Wandering nations

Described as the world’s most persecuted minority group, the Rohingya are once more in the news. Most of them fled their homes in Arakan, northwestern Myanmar (Burma), staying in refugee camps on both sides of the Burmese-Bangladeshi border. Unable to bear the conditions in these camps, they sell whatever possessions they have to pay for precious space in crowded boats run by human traffickers operating out of nearby Thailand. Sailing out on the vast Andaman Sea, they head for Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim society with a prosperous economy and a sizeable Indian population, where they hope to culturally blend in and find work.

The Rohingya are Bengali Muslims, a people formed and displaced by the contingencies of geography, religion, Western colonization, and nationalist wars of independence. Arakan Valley, which they consider their homeland, is part of Burma’s Rakhine State. By religion and by ethnicity, they are indistinguishable from the Bangladeshi. Indeed, their ancestors were brought to Burma by the British colonizers to farm rice lands. They have little in common with the rest of the Burmese population, who are mostly Buddhist.

In the partitions that followed the colonial era—where ethnicity, culture, and government were fused under the emergent nation-states—the Rohingya found themselves without a state. The Burmese military government, under Gen. Ne Win, declared them in 1982 to be ineligible for Burmese citizenship, and insisted on classifying them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. But Bangladesh refused to accept them as its nationals, preferring to set up refugee camps instead to accommodate them as internally displaced persons.

The exodus of the Rohingya people started in 2012 and became more intense in 2013, when Burmese mobs began attacking their communities, forcing hundreds of thousands to seek protection in refugee camps on both sides of the border. A powerful political movement in Burma known as “969” regards the Rohingya Muslims as a threat to Buddhism.

The Rohingya boat people who are now adrift on the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Straits appear to have come from the refugee camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar, where they have been stuck for some years. The numbers are mind-boggling. I quote from a New York Times report: “The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a report released Friday that an estimated 25,000 people fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat in the first quarter of this year, twice the number of last year.”

Over the weekend, more than 500 Rohingya arrived in Sumatra, Indonesia. Their crew had abandoned them, fearful of the crackdown on human smugglers. The Indonesians gave the refugees water, food and fuel, and promptly sent them off, confident that Indonesia was not their destination. Last Monday, another 1,051 people landed on the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi, a good number of them jumping from their boat when they saw land and summoning their last strength to swim ashore. There were 101 women and 52 children in this group. Tourist hotels in Langkawi sent them food, water, medicines, clothes and blankets, and, this time, Malaysian authorities assured them they would not be sent away.

Thousands more are, however, still adrift at sea, uncertain whether they will make it to shore or perish from drowning, illness, starvation, or dehydration. This is a humanitarian crisis, not unlike the unabated flow of refugees fleeing Libya and Syria, who attempt to cross the Mediterranean on frail boats to reach Europe. The Rohingya come from Myanmar, an Asean member-state, and are preyed upon by human smuggling syndicates based in Thailand, another Asean member-state. All they ask is to be allowed to start a new life in any country that would take them, and give them work, free from fear and harassment. Asean cannot treat the Rohingya as though they were the sole responsibility of the country into which the sea current and the wind happened to deposit them.

All this seems far removed from our everyday concerns as Filipinos, though we may be part of Asean. Indeed, a glance at the map would show that the probability of Rohingya boats washing ashore on a Philippine beach is pretty low. But this is precisely what makes the moral imperative more salient—that we are able to see ourselves as being part of the solution even when the problem is not immediately at our door.

In this regard, it is worth asking: How many of us are prepared to welcome the Rohingya into our communities? Not many, I suspect. While we did open our doors to war refugees from South Vietnam in the 1970s, they did not exactly live among us. They stayed in camps in Bataan and Palawan where they basically waited and prepared for eventual resettlement in the United States.

In truth, it’s not an easy question to answer. There’s a new type of racism that is thriving everywhere in the modern world. No longer anchored on a belief in the hierarchy of races, it manifests itself as a belief in cultural essentialism. It is often subtly expressed as the need to preserve cultural integrity in a pluralist world, though its ultimate aim is clearly to exclude the “other.” Anti-immigrant Europe is a good example of this. And indeed, overseas Filipino workers often find themselves at the receiving end of this sentiment.

The more globalized societies become, the more people begin to think their nationhood is threatened. Unable to tap the sources of modern solidarity, they ironically turn to ethnicity, and sometimes to religion, in a frantic effort to recover and defend their imagined purity and wholeness. I dare say we are probably no different.

* * *