination of migrants

The reasons why Bengalis form the majority of trafficked victims in Southeast Asian waters are:

1) The country has yet to resolve the refugee problem from 1970 civil war. The refugees themselves are uncertain whether they are Pakistani or Bangladeshi.

2) The country cannot control population explosion as well as poverty rate.

3) Over 1.1 million homeless children roam the streets of Dhaka and millions more in other districts. The natural disasters further devastate millions of lives.

The victims of such situations only see migration as their way out. They usually use illegal routes to do so.

Most migrants see Malaysia as their destination. Similar to Bangladeshi, the people of Sri Lanka also employ illegal waterways to trespass other countries. Their destination is Australia and there is no transit country in between.

The situation is different in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi migrants first get into Myanmar and continue their journey to Malaysia through Thailand. Some enter Indonesia through Malaysia. There are also some migrants try to make a way into Indonesia and Australia directly. 

Those migrants found in the Southeast Asian sea are trying to go to Malaysia and Indonesia, which share the same religion with Bangladesh.

Myanmar citizens mostly use the Myanmar-south Thailand-Malaysia route when they try to get into Malaysia.

Most of the illegal Myanmar expats in Malaysia pay their way back and forth between Myanmar and Malaysia through traffickers using the south Thailand route. But they are of different account with Bengalis. 

The largest penetration comes from Bangladesh. Myanmar is among those countries troubled by the penetration.

But the reaction of international community including regional countries is: First, they claim all the boat people are from Myanmar without conducting any investigation. Then they use the term 'Rohingya' which is not a Myanmar word. 

Even after the investigations finished and Bangladesh admitted that the boat people are its nationals, the international community has continued forcing the issue of Bengali Rohingya.

Moreover the global community including UN, and international media omitted the role of Bangladesh, the source of the issue. What makes it worse is that they keep pointing at the six-figure refugees in Rakhine State while turning a blind eye to million refugees in Bangladesh.

There is a history behind

The boat people do not appear suddenly out of nowhere in waters of Southeast Asia.  

The UNHCR's data in 2014 stated the estimated 63,000 people were wandering illegally in the Southeast Asian sea. It said they were from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

According to the figures conducted in 2014, about 750 of them were murdered by traffickers. But the number of illegal drifters only increased yearly – there were only 58,000 in 2013, but the figure jumped to more than 63,000 in 2014.

The migration wave tends to drop in July, when the rain comes, but gets increased again in October – during dry season. 

They take temporary shelter in Saint Martin Island and nearby islands, where the traffickers also dwell in. They send migrants to other countries through illegal routes.

Human traffickers usually live in south Thailand and Malaysian border area and have established illegal camps. This is proved when over 30 burial spots and hundreds of corpses were found around the south Thailand and Malaysian border area.

Human traffickers send boats to the Bay of Bengal and carry illegal migrants. When the migrants were abandoned before ashore, they become refugees fleeing on boats.

The number of boat people between January and April 2015 was over 25,000. More than 7,000 of them were found again in early May. At least 300 of them died in the sea.

They give $100-$300 as ferry fee. The charges are ranging from $1,600 to $2,400 to reach Malaysia across the south Thailand.

This is a lucrative market for human traffickers. They profited from it around $100 million each year in 2013-14. The UNHCR statistics claimed that the total sum amounted to $250 million in 2012-14. 

Why Myanmar is blamed?

Why does Myanmar fall victim to blames even though the boat people are not from it? 

Why Myanmar is forced to take responsibility?   

Why Myanmar is called as the root of the problem?

Malaysia assumes the 2015 Asean chairmanship. Malaysia cannot give answers to the problem of illegal expats and is still struggling with political issues.

Moreover, Malaysia has difficulty securing its border to the southern Thailand. The immigration officers from both countries have involved in border issues mingling with bribery.

While Malaysia chairs Asean, the so-called Rohingya organisations have made efforts to give Bengali Rohingya citizenship rights. Malaysian authorities also have involved in this case.     

During the Asean summit in Malaysia in the last of week of April, they tried to pressure Myanmar over the issue of Bengali Rohingya. But their attempt failed as the Myanmar side totally rejected it. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi made severe critical remarks against Myanmar through the Asean People’s Forum. 

When the first attempt was failed, they came to press Myanmar again based on the incidents that happened in early May. Ex-Asean leaders got involved in the latest attempt. 

Former Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, former Malaysian PM Badawi, former Thail Foreign Affairs Minister Kasit Piromya and former Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Albar wrote to Asean leaders in April. 

Albar himself mentioned what he had written in the Bangkok Post’s article “ASEAN, UN must help Burma resolve Rohingya crisis”. He is currently the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) special envoy on Myanmar. Democratic Voice of Burma also posted his article on its website on May 18. 

