Warwick ASEAN Conference

Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire: the Rohingya Crisis

Entropy reigns supreme in a weak infrastructure of a basic human rights framework for the Rohingya people. After scraping their knees to survive in poorly built shelters and enduring decades of discrimination, COVID-19 sent the perfect storm. Have times changed enough to foment a change for better or worse? Read more to find out.

Source: Getty Images

The fated and dreadful day of August 25th in 2017 had its handwriting on the wall. A coordinated attack on 30 police posts and an army base by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) instigated a systemic campaign of violence by Myanmar’s military operations. In the months that followed the exodus of 730,000 men, women and children fleeing in mortal fear flooded the beaches and paddy fields in the south of Bangladesh. Over half of the refugee population comprised of innocent children who bore witness to the death of their loved ones, often victims for brutal sexual violence; all severely traumatized as they are forced to saddle with these realities ever since. 

‘Incomplete and misleading’ were the words of honorary Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, Myanmar (also known as Burma)’s the de facto leader on the allegations of abuse regarding genocidal intent by the army in the state of Rakhine on that very day of August; her office had also characterised aid groups as ‘terrorists’. Whilst her televised address following the wave of backlash were filled with a word starting with the letter ‘E’ for empathy (in an effort to lend credence), it was also ‘E’ for equivocation. There was no level of specificity referring to the Rohingya people but vague descriptions of condemning all human rights violations. The hemming and hawing from the government incited expeditious attention to the state of play, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describing it a risk of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and warned of a foreboding ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ if violence did not end in a halt.

A History Lesson: Who Are The Rohingya People?

The Rohingya are an ethnic group largely encompassed by Muslims who primarily live in the province of Rakhine in western Myanmar, a country predominantly Buddhist. It was World War II that trenchantly cleaved the population in the Rakhine State; the Muslims supported the British and many of the Buddhists within Rakhine favored the Japanese. In 1948, when Myanmar gained independence from British colonization, the Muslim demographic gained momentum in their rebellious pursuit for equal rights and autonomy, but the uprising was defeated. The Union Citizenship Act passed at the time had not included the Rohingya people. After the 1962 military coup, instead of obtaining national registration cards, they were given foreign identity cards. 1982 then came with a new citizenship law, declaring 135 nationally recognized ethnic groups, excluding the Rohingya people who were effectively rendered stateless. 

 Besides targeted religious violence with more than 200 people killed and another 150,000 rendered homeless, the law was continuously weaponised in an onslaught against the Rohingyas. For instance, by stripping the Rohingya people of their rights to vote and participate as both candidates and voters in the Democratic elections of November 2015. Violence from military operations manifested itself in many different ways, corroborated by the estimation of the 781,000 refugees that have fled and set up camp in nine settlements within Cox’s Bazar District in Bangladesh, the largest refugee camp thus far. Other countries where the Rohingya reside include Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.

Rohingya Refugee Sites in Bangladesh. Source: UNHCR, ISCG, RRRC

 As of current, Cox’s Bazar District is estimated to include a million people. The conditions of the refugee camps warrant concerns about WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene), shelter, and safety. Given that these spaces were built in a quick manner for shelter, the refugees live in conditions susceptible to dire weather conditions of floods, wind, or landslides; their environment exacerbated by the seasonal monsoons that cause significant damage to the infrastructure, affecting more than 4,500 people.  Families and children depend on international agencies such as UNICEF, SAVE THE CHILDREN for access to basic needs such as food and water. Girls and women are especially prone to exploitation and abuse.

Source: VOA News

‘Islamophobia has become the antidote that seeks to counteract foreign and contaminating substances in the body of the nation. Muslims are a metaphor for the ultimate inability to completely enclose the demos within an ethnos.’ – S.SAYYID

A maelstrom of xenophobia has haunted the Rohingya population for many decades, calling into question the deeper recesses in the minds of powerful leaders from major nations, burying their heads in the sand. Below lies a table summarising factors contributing to the ignorance of crisis.

