Last week’s tragic boat accident off the coast of Burma’s Arakan State killed an estimated 20 Rohingya Muslims, including nine children, and left another 20 missing. The government-controlled newspaper, Global New Light of Myanmar, made a rare admission that the tragedy, in which a packed boat capsized in heavy seas, resulted from government travel restrictions that prevent Rohingya from traveling overland, forcing them to travel by boat even when conditions are dangerous.
The accident underscores the serious plight of Burma’s long-persecuted Rohingya minority. The boat was making a regular trip from an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp in Pauktaw to the markets near camps around the state capital, Sittwe.
Before leaving office, outgoing President Thein Sein lifted the state of emergency in Arakan State that had been imposed following the outbreak of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. Yet local authorities have maintained restrictions on the movement of Rohingya in IDP camps and in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships that limit their access to health care and education, make it nearly impossible to work, and impinge on religious freedoms.
International attention has focused on Arakan State since an estimated 31,000 Rohingya fled the region by boat in the first half of 2015. But so far the feared resumption of the maritime exodus of Rohingya asylum seekers and migrant workers has not materialized, partly the result of limits on boat departures and harsh pushbacks from Malaysia and Thailand.
United Nations and European Union officials recently stated that the drop in maritime departures and a UN-backed government program to resettle 25,000 Rohingya in new homes heralds an improved situation. This is premature. Burmese government laws and policies that deny the country’s 1.2 million largely stateless Rohingya their rights and basic freedoms remain. The desperate humanitarian situation and the potential for anti-Rohingya violence needs to be urgently addressed. This is no time for complacency.
Despite statements from senior officials, such as the former chief minister of Arakan State, Gen. Maung Maung Ohn, that the 2012 violence should never be repeated, the Burmese government’s rejection of Rohingya claims to self-identification along with discriminatory citizenship and other laws fuels public animosity toward the group and encourages repressive local regulations.
The new government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy could markedly improve the everyday lives of the Rohingya by removing the restrictions that led to last week’s boat accident, and from there establish the Rohingya’s genuine inclusion in a more rights-respecting Burma.