What he wanted to do was to address the issue by forming a Tripartite Core Group (TCG) involving the UN, Asean and Myanmar. His plan was like the one in the run-up to assistance in the post-period of cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar in 2008. 

Although his desire was unfulfilled, the foreign ministers from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia met in Malaysia in the last week of May. 

A special meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean took place in Thailand on May 29. Myanmar sent an official with the rank of director general in place of the ministerial level. But effective counter-attacks could be made. 

Moreover, Malaysia is preparing to host a separate meeting to address the issue of boat people. Malaysia’s democratator Mahathir Mohamad is strongly criticising the Myanmar government and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Illegal immigrants crossing the sea of Southeast Asia in 2013 - 2014 (Story Builder Website)

Graph shows the illegal immigrants crossing the sea of Souteast Asia in 2013 - 2014 (Source-Story Builder Website)

Route used by human traffickers and illegal immigrants (Source-Story Builder Website)

OIC behind the scenes

Former Malaysian Foreign Minister Albar and former and ruling Malaysian authorities have the reason to pressure Myanmar over the Bengali issue. 

As he is the OIC special envoy on Myanmar, his activities are backed by OIC. This can clearly be seen in the statement OIC issued on May 24 and the meeting of OIC foreign affairs ministers held in May 27. 

In its statement, OIC said it is mobilizing its resources to support the Muslim minority in Myanmar. The main aim is for Bengali Rohingya. OIC said its special envoy Albar is actively cooperating with the regional NGOs and authorities. 

They said the international community must pressure the Myanmar Government to stop violating the basic human rights of the Bengali Rohingya and recognize them as full-fledged citizens of Myanmar; and allow all refugees to return to their homes.

What’s more, OIC has assisted in founding the Arakan Rohingya Union as an entity that represents the Rohingya worldwide at international forums in seeking the support of the international community and raise awareness of their issue.

Such an attempt is assumed to be their preparatory measures to press Myanmar over not only the Bengali issue in Rakhine State but also the issue of more than 4.2 million stateless Bengalis in other countries. 

Oslo conference

The meeting of foreign ministers from OIC member states was held in Kuwait on May 27. Meanwhile, Norway hosted the Oslo Conference to end Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingyas. 

During the conference, George Soros and Mahathir Mohamad delivered speeches through video files. It was also attended by Albar. Among other participants were three Myanmar Buddhist monks, Dr. Zar Ni, vocalist Moon Aung, journalist Sithu Aung Myint and writer Nyi Pu Lay. 

Former UN special rapporteur on Myanmar Quintanar, who has a lopsided view on Myanmar in the Bengali issue, and Time magazine reporter Hana Beach also attended the conference. 

Nyi Pu Lay said he was invited to attend the conference by a Myanmar organisation. He said he was just an observer, not a participant. 

Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on May 30, rejecting all the one-sided remarks made during the Oslo conference. 

A series of such conferences and meetings emerged following the illegal migrations of boat people in early May. 

For the knowledge of the US and Western countries

News agencies from the international community, including the US and UK have one-sided views on the issue. They use the carrot and stick approach in dealing with Myanmar’s affairs. Such an approach might be useful for promoting democracy and human rights, but not for the Bengali crisis.

As to the Bengali Rohingya issue, the acts of lobbyists from the US Department of State and the US embassy in Myanmar are called into question. The UK follows suit. 

Myanmar will hold a general election this year that will become a milestone in 25 years. Despite talking about democracy cause, it seems like the UN and Western countries are distracting attention from the election efforts by placing emphasis on the Rohingya issue. If they continue so, they will become the enemies of Myanmar, instead of friends working in support of democracy. 

Holding the policy of non-interference in internal affairs of a member country, Asean did not have its summit overshadowed by the Rohingya issue. If the US and its allies continue to emphasise this issue, they will become enemies of Myanmar rather than getting something beneficial. 

The US government has double standards—different attitudes towards Myanmar and Bangladesh. The US no longer pays attention to India, which is trying to forge friendly relations with China. Its relations with Pakistan become cold. The US therefore has paid more attention to Bangladesh. 

From 1972 to date, the US has been a major development partner with Bangladesh, which has received and is receiving billions of dollars in aid. 

US companies such as Chevron and Conoco Philips have made largest investments in Bangladesh’s gas production. 

The US favours Bangladesh more than Myanmar in its interest. It is clear why the US has put blame only on Myanmar, not Bangladesh, in the issue of Bengali Rohingya. 

In that issue, international news agencies have become like an enemy of the Myanmar people. 

Again, the news pieces released by the BBC (Myanmar) seem fair and square in other issues, but not in the Bengali issue. It is also called into question. 

