Rohingya refugee crisis: sea camps and economic sanctions needed

Screen grab from BBC video and story of 17 May 2015

Screen grab from BBC video and story of 17 May 2015

Unless Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have a change of mind, over the next few days as many as 8,000 people, adrift on boats in the Andaman Sea, will die. They are a mix of Rohingyas from Burma fleeing persecution and economic migrants from Bangladesh. They’ve been put on boats by human traffickers, but when Thailand started cracking down  — after discovering mass graves in Songkhla province — the traffickers have left the people en route on the water to fend for themselves.

There is no easy solution to refugee crises. But what is stopping Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia from doing the humanitarian thing — saving those on the high seas — is that governments seem unable to imagine even hard ones. I suspect they see no comprehensive solution that they can implement, and in the absence of that they are loath to encourage even more to come across the water by being kind to those who are now in peril.

So here is the equation we have to mentally accept: In the same breath that we demand a humanitarian response, we must also flag our support for some very tough measures going forward. The more these tough measures are seen as do-able, complete with popular support, the easier it is for governments today to do the humanitarian thing. And they have to be tough to be effective.

Tough on whom?

Of course it must be tough on the governments whose actions or neglect have led to this crisis. But in the real world, it will impact on populations. Economic sanctions (as indicated in the title of this essay) will make a poor country poorer. If that makes us shrink from doing what is necessary then we have to live with our conscience — tens of thousands dying over the next few years because we won’t save them — or we have to live with the results: tens of thousands of new arrivals in our countries.

First, however, I’d like to sketch what I know about the origins of the crisis. Actually, the causative factors are quite different between the Rohingyas and the Bangladeshis. They need to be dealt with separately.


The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority in Burma’s Rakhine state. During British colonial rule the name of the state was Arakan. That’s a name I am going to use in this essay, so as to distinguish the territory more easily from the majority ethnic community living there, called the Rakhine. The Rakhines are not the only people in Arakan. Contrary to propaganda put out by the Burmese government, the Rohingya community can be traced back to 1400s, according to this site. There have been purges, and over the centuries, considerable ebb and flow of Muslims between neighbouring British Bengal and British Burma. Generally speaking, they are not illegal new arrivals from Bangladesh as the Burmese regime insists.

The present government refuses to recognise that the Muslim Rohingya have a right to Burmese nationality; and over the last few years severe repression has taken place. For instance, the International Crisis Group’s October 2014 report on Myanmar: The politics of Rakhine State wrote:

In 1991, the regime began a significant military deployment to northern Rakhine State. Troops confiscated Muslim land for their camps and for agriculture to provide for their food, levied arbitrary taxes, and imposed forced labour on the villagers.

Direct action by government forces is not the sole cause.  There has long been animosity between the Rakhine ethnic group and the Rohingyas, but instead of being peacemakers, the government and the military have tended to stand aside or even support the Rakhine when communal conflicts arose. The result: hundreds of thousands internally displaced. Unsurprisingly, treated as unwelcome stateless persons, always living in fear for their lives even in refugee camps, the Rohingya are desperate for a future.


There has been a steady migration of Bangladeshis to Malaysia for at least ten years. Some travelled legally for work, but there has also been an uncounted exodus arriving illegally. After Indonesians and Burmese (of whom many Rohingya), Bangladeshis are the third largest group of illegal migrants in Malaysia, if one goes by the data from 2,400 persons arrested in a major operation in 2013. The Malaysian government has been rather two-faced about it over the years. Once in a while, they crack down, but mostly — whether by design or bureaucratic distraction is never quite clear — there is neglect. Reportedly, the Bangladeshis are even politically useful to the ruling party. In the last general election there were allegations, some rather credible, complete with photographs, of Bangladeshis given brand new ID cards and bussed to polling stations to vote for Barisan Nasional.

Over time, word has flowed back to Bangladesh of successfully making a new life, even if it is one of an illegal immigrant. Naturally, more and more are tempted to take the same route. Human traffickers see lucrative opportunities in enabling these migrants to get to where they want to go, and until this crisis, well-developed people smuggling networks have greased the journeys.

(I had first-hand involvement with a few trafficking victims about two years ago, giving me a glimpse of this shady business.)

Long term solutions

To stop the flow of boat people, different approaches are needed for Bangladesh and Burma.

