Over the past week, the worldwide news coverage of Rohingya migrants at sea in Southeast Asian waters has helped convince some of the region’s governments to take action to prevent an imminent crisis. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia last week agreed to take in around 7,000 migrants, at least temporarily, and the Thai government is apparently considering taking in migrants as well. The United States and other donors apparently will cover some of the costs of providing shelter and care for the migrants temporarily.
But the Myanmar government, the most critical actor in the entire crisis, has done almost nothing. Myanmar leaders continue to try to cast doubt on the idea that there is a crisis at all, or at least one involving Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, and putting themselves in the hands of human traffickers and dangerously shoddy boats. The Myanmar army’s commander in chief told the country’s state media that many of the refugees are just posing as Rohingya “to receive UN aid and that many had fled neighboring Bangladesh,” according to a Reuters report over the weekend. Naypyidaw also quickly moved to deport a group of migrants, some of whom apparently claimed to be Rohingya, and who were rescued at sea last Friday by the Myanmar navy. The Myanmar government vowed to immediately send the migrants to Bangladesh, and did no investigation of whether any of the migrants were actually Rohingya.
The Myanmar government also seems extremely unlikely to take steps that might stem the outflow of Rohingya, leading to further crises on the seas; Naypyidaw refuses to admit that its own policies are a major reason why the Rohingya are fleeing, instead simply claiming that the migrants leave to pursue better-paying work elsewhere. The news coverage of the Rohingya, and the global pressure on Southeast Asian nations to address the migration crisis, does not appear to have had any impact on the policies of the Thein Sein government. Myanmar Muslim leaders repeatedly have accused Naypyidaw of taking no action against human traffickers who are taking advantage of fleeing Rohingya, and Naypyidaw has done little to either improve the condition of displaced persons camps in western Myanmar or to reduce discrimination and violence against Rohingya in Arakan State.
The government’s policies, in fact, help create a climate that encourages discrimination against Rohingya, and a new law put into effect just last week may only further entrench discrimination. The Thein Sein government has consistently made it difficult for Rohingya to obtain Myanmar citizenship, and has branded most of the Rohingya community as illegal immigrants, despite significant evidence that many have lived in Myanmar for generations. The government also recently passed a family planning law that gives provincial governments the power to enact population control measures. Although the law is broadly worded, possibly on purpose, many Rohingya fear the legislation will be used, in western Myanmar, to restrict Rohingya births and to attempt to boost the percentage of Buddhists living in western states. (Muslims in other parts of Myanmar also fear that the new law will be used to limit Muslim birthrates, even if the targets are non-Rohingya Muslims.) Indeed, Rohingya leaders have little hope in Naypyidaw, which is why Rohingya men and women continue fleeing Arakan State, even though the conditions aboard the vessels they cram into are by now widely known. (Migrants questioned by the New York Times essentially said that conditions for them in Myanmar were so horrific that taking to the seas in unseaworthy boats was a better choice for them.)
Will anything change Naypyidaw’s stance toward the Rohingya, making it possible for this embattled minority to remain in Myanmar---and reducing the threat of future crises on the seas? Although no one has taken a comprehensive poll of the Myanmar electorate on the Rohingya issue, many Myanmar politicians, including some in the opposition National League for Democracy, believe that the Myanmar public generally supports a tough, even brutal policy toward the Rohingya.
Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who was already planning to be in Myanmar, used his visit last week to emphasize the need to change the conditions for Rohingya in Arakan State. But without exercising any leverage over Naypyidaw, the United States is unlikely to have any impact on Myanmar’s policies, and the crisis likely will continue.