Where History and Humanitarianism Collide: The Bay of Bengal “Migrant” Crisis

By Moe Thuzar | SEAS Fellow & Lead Researcher - ASEAN Studies Centre - ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute | Mar 31, 2016
 Where History and Humanitarianism Collide: The Bay of Bengal “Migrant” Crisis
Rohingya await rescue by Acehnese fishermen - May 5, 2015

This essay is part of a series that deals with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays examine the myths and misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these crises, and with the constructive measures, as well as the constraints and capacity deficiencies that have hampered the responses to them. See more ...



This essay examines the 2015 Bay of Bengal migrant crisis in Asia from three broad perspectives: 1) the historically entrenched views towards the Rohingyas in Myanmar, which are now conflated with religion and which have exacerbated the refugee situation; 2) the lack of humanitarian response by governments for the plight of the displaced; and 3) the challenges of using regional mechanisms to tackle the issue.[1]

Following the communal violence in 2012, the majority of the Rohingya affected by the violence and displaced from their residences were put into camps. The conditions of discrimination and ill-treatment in the camps then compelled the Rohingya to take their chances as illegal migrants to third countries.

This complex and seemingly intractable issue has increasingly drawn media and public attention, especially with the rapidity of sharing information via various social networks and media platforms.[2]

The Rohingya and Myanmar

The Rohingya issue has long presented a dilemma for successive administrations in Myanmar, both before and especially after independence in 1948. The issue can be characterized at its bare bones by periodic clashes between local communities of different social and religious backgrounds living in Rakhine (formerly known as Arakan), Myanmar’s westernmost region. Seeds of mistrust were sown almost as soon as Myanmar gained independence, and the issue of a separate state for the Rohingya arose, followed by an armed rebellion in the mid-1950s. The situation was compounded by crackdowns by corrupt authorities, leading to cyclical exoduses of people.[3] In the past, the exoduses were treated as an immigration issue to be dealt with internally, or bilaterally with neighboring Bangladesh.[4] It was not brought up at regional meetings, such as at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) until very recently.

In 2009, an exodus by sea of Rohingyas from Rakhine State and their plight was widely reported, prompting Asean to discuss it at an informal pre-summit meeting of foreign ministers. This was the first time that Myanmar’s foreign minister, representing the military government of the State Peace and Development Council, stated that the Rohingya would be allowed to return but only if they identified themselves as Bengalis.[5] This was also the first time that Myanmar’s role (and responsibility) on the issue was discussed in an Asean setting. However, as the issue did not involve all of the organization’s members—and in light of the human trafficking and people smuggling dimensions of the issue—Asean found a convenient recourse in the Bali Process.[6] This preference to deal with the issue in non-Asean regional processes, or sub-regionally among the countries affected, indicates how Asean views the issue and responds to it.

The Rohingya issue hit headlines again in 2012 over the communal violence in Rakhine in June of that year,[7] which spilled over to other parts of Myanmar in 2013 and even led to clashes between Malaysians and Myanmar migrant workers in Malaysia.[8]

The most extensive coverage to date has been the 2015 Bay of Bengal migrant crisis, when news of a humanitarian crisis in the Andaman Sea first broke on May 14, 2015.[9] The media’s comprehensive and sustained coverage of the issue (outside of Myanmar) highlighted the complexity of this multifaceted problem. This coverage prompted a response by the then ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) as well as by the then main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).[10] The reports on the role of smugglers and the weak enforcement environments in border areas have also highlighted how the Rohingyas’ uncertain status has been exploited by various groups, not just in Myanmar, but also Thailand and Malaysia.[11] While governments around the region were reluctant to receive refugees, Acehnese fishermen stepped in to fill the humanitarian vacuum by rescuing hundreds of migrants stranded and starving at sea. Faced with a humanitarian challenge during its year to Chair the Asean Community—which, ironically, had a theme of “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision”—Malaysia convened a meeting among the countries affected, which Myanmar did not attend.[12] This was followed by an international conference in Thailand on May 29, 2015, involving representatives from 17 countries and various United Nations agencies; Myanmar attended that conference only on condition that the word “Rohingya” was not used.[13] The two conferences, criticized for having failed to resolve the crisis, did result in agreements by the destination countries to provide temporary shelter, and a role for Asean to coordinate responses to people trafficking across borders. Myanmar refused to acknowledge culpability, and discussions on addressing the root cause of the issue, and the more immediate priority of how to deal with the refugees in temporary shelters, were inconclusive.[14]

Myanmar's refusal to discuss the Rohingya migrant crisis continues to this day.