The most we can accuse the Dhaka government of is neglect. It is anyway not a very effective government, regularly paralysed by the decades-long power struggle between the “two Begums”, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. But underlying the neglect is possibly a perspective that outward migration, whether legal or illegal, is beneficial for Bangladesh. Remittances by Bangladeshis abroad totalled US$14 billion according to the World Bank, contributing about 11 percent of the country’s 2012 GDP, according to a 2013 paper by Sheikh Abdur Rahim and Md. Asraful Alam. It is an even bigger share of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

It should be possible to persuade the Dhaka government to take firm steps to curb human trafficking and illegal migration, without undercutting its core policy objective of earning foreign exchange. It may be necessary however to make it very clear to Bangladesh that legal migration will be throttled back if they don’t do anything about human traffickers and illegal movements.

Screen grab from BBC video and story of 16 May 2015.

Screen grab from BBC video and story of 16 May 2015.

With the Burmese government, I don’t think polite persuasion is going to work. Ethnic cleansing can be said to be one of its primary objectives. A much firmer stance must be taken. If we see what they are doing as similar to what apartheid South Africa was culpable of or what the Serbs were trying to carry out in Bosnia in the 1990s, or what the Islamic State was only last year inflicting on the minority Yazidi community in the areas they conquered, a similarly muscular international response is called for. At the very least, economic sanctions should be imposed. All the benefits that the Burmese regime has gained since they released Aung San Suu Kyi and let her stand for election should be withdrawn. Given her silence on the Rohingya issue, she’s a fallen figure anyway, and if by withdrawing those benefits, the regime no longer sees it in its interest to be nice to her, so be it.

After all, what is the use of progress towards democracy if democrats too are eager to persecute minorities?

Moral foundation for intervention

There are international precedents for intervention (including economic sanctions) when a government deliberately fails to protect the people who live within areas it controls. Intervention is rarely like an outright invasion (though the British military intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 is an example), but often involves actions around its margins. The Kurdish question comes immediately to mind, where support is quietly given to their defence forces and in the 1990s, a no-fly zone was enforced over northern Iraq to protect them. In that decade too, economic sanctions were imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq partly over his treatment of minorities.

Kosovo is another example, with UN peacekeepers sent in to protect the ethnic Albanians from Serb paramilitaries.

Sometimes, intervention comes with a gradual delegitimisation of the ruling power. Iraqi sovereignty over Kurdish areas is now in doubt. Kosovo is on its way to full independence with international blessing. In the Horn of Africa, there is a tacit acceptance of Somaliland because the rest of Somalia is just too chaotic with the nominal government in Mogadishu barely able to control the capital city. Nobody is about to insist on Somaliland taking orders from the so-called central government in Mogadishu. Even the creeping recognition of Palestine as a sovereign entity, alongside the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, is a move in the same direction.

By the same reasoning, intervention in Arakan can be justified by the failure of the Burmese government to protect an entire community. Intervention should consist of measures around the margins, not a full-scale military operation like Sierra Leone. The latter example is not justifiable here and certainly not a practical possibility.

Nor am I suggesting any questioning of Burmese sovereignty over Arakan, as might have been the precedents set by Kurdistan, Kosovo and Somaliland. The demographic context here is different: in a province of about 3.1 million people (2014 census), the Buddhist Rakhines form a majority, however flawed that census might have been, and there is no reason to think that they want out of Burma.

In the northern part of the state however, the Muslim Rohingya are more numerous than the Rakhine. Wikipedia (accessed 20 May 2015) has this to say:

Muslim constitute more than 96% of the population near the border with Bangladesh and the coastal areas, even though they are subject to a government rule limiting them to two children per family. According to various local surveys conducted after the riots of 2012, it was found that if the +1 million diaspora outside Burma were included, the Rohingya Muslims would constitute about 40.75 % of the population of the state of Rakhine (excluding the diaspora, they would constitute about 20 % of the population of the state of Rakhine), making them the second largest ethnic group after the Rakhine people.

What I would suggest is to move the crisis management as close to the territorial waters of Burma as possible. It is better to deal with the refugee crisis close to its source than after people have crossed the seas, hungry and dehydrated, and almost at the doorstep of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Navies off Arakan

What are navies for if we don’t use them? I say we send them to patrol the waters just outside the territorial sea off Arakan. By the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, territorial waters stretch to 22.2 km off the coast. For a mental picture of what 22.2 km means, consider this: the distance from Singapore’s Marina South to Batam is about that. On a clear day, you can see that distance.

pic_201505_09Patrolling about 300 – 400 km of coast is a lot easier than scouring half the Andaman Sea looking for smugglers’ boats. Picking people up before they get hungry or thirsty reduces the amount of costly medical intervention required.

