Greed. Lust. Corruption. Thirst for power. A wretched lack of compassion for human life. That is Myanmar.
Myanmar is home to 1.3 million Rohingya, a religious and cultural minority in what was once known as Burma. The Myanmar government staunchly refuses to recognize the citizenship of the Rohingya, claiming they are all illegal immigrants of neighboring Bangladesh, despite the fact that many Rohingya families have lived exclusively in Myanmar for generations. This lack of citizenship makes the Rohingya vulnerable to trafficking, forced labor, and poverty.
After the country of 50 million started moving from dictatorship to democracy in 2011, newfound freedoms of expression lifted the lid off deep-seated hatred of the dark-skinned ethnic minority, making them even more vulnerable. Up to 280 Rohingya have been killed since mid-2012, and some 140,000 were chased from their homes by machete-wielding mobs. They now live under apartheid-like conditions in camps where they can’t work, go to school or receive medical care.
They have been told they will not be allowed to vote in an upcoming general election and that those who cannot prove their families have been in the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1948 could face deportation or indefinite detention in camps.
This terrible situation has torn an enormous hole in the social fabric of the Rohingya. While many Myanmar people profit from the trafficking of the Rohingya, many traffickers are the Rohingya themselves.
The brokers promise men jobs and offer pretty young girls the prospect of marriage if they agree to board the ships. It may cost them nothing to board, but the migrants are unaware that they will be held hostage in jungle camps or at sea until their poor families somehow come up with enough money to pay their ransom. Activists also say some women end up being sold into prostitution.
Until recently, the first stop for boats leaving the Bay of Bengal was Thailand, long considered a regional trafficking hub. Men, women and children were often held until brokers could collect up to $2,000 from relatives.
Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia, because the Muslim country faces a shortage of unskilled workers. Those who couldn’t come up with the money were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.
The navies of Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh are all working to keep decrepit wooden vessels at sea – none of these countries wants to deal with the influx of refugees should the people on these boats make it ashore. The United Nations says these boats are in danger of becoming “floating coffins.”
AlJazeera reports that the Myanmar government refuses to take responsibility for this crisis.
“We are not ignoring the migrant problem, but our leaders will decide whether to attend the meeting based on what is going to be discussed,” said Major Zaw Htay, director of the office of Myanmar’s president.
“We will not accept the allegations by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem,” he added.
Even the name “Rohingya” is taboo in Myanmar. Without global pressure to amend this situation, the Myanmar government may yet succeed in eradicating these people.