Myanmar’s refusal to discuss its role in causing the Rohingya migrant crisis continues to this today. Amidst the clear vote for change evidenced in the November 2015 polls, the statements of the past military junta and President Thein Sein’s USDP government, that there are no Rohingya—only those of Bengali origin in the country, has taken hold. The Rohingya are not named or referred to as such by many in Myanmar. Instead they are referred to as ‘Bengalis’ or ‘Muslims.’ Using the term ‘Muslim’ does a disservice to the many Myanmar Muslims of other ethnic origins living elsewhere in the country. The conflation has also given rise to ultranationalist tendencies, drawing on deep-seated fears of racial purity and security against ‘outsiders.’ Tellingly, in the November 2015 elections, neither the USDP nor the NLD fielded any Muslim candidates, presumably for fear of a nationalistic backlash.

Against this unpromising backdrop, the question arises whether there is even a role for encouraging a humanitarian response to the issue, and if so, by whom? 

History of Humanitarianism in Myanmar

The power of civil society in Myanmar has historically been in mobilizing for political purposes. This mobilizing power, however, is rooted in a history of collective social action as a counter-response to the ineffectual actions of the ruling authorities in times of social and humanitarian need.[15]Even under authoritarian and military rule, the loose associations formed by local people and communities to provide social welfare activities were left largely untouched.[16]Thus, regardless of restrictions, many civil society organisations continued to exist under authoritarian rule, providing a social network through which humanitarian needs were communicated and addressed. Throughout the mid- to late 1990s, the military government gradually became more tolerant of, and indeed outsourced most functions to, civil society organizations, which focused mainly on social, health, and later, environmental issues. This easing of restrictions also coincided with the introduction of ‘national non-governmental organizations.’ These organizations were allowed to operate in the ethnic minority areas following the conclusion of ceasefire agreements in those areas. While the labyrinthine procedures for registering civil society organizations make it difficult to provide an exact number, there is nevertheless a strong base for the collective social spirit that transcends politics and enables people to come to each other’s aid. This was strongly manifested in the humanitarian disaster arising from Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, and in addressing the needs of internally displaced persons (I.D.P.’s) in conflict areas in the Kachin State, but no so much for the 2012 Rakine-Rohingya communal violence.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, different interest groups navigated around political sensitivities to work together for cyclone relief and recovery efforts. The International Crisis Group notes, in 2008, that “several hundred new and existing grassroots groups acted as channels for international relief as well as private donations.”[17] A high number of these groups focus on relief (distribution of food, water, and other emergency supplies) and recovery of livelihoods and shelter activities in the cyclone-stricken areas in Ayeyawaddy and Yangon Divisions. In fact, when international media outlets were still bemoaning the shortcomings of the relief operations after the disaster, local civil society organizations were already in the delta delivering locally mobilized aid as early as two days after Nargis.[18] They also formed the bulk of volunteers for the post-Nargis assessment of needs in the delta.

However, when the intercommunal tensions between Rakhines and Rohingyas in 2012 led to some 140,000 people displaced in Rakhine State,[19] most of them without citizenship and living in fragile protection environments, there was no such humanitarian outpouring. In 2014, the U.S.D.P. government initiated a phased project to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas (starting with 209 in September 2014) but this was halted due to controversy over the requirement to reflect the Bangladeshi origin of the Rohingya.[20] Access to the I.D.P. camps remains highly regulated. Humanitarian aid provided by international organizations according to need was criticized by extremists as uneven and benefitting only the Rohingya. In their operations, international humanitarian organizations also faced belligerent attitudes from the local Rakhine communities.

In contrast, international and local humanitarian organizations had direct, albeit regulated, access to the displaced persons in Kachin State in the government-controlled areas. They also helped in providing humanitarian assistance to I.D.P.’s in other areas. Hostilities in Kachin State had caused hundreds of thousands of people to be displaced.

Still, in the wake of the ultranationalist, anti-Muslim activities, civil society has come together in interfaith groups calling for a halt to hate speech.[21] It seems to be an uphill task, in view of entrenched mindsets and lax enforcement of measures to regulate extremist attitudes.

There is thus potential for developing local civil society capacity to take on the bridge building role in post-conflict peace-building and reconciliation efforts. 

There is potential for developing local civil society capacity to take on the bridge building role in post-conflict peace-building and reconciliation efforts. This new role for civil society in Myanmar centers on the trust issue. In the current situation of change and transition in Myanmar, it is essential to rebuild broken trust among the different communities in the country, as well as among the government and different stakeholder group, including the displaced persons. Civil society can play a role in bridging tensions, and capacities should be built to this end. However, it will be a long road ahead, as shoring up the current trust deficit in government institutions and undoing the effects of decades of mismanagement will require decades of effort.