The navies should intercept and check all boats leaving Burmese waters. Refugees or trafficked persons found on board should be removed and the boat seized. Traffickers and boat operators should of course be taken into detention.

But where should the refugees or trafficked persons be removed to? Sending them back to land would be an intrusion into Burmese territory if the Burmese government does not allow it (though with time, they may be pressed to agree). Moving them to Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand would only encourage more to attempt the journey.

Rather than build refugee camps on land,  there should be sea-based camps anchored just outside the territorial waters. Charter or build large ships or barges, or even disused oil rigs. If we’re going to have to feed refugees in camps anyway, we might as well do it over there.

By having these ship-camps visible on the horizon, Rohingya still on the coast can see the futility of relying on smugglers to move them to Malaysia. They can imagine the misery of living in such conditions, exposed to the elements, for years and years. Unlike living in refugee camps in Malaysia and Thailand, ship camps clearly indicate that they are nowhere near their destination. It also makes it undeniable to the Burmese government that these people originated from the Burmese coast, and so it is Burma that must eventually take them back, not any other country, unless it can be shown in specific cases that a person started his journey from Bangladesh (details discussed lower down).

At the same time, economic sanctions should be imposed on Burma. The same navies can even act as a blockade against selected goods being imported or exported through checks on freighters.

The deal should be a simple one for any lifting of sanctions and the blockade: Burma has to put in place equality provisions for the Rohingya people, return their farm lands and help them revive their livelihoods. Burma has to stop using the argument that they are recent illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and accord them Burmese nationality.

An internationally-supervised census should be conducted in Arakan. Anyone in the state on the day of the census is to be considered a Burmese national unless the person owns up that he is of a different nationality.

Such a solution — an “as is” solution — is a necessary cutting of the Gordian knot that has made this conflict so intractable. It is true that there has been movement of people between Bengal and Arakan through the centuries. It is possibly true that even today, there are economic migrants from Bangladesh slipping into Arakan to join the boats leaving for Malaysia unless the Burmese government has managed to totally seal the border. But it is also true that ineffective governments have not consistently documented who is who, and hence, broad-brush assertions that all Rohingya don’t belong to Burma just cannot be taken at face value. Relying on history provides no solution, because history is so contested, and at an individual level, so poorly documented. The only clean solution is to say: on a certain census date, if you’re in Burma, you’re Burmese.

What about those in the ship camps? It shouldn’t be difficult to ascertain which ones are Rohingya and which are Bangladeshi economic migrants who had slipped into Arakan to join the smuggling routes to Malaysia. If the ship-camp inmates want to go back to dry land in their lifetime, they need to tell investigators where their families are. Depending on whether these check out to be in Bangladesh or Arakan, the inmates can then be sorted accordingly.

As part of the deal, Bangladesh has to accept the return of those persons whom investigators have determined to have family in Bangladesh.

The comprehensive solution may be ten or fifteen years away, but a robust set of measures like this with a clear outline of an end-deal will at least get the destination governments out of their present paralysis. When people are no longer dying on the seas, when we don’t have thousands more ready to set sail, we buy time to put pressure on the governments of Bangladesh and Burma without losing any more lives.

9 Responses to “Rohingya refugee crisis: sea camps and economic sanctions needed”

  1. 1 Edwin D 20 May 2015 at 14:14

    This post alone is infinitely more useful and enlightening than the snide FB remark posted by one illustrious career diplomat who ungraciously took the opportunity to chide “western media”.

    Thank you. And shame on that particular diplomat.

  2. 2 Richard Lee 20 May 2015 at 16:38

    Alex, I think your refugee sea camps are a good idea.

    If Singapore is unable, for internal political reasons, to accept refugees, it certainly has the $$ & navy to help do this.

    But I don’t think sanctions against Myanmar will be productive.

    There is a difference between the Rohingya situation in Myanmar and South Africa or Israeli Apartheid in Occupied Palestine. Even with your carefully inflated figures, the Rohingya are a very small minority; unlike Black Africans in SA or Palestinians in Israel’s conquered territories.

    That doesn’t make the Myanmar government’s action any more morally defensible but it makes it less important to them.

    The International community imposed sanctions on Myanmar for a long time (with some notable exceptions like Singapore) but that was for oppressing a large part of their population.

    To re-impose sanctions for the Rohingya would be to trivialise international action in the eyes of Myanmar.