Table 1. Major Factors for the Powerful States to Ignore the Rohingya Crisis

World Power Relationship with Domestic Muslims Strategic Interests in Myanmar
China Internal Problem with Uyghur Muslims Containment policy against India, Belt, and Road initiative, arms trade,
and natural resources
India Internal Problem with Kashmiri Muslims Containment policy against
China, natural resources,
arms trade, and countering
insurgency and separatist
movements in
Northeast India
Russia Internal Problem with Chechen Muslims Arms trade and natural resources
US Residual post-9/11 Islamophobia Containment policy against China

Source: The Oxford University Politics Blogs


The perfect storm brought on accumulated anxieties in the unparalleled struck of the pandemic: aghast faces of Rohingya men, women, and children sailed in rickety boats to seek refuge in precarious waters. Malaysia took the centre stage by previously strongly condemning violence against the Rohingya community at the 34th ASEAN summit in Thailand, with Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Bin Abdullah calling for “perpetrators of the Rohingya issue to be brought to justice”. In 2018, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad lambasted leader Aung San Suu Kyi herself in that she was ‘trying to defend is indefensible…’ and alluded this oppression to ‘mass killing.’ What became mind-boggling to many, however, was the shift in moral gear from the Malaysian government against this backdrop.

“The plan to viciously beat Rohingya refugees is not only cruel and inhuman – it’s unlawful under international standards. To inflict such a violent punishment as judicial caning amounts to torture,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Malaysia Researcher at Amnesty International.

Under international human rights law, regardless of the person’s migration status, the individual shall hold their right to liberty without subject to arbitrary arrest or detention. The recent pushback policy against these boats (270 Rohingya refugees detained) denying entry, the crackdown of undocumented migrants are an evidential climax in this masked solidarity Malaysia prior established with the Rohingyas. Malaysian Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yakob said: “The Rohingya should know, if they come here, they cannot stay.” Magnanimity was lost when Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in his latest summit address, lamented that “Malaysia is unfairly expected to do more” and Malaysia can no longer take in anymore Rohingya refugees. 

Reasons behind this turn of events are speculated to be the self-proclaimed leader of the Rohingyas demanding citizenship, rumours of domination in the Selayang market areas by the refugees and breaching the Covid-19 lockdown rules and the illegal status of the migrants.  However, these do not provide solid justification for foul play, as the government had inadequately responded to COVID-19 as recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner in detention centres. By adopting authoritarian measures of torture and the lack of enforcement of health and safety measures, this precipitates unsanitary environments where the risk of obtaining the virus are much higher. 

 Adding fuel to the fire, the plight of the Rohingyas was heightened with the surge in hate speech triggered by the false interpretation they demanded citizenship. Hardened rhetoric of anti-Rohingya sentiments proliferated with fuelled discriminatory online posts directed at the Rohingya in the country. Instances of xenophobia included the harassment of a Rohingya grass-cutter, and more profoundly the spewing of an anti-Rohingya banner in front of a mosque in Johor reading threatening “We are not welcoming Rohingya… We do not need you here.” 

Source: Facebook

83 signatories including the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Malaysia on May 11th, in an open letter, urged the government to act immediately with regards to “‘hate speech’ and violent threats against the Rohingya community”, as the crackdowns and the detestable acts promoted fear to the refugee community to go outside to procure basic food supplies like food during the lockdown.

‘Op Benteng’ is the name given to a nationwide operation launched to tighten border security, along with a special task force lead by the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF). At the beginning of June this year, the National Task Force of Malaysia had detained 396 people, turned away 22 boats with approx. 140 immigrants trying to enter the country. The response by the government in the face of the pandemic is asymmetric (refusal of access to asylum) with international health law where public measures must be proportionate. From observation alone, it is deemed the global Muslim solidarity agenda is only practiced in order to serve national interests and becomes inapplicable through the lens of a ‘thick and thin phase’. Ethno-nationalism and local interests take precedence when mere speculations of interests exist.

Yet the fact remains. Governmental powers may not be doing their part but we can do ours. The Rohingya people should not be living in these camps struggling to meet the bare minimum to survive. Below is a list of organisations that you can donate to:








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