The more immediate challenge going forward will be how these social collective movements can help foster intercommunal dialogue towards conflict resolution in the areas of tension in Rakhine State, and whether Myanmar’s external partners can assist in building capacities for change to this end.

Asean’s Regional Role and Myanmar: Possible Pathways

The internal displacement of persons within an Asean member state, usually as a result of internal conflict, and any spillover to neighbouring countries, are still within the realm of what is termed ‘internal affairs’ of a member state. Attempts for regional or bilateral responses are subject to Asean’s noninterference principle.

In Myanmar, internal displacement as a result of conflict does not seem to hit the headlines as much as the plight of overseas workers, who are usually domestic helpers and illegal migrants. Yet, according to the International Organization for Migration (I.O.M.), Myanmar has become the largest migration source country in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (G.M.S.).[22] This is mainly a result of people fleeing conflict in the border areas between the armed forces and insurgent groups, as well as semi- and unskilled workers seeking what they perceive as attractive income in the labor scarce, higher income Asean economies.

Government responses to people movement thus far lack policy coherence. For example, the migrant worker issue is being dealt with mainly by the Ministry of Labour, which has no jurisdiction over internally displaced persons (I.D.P.’s), and which provides peripheral inputs to the negotiations on liberalisation of skilled professionals. Resettlement of I.D.P.’s come under the mandate of the Ministry for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, yet the political nature of the situation has occasioned multifaceted interventions by different government-related organisations such as the Myanmar Peace Center and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission. International humanitarian organizations and related U.N. agencies seem to be taking on most of the work in assisting the Myanmar government.

The many layers to the Rohingya issue (i.e., national identity and citizenship; corruption and the lack of proper rule of law; and perhaps most importantly, poverty alleviation and access to basic social services) all present formidable challenges that confront, and, to a certain extent threaten Myanmar’s nascent transition—and commitment—to change. Whether it is pressure or persuasion, discussions conducted behind the closed doors of bilateral Asean diplomacy may prove more effective. The suggestion made earlier by the U.S.D.P. government on assisting with the socioeconomic development of Rakhine State also bears further consideration. The Asean mode of consultation may provide a more politically open Myanmar with constructive channels to develop a well-balanced strategy for Rakhine.

This longer-term approach is not without challenges. The aspiration to change must come from within rather than be perceived as imposed externally. As seen in Myanmar’s past responses to the issue, the Asian and Asean countries are confronted with the difficult task of balancing between the need to press for workable solutions and the concern of losing any ground gained for further confidence and capacity building.

One immediate task that Asean can take up, with Myanmar’s participation, is to implement the recommendations for tackling the people trafficking dimension of this issue and the attendant coordination of law enforcement and responses required within and across borders.

Thus, Asean may still have a role in assisting some of the difficult challenges of Myanmar’s transition. However, the ongoing tensions over the Rohingya issue indicate that only time will tell whether opening up through Asean can truly facilitate Myanmar’s efforts for national reconciliation and change.

[1] For the purpose of this paper, the following working definitions serve as reference for the terms ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘displaced person’: A refugee is an individual who flees his or her country because of persecution, conflict, or war. If a person fleeing persecution, conflict, or war seeks refuge in a safer part of his country, without leaving the country, then he or she is known as a displaced person. An economic migrant is neither a refugee nor a displaced person, but someone who leaves his or her home country in search of a better life. International law does not protect economic migrants except under the general law of human rights. See “Professor Tommy Koh: International Law and Refugees,” Tembusu College, National University of Singapore,  July 7, 2015, accessed March 18, 2016, https://tembusu.nus.edu.sg/news/2015/professor-tommy-koh-international-law-and-refugees.

[2] “Media and the Migrant Crisis: A Call to Action?” in Asian Politics and Policy 7, Issue 4 (2015): 659-664. See the media coverage of the May 2015 humanitarian crisis at sea in a commentary.

[3] Tin Maung Maung Than and Moe Thuzar, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Dilemma,” ISEAS Perspective 1, (2012). See for a brief historical context of the issue.

[4] This was the case for the exoduses of 1978 and 1991, which was settled bilaterally by the Foreign Ministers of Burma/Myanmar and Bangladesh in both instances. For the 1991-92 exodus, Myanmar agreed to accept returnees if they could state their village of residence and related residential particulars. U.N.H.C.R. involvement was also present in both 1978 and 1991.