The Bengali Rohingya issue concerns two things—human rights and national interest. But we should view the issue from the perspective of national interest only. We are saying about this not based on hatred, but based on a long history of Myanmar. 

Population growth rate in Bangladesh (Source-Story Builder Website)

The origin of Bengali Rohingya 

There is no ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar. But the term “Rohingya” is used. “Mayyu border district” is featured in page 89, volume No. 9 of Myanmar Encyclopedia. The district is made up of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and northeastern Yathedaung. 

The encyclopedia says “Mayyu border district has a population of over 400,000 to nearly 500,000, whose livelihoods are agriculture and fishing. The majority (about 75 percent) of the population are Rohingya while the rest are ethnic groups such as Rakhine, Daingnat, Myo and Khamwee”. 

Rohingya is not on the list of Myanmar’s ethnic groups. They illegally entered Myanmar from the other country (Bangladesh) in colonial days. When they were strong, they demanded to establish an Islamic state. This is one point.  

Another point is that the government of AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League) led by U Nu made a great mistake in 1955-56. In an attempt to secure more votes in the election, it allowed aliens from the other country to enter Myanmar. Temporary citizenship cards were easily issued to them in order to vote in the election of People’s Parliament held in 1956. 

In the 1960s, the number of Bengalis (so-called Rohingya) in the areas of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Yathedaung reached nearly 500,000. Their penetration spread across the mainland Rakhine State.

In 1966, an operation for collecting lists of Bengalis was carried out and followed by Myat Mon operation in 1959 and Jasmin operation in 1974. Nagar Min project implemented in 1978 was the largest ever, forcing more than 150,000 Bengalis to flee to Bangladesh. 

Now, UNHCR has become the first to voice the Bengali issue. It said over 250,000 Bengalis fled Myanmar. Meanwhile, some international media reported allegedly that nearly 100,000 Bengalis were killed. 

Hintha project was drawn up in July, 1978 to accept the fleeing Bengalis. Around 190,000 Bengalis reentered Myanmar. The number was indeed more than that of those fleeing the country. 

Later on, Bengalis, who are not Myanmar ethnic nationals, have spread across Rakhine State. Those officially allowed living in the country and illegal migrant Bengalis got mixed up. All of them were allowed to vote in the 1990 election, the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 election. They hoped that they would become Myanmar citizens because they were allowed to vote. They therefore demanded citizenship rights. 

White card (temporary citizenship) holders will not be allowed casting votes in the election to be held this year. Their white cards will be invalidated for citizenship scrutiny. 

Myanmar has 797,504 white card holders. Among them, 666,381 are in Rakhine State alone. More than 400,000 have handed over their cards and they will receive green cards during the scrutiny period. 

How to solve the problem 

In the international community, a person claiming to be Rohingya has lots of opportunities. This is why illegal migrants fleeing Bangladesh say they are Rohingya coming from Myanmar. They have coined the term “Rohingya from Rakhine State”. 

The problem of illegal Bengali migrants does not concern Myanmar ethnicity. It is a problem of immigration. Aung San Suu Kyi said in 2012 that it was a problem of border insecurity.

To solve the problem is to carry out citizenship scrutiny first. If 666,381 Bengalis in Rakhine State are checked for scrutiny, about half of them could be citizens. More than half of the remaining could also have the chance to become citizens. 

In this regard, the government should carry out citizenship scrutiny even in Yangon where some Benglais live holding Myanmar citizenship cards secured from corrupt immigration officers. 

They have spread to Kayin State and Taninthayi Region. The Bengalis holding white cards as well as the Bengalis holding national citizenship cards should go under scrutiny. 

The second point is that those who holding green cards should not be allowed to vote. Elections can be postponed in the areas where citizenship scrutiny is not finished. 

Like in the periods from U Nu to Ba Swe, Kyaw Nyein, Ne Win to Than Shwe, the bad tradition of using Bengalis for votes and Rakhine nationals for legitimacy should not be adopted again. Any act leading to clashes between Rakhine nationals and Bengali Rohingya should not be committed. 

Let those who do not meet citizenship requirements remain in refugee camps. They will continue to receive aid from UNHCR and international organisations. 

Then, brick fencing must be erected along the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh and government staff free from corruption should be appointed in border areas. The existing fences are not secure enough and they are easy to break. 

Ongoing problems are due to successive governments’ failure to completely address the Bengali Rohingya issue. 

If the situation does not improve, Myanmar will continue to see those who want to put blame on. What is more, extremist terrorists could enter the country by taking opportunity of this. 

Illegal migrants in the seas of Southeast Asia and millions of so-called Bengali Rohingya are not from Myanmar and cannot be accepted by Myanmar.  

Myanmar is neither Asia’s common slave nor dumpster to accept non-citizens.