    I don’t know what alternative action would persuade Myanmar to a less inhuman attitude to the problem but I don’t think sanctions would be productive.

    Perhaps an appeal to the Buddhist faith of the Burmese. (My apologies for having a naive faith in the power of religioun on your website.)

    And BTW, ASSK HAS spoken out against the treatment of the Rohingya.

  3. 3 yuenchungkwong 20 May 2015 at 17:11

    the widespread refugee crisis represents another failure of globalization: it has long been prophesied that poorer nations, with lower wage levels, are more likely to attract investments, which would “level up” nations; events in the middle east and other parts of the world show clearly that the prophesy has not been realized, and desperately poor people cannot be persuaded to stay put and wait for economic salvation

    when the western nations, wall street included, figure out how to deliver on the promise, instead of offering a frustrating mirage, they might produce some reduction; in the mean time, they have to somehow muddle through the present

  4. 5 Anon uU3e 23 May 2015 at 01:00

    Once again the media are using kind-hearted but essentially emotional folks to simplify difficult issues. Creating more suffering and helping no one. Easy blaming of Myanmar govt (many Western media still arrogantly/lazily call it Burma), exhortation of Ang San Suu Kyi to do or say something (as if she is a kind of super-Goddess), or worse, vilification of the lady. Complete belief in the claims of the Rohingya, not questioning the Rohingya leadership’s role in the suffering of their own people. Blaming Asean govts for not simplistically opening the floodgates to potentially a million refugees…Yes these are real suffering human beings out there, but the answer has to start with more understanding of the situation, not idealistic, emotional finger-pointing.

    Here are 2 papers by observors at Institute of South East Asians Studies that gives better perspective than most.…/publication/ISEAS%20Perspective_1…

    Click to access iseas_perspective_2015_12.pdf

    “People who consider themselves Rohingya live on both sides of the border between
    Bangladesh and Myanmar…The problem of the Rohingya has been treated up to now as essentially a Myanmar problem. It is not. It is an international problem and Bangladesh and other countries should
    not be allowed to avoid their international human rights obligations by pretending that the ‘Rohingya’ reside only in Myanmar or that Bangladeshi asylum seekers are Rohingya.”

    “The ‘Rohingya’ issue is complex and there are strident claims made on all sides as is inevitable when claims about ethnic origins, historical roots, and legal rights are combined. However, among all the various Muslim communities present in Myanmar, some of which are recognised as indigenous, only the ‘Rohingya’ leadership makes a disputed claim to being one of Myanmar’s indigenous national races…The British recognised no such group. Persons known as Bengalis or Bengali Muslims, of whom there were nearly half a million in Rakhine State in 1983, then made no such claim.”

    • 6 Paul 24 May 2015 at 23:56

      Whining about the complexity of the issue does nothing to address it. Furthermore your appeal to orthogonal issues (“Myanmar” vs “Burma”) and straw men (Mr Au’s article does not actually advocate opening the floodgates of ASEAN countries to the refugees) suggests a suspicious degree of defensiveness. Wouldn’t it be more constructive to actually engage with the substantive proposals described than wringing hands over the difficulty of the issue?

  5. 7 kala 25 May 2015 at 01:42

    But what happened to many western countries like France that have opened widely their gate for Islam immigrants? They only have increased social problems. Islam is a religion that breeds extremism. They refuse to merge into the local culture and form isolated communities that still have their own religious polices that curbed on women rights. These closed minded communities then breed terrorists that threaten freedom of speech. Western media still covering their own eyes refusing the see the truth as it is. Islam is a very exclusive religion by nature. It has zero tolerant for any other form of cultures and that is apparent in ISIS group that will destroy any trace and hint of pre-islamic civilisation.

    In the light of the above, it is understandable and rightly so if Buddhist countries are vigilant about muslim minorities in their countries. Why is this so? Be reminded that large part of land which were once Buddhist has now been totally Islam. Are they tolerant if other are tolerant to them?

  6. 8 freddy 27 May 2015 at 14:38

    Alex, your idea of navies off the Arakan coast will amount to an act of war against Myanmar. Myanmar has the right to retaliate. I do not think any of the Asean members desire it.

    • 9 yawningbread 27 May 2015 at 23:23

      Countries place naval ships in international waters not far outside territorial waters all the time. It is not an act of war unless the ships are used to enforce an embargo. If the naval forces are there to check on boats suspected of ferrying refugees — it is a humanitarian mission.

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