[5] See “Plain Speaking,” The Irrawaddy, 17 No. 2 (March-April 2009): 19. The Irrawaddy reported that the Myanmar Foreign Minister had then stated that the refugees would be allowed to return but only if they identified themselves as “Bengalis” rather than Rohingyas.

[6] See “About the Bali Process,” The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Traffic in Persons and Related Transnational Crimes, accessed March 17, 2016, http://www.baliprocess.net/. The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime had been created in 2002 to provide a regional, albeit voluntary, forum for governments and international agencies to discuss issues of people smuggling and trafficking in persons, and find practical responses.

[7] “Four Killed as Rohingya Muslims Riot in Myanmar: Government,” Reuters, June 8, 2012, accessed March 14, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-violence-idUSBRE85714E20120608.

[8] Tim McGlaughlin and Nan Tin Htwe, “Workers undeterred from Malaysia,” Myanmar Times, August 11, 2013, accessed March 14, 2016, http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/7812-workers-head-to-mala....

[9] See for example, Thomas Fuller and Joe Cochrane, “Rohingya Migrants from Myanmar, Shunned by Malaysia, Are Spotted Adrift in Andaman Sea,” The New York Times, May 14, 2015, accessed March 14, 2016,  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/world/asia/burmese-rohingya-bangladesh....

[10] U.S.D.P. Minister U Soe Thein met with diplomats and the media on May 18, 2015, and the N.L.D. also issued a statement. U Soe Thein urged cooperation for socio-economic development in Rakhine State to address the roots of the problem, while the NLD called for conferring citizenship on the Rohingyas.

[11] “Equal Only in Name: The Human Rights of Stateless Rohingya in Thailand,” Equal Rights Trust in Partnership with the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University, October, 2014, http://www.equalrightstrust.org/ertdocumentbank/Equal%20Only%20in%20Name%20-%20Thailand%20-%20Full%20Report.pdf; Morgan Winsor, “Myanmar's Persecuted Rohingya Muslims Remain Stateless And Vulnerable After Risking Lives At Sea,” International Business Times, June 11, 2015, accessed March 19, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.com/myanmars-persecuted-rohingya-muslims-remain-stateless-vulnerable-after-risking-lives-1959158.

[12] “Asean Chair,” Association of Southeast Asian Nations, accessed March 17, 2016, http://www.asean.org/asean/asean-chair/.

[13] Matthew Davies, “Rohingya crisis: nothing from nothing,” New Mandala online, June 1, 2015, accessed March 14, 2016,  http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2015/06/01/rohingya-crisis-nothing-from-nothing/

[14] Ibid.

[15] Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Social Capital, Civil Society Organisations and Cyclone Nargis.” Unpublished paper presented at the “Workshop on Lessons from Nargis: Disaster Management in Southeast Asia,” March 5-6, 2009, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

[16] Even in the parliamentary democracy era of the 1950s, the democratically elected leaders acted like authoritarian rulers and democratic institutions were not properly entrenched.

[17] International Crisis Group, “Burma/Myanmar after Nargis: Time to Normalize Aid Relations,” Asia Report No. 161 (October 20, 2008): 23, accessed March 14, 2016, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-east-asia/burma-myanmar/161_burma_myanmar_after_nargis___time_to_normalise_aid_relations.ashx.

[18] “Listening to Voices from Inside:  Myanmar’s Civil Society Response to Cyclone Nargis,” Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2008, accessed March 18, 2016, http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs07/Cyclone_Nargis_and_Myanmar_Civil_Soci....

[19] See “2015 UNHCR country operations profile – Myanmar,” UNHCR, accessed March 18, 2016, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e4877d6.html. U.N.H.C.R. estimates that an additional 800,000, mainly Rohingya, are also without citizenship in the northern part of Rakhine.

[20] Rakhine State Needs Assessment 2015, Centre for Diversity and National Harmony, Yangon, accessed March 19, 2016, http://www.themimu.info/sites/themimu.info/files/documents/Report_Rakhine_State_Needs_Assessment.pdf.

[21] Geneva Garland and Ma Htike, “Burma From An Activist Perspective,” Interfaith Kosovo (2012), accesses March 14, 2016, http://www.interfaithkosovo.org/blogs/151/burma-from-an-activist-perspective/?lang=En.

[22] “Myanmar General Information,” International Organization for Migration, published August 28, 2014, accessed March 18, 2016, https://www.iom.int/countries/myanmar/general-information