refugees

Religious and Racial Strife in Western Burma

Although Burma (Myanmar) has seen substantial reform over the past few months, several deeply entrenched conflicts create major obstacles for the country’s transition. According to The Irrawaddy, tensions in the western Arakan region recently exploded into violence when “300 people stopped a bus carrying Muslims from a religious gathering, dragged out the 10 occupants, beat them to death and burned the vehicle in Taunggup…” The attack occurred in retaliation for the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by three Muslim youths.

Burmese Muslim leaders were incensed not only by the actions of the mob, but also by the descriptions of the incident carried by the state-run media. In several report, the victims of the bus attack were referred to as “Kalars,” a pejorative Burmese term used for foreigners, especially those of South Asian extraction. Democracy advocates in Burma are also upset by the use of the term, which was quickly denounced by leaders of the 88 Generation Students group.

Most of the Muslims of Arakan are Rohingyas, a people of South Asian origin who speak a language closely related to Bengali. The Rohingyas of Burma have been victims of discrimination and worse for some time; a recent Times of India article describes them as “among the world’s most persecuted people,” noting that in the early 1970s they were stripped of their nationality and more than 200,000 were forced out of the country. Most of those displaced from Burma have been languishing in dismal camps in Bangladesh ever since, although many have sought refuge, often unsuccessfully, elsewhere. In 2011, however, the Burmese government agreed to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees.

Prejudice against the Rohingyas in Burma is both religions and racial in nature. Racial animosity, as well as opposition to it, can easily be gleaned from the comments posted on articles about the issue. One commentator on The Irrawaddy website, for example, opined, “Asians look like Burmese, Chinese, Thai, Japanese. These people look like middle eastern and indians. They don’t Belong in Myanmar, so GET OUT. We should have Nation wide Votes to kick them out before they convert everyone of us to Musilims” – to which the next commentator responded, “If you do not like Indian face, how would you love holy lord Buddha!!!”

 

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Christmas Island: Land Crabs and Detainees


Christmas Island is 52-square-mile rainforest-covered limestone and basalt platform several hundred miles south of Java. Most of the island is a national park, sheltering a limited and highly distinctive native fauna. It is best noted for its eponymous red crab, a land dwelling crustacean than lives in rainforest burrows – in staggering numbers. At the onset of the rainy season, some 120 million red crabs migrate to the sea to spawn, overrunning much of the island. Intriguingly, early accounts make scant mention of the unavoidable crabs. Some ecologists speculate that the red crab population had been kept in check by the endemic Maclear’s rat that once populated the island, also in large numbers. The introduced black rat, however, evidently infected the native rat with an exterminating disease, perhaps allowing the crab population to explode (although we must wonder why the black rat was not able to similarly limit the crab). Currently, crab numbers are declining due to the spread of the yellow crazy ant, a highly invasive “tramp ant” species. Supercolonies of yellow crazy ants have formed, killing an estimated 20 million crabs and reducing the populations of several bird species. Efforts to control the ants are now underway.

Phosphate-rich Christmas Island was annexed by Britain in 1888. Workers came from China and Malaysia; their descendants form the bulk of the island’s current 1400 inhabitants. The phosphate deposits are largely worked out, and efforts to establish the island as a gambling center and as a spaceport have not been successful. Prior to 1993, Christmas had postal independence, allowing it to profit by selling stamps to collectors. The booming business of processing and incarcerating asylum-seekers and thwarted immigrants is now the island’s economic mainstay.

Like Norfolk, Christmas Island is a geopolitical anomaly: in this case, a non-self-governing territory of Australia, located outside of Australia’s migration zone (see yesterday’s post). The island does have an elected advisory council, and its residents do vote in Australian federal elections. But in the end, Canberra runs Christmas. In recent years, the national government has decided to remake Christmas Island into a detention center for refugees and undocumented immigrants trying to reach the Australian mainland. In 2007, the island’s administration was transferred from the Department of Transport and Regional Services to the Attorney General’s Office, reflecting its prominent role in Australia’s fight to control immigration.

The increased population is straining the island’s infrastructure – some say to the breaking point. Both the local inhabitants and the detainees are highly concentrated, roughly on opposite ends of the island. The expanding population of Christmas Island has increased the cost of living of the local inhabitants. Housing especially has gone up, as outsiders have been brought in to staff the detention facilities. As one local reported, “Now the island is at breaking point, the sewage treatment plant can’t cope, the power station can’t cope, the health system can’t cope, and the school can’t cope…” The housing shortage eased recently when a number of immigration workers were moved into Christmas Island’s mothballed casino. The detainees, meanwhile, are kept in bleak compounds on the far end of the island from the settlement. According to recent reports, the compounds will soon be expanded.

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The Plight of the Rohingyas

The standard linguistic map of Burma/Myanmar (below) reveals a significant number of ethnic groups. Unfortunately, it also conceals much of the country’s diversity, as a number of separate peoples are joined together into composite ethnic categories, while others are simply ignored. The most important group in the latter category are the Rohingyas, a distinct people some 700,000 strong who appear on few maps of Burma. In the map on the left, the Rohingyas are marked, but in a manner that effectively erases their identity: the two triangles in far western Burma indicate Rohingya areas, but label them as “Indians and Pakistanis.” This erasure of Rohingya identity is in keeping with official Burmese policy, which has denied almost all of them Burmese citizenship.

The Rohingyas speak an Indo-European language closely related to Bengali. Like most eastern Bengali speakers, they follow Islam – the main reason for their persecution by the resolutely Buddhist Burmese state. According to Rohingya history, their ancestors began moving to their current homeland as early as the 7th century; Burmese historians contend that they did not arrive until after Burma was conquered by the British, and that they came largely through British connivance. As a result, hard-core Burmese nationalists insist that the Rohingyas be regarded as citizens of Bangladesh, not Burma. Bangladesh, not surprisingly, rejects this interpretation.

The persecution of the Rohingya has been going on for some time. In 1942, after Japanese forces expelled the British from Burma, mob violence took an estimated 100,000 Rohingya lives. In the late 1970s, renewed harassment sent another 250,000 to Bangladesh, where many have continued to languish in wretched refugee camps. Rohingyas continue to flee Burma, even though they have no place to go. In early 2009, the Thai military reportedly towed a number of boats crammed with Rohingya refugees into the open sea, where large numbers perished in storms.

Bangladeshi authorities reject Rohingya migration, arguing that all Rohingyas who entered their country after 1991 are simply illegal immigrants. Tensions between Burma and Bangladesh mounted in the fall of 2009, focused both on the Rohingya issue and on the maritime border between the two countries. The offshore area contains significant energy resources that both countries wish to exploit.

In late December 2009, the two countries reached a provisional agreement that involved the “repatriation” of Rohingya refugees. Burma agreed to accept 9,000 out of the estimated 28,000 residing in refugee camps (an additional 300,000 to 400,000 Rohingyas currently live in Bangladesh outside of the camps). But few of the refugees are eager to return. The journalist Nurul Islam, reporting in Media Matters, quotes one Rohingya man as saying, “we don’t have any rights in Myanmar. … If we go back, the armed forces will use us as bonded labour. Many will be sent to jail. There are still curbs on practising our religion or movement from one place to another without the army’s permission” (see http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/70036).

All in all, few of the world’s peoples have suffered discrimination as severe as that experienced by the Rohingyas. Yet their plight rarely gains attention in the U.S. media.

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