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DVB Debate: How to solve the boat crisis?

Since the beginning of May, more than 4,000 smuggled migrants have landed on the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Months into a perilous sea voyage, their crowded, rickety boats were set adrift in the open ocean — abandoned by traffickers fearing a police crackdown in Thailand.

More than 2,000 men, women and children are believed to be still stranded on the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca. As the United States leads a search and rescue mission— many may have already died.

The humanitarian crisis— which has included the discovery of more than 150 bodies, buried at abandoned traffickers camps on the Thai-Malaysian border— is just the tip of the iceberg.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that 88,000 people have boarded smugglers’ ships and taken to the high seas from Bangladesh and western Burma in the 15 months between January 2014 and March 2015.

They are mostly Rohingya Muslims, members of a stateless minority of around one million people in Burma, and Bangladeshis fleeing poverty.

“To these people, there are only two options –  to die in the camp or set out to sea with an even chance of death, even though they are desperate to live.”

On this special episode of DVB Debate, the panel discusses Burma’s role in the regional migrant crisis.

On the panel are: Rakhine State Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn; leader of the Arakan National Development Party and MP Dr. Aye Maung; director of the Rakhine State Peace and Development Organisation, Win Tun Soe; and Al Haj Aye Lwin, chief convener of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar and a member of the Burma chapter of Religions for Peace.

The United Nations has pointed to Burma’s persecution of the Rohingya as a root ‘push factor’, forcing desperate migrants to sea.

More than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims live in displacement camps in Arakan State, left homeless after pogroms and anti-Muslim riots in 2012 when some 300 members of the community were killed.

Maung Maung Ohn argued that ethnic tension in Arakan State impacted not only Rohingya — but both Buddhist and Muslim communities.

The former military general used the term ‘Bengali’ instead of Rohingya, the group’s preferred name.

“It’s not only the Bengalis who suffer, but many poor people in Arakan,” he said. “Many Arakanese Buddhist villages still don’t have toilets or clean water, and people die from various health problems. Nothing is ever said about them.  However, when something happens to the other community, everyone is so keen to voice their concern. I, personally, am sad about that.”

However Win Tun Soe, director of Rakhine State Peace and Development Organisation, said he believes that those Muslim communities in Arakan State are so desperate that they often have no choice but to put their lives in the hands of human traffickers, with the sea as the only option to escape from religious persecution in Burma.

“The situation those in Arakan State is worse than other migrants from elsewhere in Burma,” he said.

“According to surveys, Arakan State is the second poorest state in Burma and is inhabited by two different groups – one of them Buddhist and the other Muslim. Discrimination between the two has driven people to migrate out of the country, in fear for their livelihoods and with hopes of rebuilding their lives. Another issue is that when they migrate, they don’t have the opportunity to travel normally like other people – by road or by flight – due to lack of rule of law and citizenship issues. They are instead forced to go by sea or trek through the jungle. By necessity, they must break the law in order to seek out new lives.”

Naypyidaw has taken pains to deny that it is to blame for the mass exodus of people across the Bay of Bengal. Burma’s government maintains the Rohingya are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, a belief that is shared by many across the country.

In Washington on Monday, US President Barack Obama said that he believed the “Rohingya have been discriminated against significantly, and that’s part of the reason they’re fleeing.”

Speaking from the DVB Debate audience, Kyaw Soe Aung, a member of Burma’s Democracy and Human Rights Party, placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the central government.

“Why are there boat people?” he questioned.

“Because some people in the region have had their citizenship revoked by the previous government and they wound up in displacement camps because of that,” he said. “Many have now been in displacement camps for 36 or 40 months. To these people, there are only two options –  to die in the camp or set out to sea with an even chance of death, even though they are desperate to live.”

Aye Maung speculated that those leaving Arakan State were falsifying their identity, claiming to be Rohingya from Burma in order to gain favour with international aid organisations.

“In countries like Syria where there is civil war, people flee for their lives, whereas in Burma we have an influx [of immigrants] driven out of their own country. When they get overseas, they deny their national [Bangladeshi] identity – this has become their common policy,” Aye Maung said.

“Bangladeshi people, attracted by privileges, are migrating out of their country – the IOM has verified this with research – and I would say even the UNHCR is complicit because they prioritise giving protection to those who claim to be of a certain [ethnic] group rather than their country of origin. This policy attracts the boat people.”

Al Haj Aye Lwin, however, said that conjecture would not solve the humanitarian crisis. The Religions for Peace representative said that the crisis would be resolved only by a thorough investigation of the facts at hand.

“The boat people are the victims in this crisis and there are people exploiting their situation. Finger pointing and blaming others is a very easy thing to do but we need to analyse every single issue in the crisis. Most importantly, an action plan must be drawn up based on credible and thoroughly verified facts. If the action plan were to be based on false information, then the situation will get worse. There has been too much emotion concerning this topic and we cannot resolve the problem with emotion.”