Myanmar's chance to help Rohingya
Is the sectarian violence between the Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state threatening the nascent democracy in Myanmar? That is the question the world is asking.
Not Abu, however.
A Rohingya migrant who fled harsh persecution in Myanmar to live in Thailand 25 years ago, Abu is asking the world a different question.
"I watched with pain Muslims' houses being set on fire with soldiers standing by doing nothing to stop it. Why? Is this part of the plan to purge us?" he asked.
When the terrified Rohingya fled the violence to Bangladesh, they were turned away. "Myanmar does not want us. Bangladesh does not want us. Our suffering has been exposed to the world. Now what is the world going to do about it?" he asked.
Dubbed the forgotten people, the Rohingya in Myanmar are among the world's most persecuted ethnic minorities.
Despised by the Buddhist majority who view them as illegal outsiders, the dark-skinned Rohingya Muslims struggle in abject poverty.
They are denied citizenship, education, freedom of movement, employment, and the right to own property in a land which they also consider to belong to their ancestors.
"We cannot even get married without state permission," Abu said. Forced labour and rape by security forces are common, he added.
Despite the arguments on who had triggered the communal violence, the plight of the Rohingya is real. The racism is real.
And the fact that it is the Muslim Rohingya who must flee for safety also speak volumes about the situation there.
The longstanding persecution has forced Rohingya men to migrate in droves as "boat people", risking their lives on the sea to seek work opportunities outside Myanmar.
For many, it is the beginning of new tragedies.
Thailand serves as a half-way stop to Malaysia, the Rohingya Muslims' preferred destination. For those who cannot pay for the rest of the journey, they will be sent to work on rubber plantations by the human trafficking rackets led by Rohingya mafia with police connections.
The unlucky ones are sold as slaves to fishing trawler owners. Many die on board and their bodies are thrown into the sea.
That is why Abu still considers himself fortunate. He belonged to an old wave of Rohingya refugees who quietly trickled into Thailand two or three decades ago. Thanks to their small number, they managed to live and work underground by paying protection money to the police and the Rohingya mafia. Many work as roti vendors on the streets.
Many have Thai wives and children. Like Abu, they remain stateless and have to live under constant fear of deportation and being torn apart from their families.
Despite the risks from human trafficking rackets, the communal violence in Rakhine will lead to an increase in the number of Rohingya boat people seeking safety on Thai shores. What should Thailand do? What should Myanmar do? What should the world do?
Unless the world applies pressure on Myanmar to review its inhumane treatment of the Rohingya, and unless the government cracks down on human traffickers and corrupt officials, the tragedies of the Rohingya boat people will never end. The sad possibility is that world is likely to look the other way, given the vast economic potential which Myanmar holds.
Abu's worst fear is that the Thai government will choose the easy way out by deporting easy targets such as himself to show that it is doing something about Rohingya immigrants.
"But where can I go? No countries want us. We're treated as if we are not human beings, being forced to live underground and in fear wherever we are.
"I have a family here, but every day I live in fear of arrest and deportation.
"All I want is to be recognised as a person too, and a chance to taste a life of freedom.
"I'm getting old, and I'm afraid that I will die without knowing what it's like to live without fear," he said.
*Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor, Bangkok Post.
By Sanitsuda Ekachai*
14 June 2012