Photo by Christophe Archambault/ Getty Images.

Photo by Christophe Archambault/ Getty Images.


How the Rohingya have been cast adrift by all and sundry.

It has been almost three days since a ship of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar went missing somewhere off the coast of Thailand – having been bounced between waters off that country, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

The driftwood (it’s too dangerous to be called a vessel) containing some 300 of the persecuted minority, including children, was last seen by a Thai navy ship which had re-stocked it with food, water and medicine before escorting it back to international waters.

Director of the Arakan Project, Chris Lewa, whose rights group monitors Rohingya boat movements, has told media that calls made to the ship have gone unanswered since Saturday evening.

In recent days, there’s been criticism for another missing voice: long-time Myanmar democracy campaigner and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Some have asked why she has maintained silence on the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya; despite a spokesperson for her National League of Democracy party, Nyan Win, saying on Tuesday that Muslim people fleeing Myanmar are entitled to “human rights”.

Nyan Win, urged to comment by reporters, called on the Myanmar government to offer citizenship to the stateless Rohingya – who are often looked on as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, denied citizenship and seen as ‘non-existent’ among 135 ethnic groups in the Southeast Asian nation.

“If they are not accepted (as citizens), they cannot just be sent onto rivers. Can’t be pushed out to sea. They are humans. I just see them as humans who are entitled to human rights,” Nyan Win told media in Yangon.

Yet there is still nothing direct from the party leader and human rights campaigner. It’s not that surprising considering Aung San Suu Kyi has previously stated her reluctance to speak on the issue – citing concerns that her words could inflame sectarian violence between Myanmar’s majority Buddhist and minority Muslim population.

But in the context of a country quickly moving from military to civilian rule there is now another factor. Long-time Myanmar watcher and New Mandala co-founder Dr Nicholas Farrelly says that Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence comes down to one major consideration; Myanmar’s elections which will likely be held in November.

“Aung San Suu Kyi and her strategists are looking at the electoral maths,” says Farrelly.

“They have long imagined that any perception the NLD is too cosy with the country’s Muslims could lose them millions of votes. That, at least, is the fear.

“They are anxious that the Rohingya could serve as a wedge between Aung San Suu Kyi and tens of millions of Buddhists that she is counting on for votes.

“It doesn’t help that many NLD members probably support harsh treatment for the Rohingya and feel no special compassion for them.”

The unfolding humanitarian crisis, which sees some thousands of Rohingya floating around Southeast Asian waters, has garnered worldwide attention and thrown a spotlight on the suffering of the ethnic minority.

But like most things in a digital age dominated by ‘newsfeeds’ the story is a lot older than the headlines suggest. The Rohingya issue is a consequence of Myanmar’s complex history and patchwork of political identities.

Unsurprisingly, as one of many persistent conflicts in the country, it has been simmering in the background for a while. This latest development has antecedents in the 2012 riots in Rakhine State – which spread through the country, leaving hundreds dead and up to 100,000 people displaced.

As Farrelly points out, today’s Rohingya crisis has been a long time coming. If history is any guide, these forgotten people will drop from the radar again soon. And it’s not just Aung San Suu Kyi who has turned her back; it’s the whole region.

“Most boats [of Rohingya] that make their way across the Bay of Bengal leave from the Bangladesh side of the border,” Farrelly says.

“So Myanmar will insist that any response to this issue has a regional scope. From the perspective of many Myanmar people, including senior decision-makers, the tragic conditions of the Rohingya are not for Myanmar to manage alone.

“Meanwhile the situation in northern Rakhine state remains dire, and potentially explosive. Conditions for displaced Rohingya in southern Bangladesh are also tough. It’s no surprise that desperate people take to the sea in the hope of finding secure futures for themselves and their children.

“Yet the Rohingya are left to float, friendless, and often despised. It is a terrible indictment on the lack of common empathy that so many people have suffered so much, for so long, because nobody will give them a safe place to call home.”

Some of the latest boatload of Rohingya have found respite and some humanity, with fishermen in Aceh rescuing around 1,300 people – they said they felt compelled to help out of “solidarity”.

The Philippines has previously indicated that it is willing to take the Rohingya in. But that’s potentially a dangerous journey of thousands of kilometres. With limited resources and supplies, there is no guarantee that the boats will get there.

Meanwhile Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has once again given regional issues a decidedly Australian accent, showing that he can be true to his word that policy needs less Geneva and more Jakarta. He’s applauded Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand for standing firm and pushing back the boats – a position bearing striking resemblance to his own ‘stop the boats’ policy.

With Malaysia and Indonesia reversing their stance late on Wednesday, indicating they are now willing to stop the boat push backs and take the Rohingya in, Australia is looking more and more like a lone voice – that just says “nope”.