Today another 200 Rohingya refugees have been rescued while drifting away in a wooden boat near the coast of Indonesia. It is pretty clear that the Rohingya are becoming the ‘Roma gypsy‘ of Southeast Asia, and similar to the case of Roma in Europe, the discussion is not about them, as human beings or to address their issues, but rather about how to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Degrading camps, expulsions and even ridiculous statements that these refugees, who bear the physical scars of their oppression, are actually economic migrants seem at this stage to be the only solutions offered. Islamic parties and even extremist groups are not interested in the destiny of the Rohingya people – or as we shall see below, at least not from a humanitarian and ‘political’ viewpoint. For instance, 193 Rohingya Muslims tried to find refuge on Sabang Island in Aceh Province, but are today facing deportation and possibly torture or death in Burma. Yet Irfan Awwas, chairman of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council, or MMI, said, ‘our attention has been focused and our energy has been exhausted on the Palestinian issue.’ In other words, this hard line Indonesian group tells us that it has screamed so much for Hamas and the Palestinians that it suffers from a hoarse ‘political’ voice.
Although this shows the real faces and intentions of many Islamist movements around the world, particularly the most extremist, the Rohingya Muslims may surely be better off with the silence of such movements. This also means that there is space for a real voice that can help to resolve their issues. The US , with the UN, has to take the issue of the Rohingya people seriously and call for a forum to resolve the historical denial of an entire ethnic group. Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic group and have a traceable history in Burma which dates back to the early 7th century!
However, I know very well that the world of international politics is cynical and Machiavellian, and no action will be taken until the countries in South Asia (and the West) fully understand the consequences of this ‘no-action’ policy. I have not very much time to go into detail here, but I wish to offer a brief rationale for which not only Rohingya Muslims are suffering from their situation, but also how we can end badly in terms of international security; the only thing, unfortunately, which seems to matter to politicians today.
Let me only address the situation in Bangladesh where there are possibly more than 26,000 Rohingya refugees. The camps there are in a shocking condition and host to some of the most appalling, unhygienic and poor situations that can be found in refugee camps. Many women have lost their husbands, mothers their sons, and children are often without proper education. Depression is palpable everywhere; but so too is anger, resentment and a readiness to face even death if this means to escape such a miserable and unjust life.
In my most recent book I have discussed how emotions and what I have called an ‘ethos of justice’, which can turn into an ideology of justice, may increase the risk of, if not produce, what scholars have defined ‘fundamentalism’. Camps such as this one, in which so many Rohingya Muslims live and suffer as refugees, can only increase the resentment towards other states, people, and situations.
Certainly it is not a surprise that some Rohingya Muslims may end in prison for petty crimes and that, as in the case of the Gypsies in Europe, people may show very little empathy towards them and their lives. Yet Rohingya have very few choices and possibilities. This is also true in the case of education, which is mainly religious and in Bangladeshi madrasas. The religious teaching in these madrasas is at the best very traditional and at worst dangerous for the education and formation of frustrated and poor new generations of displaced Rohingya Muslims.
Should we be surprised that violent radical groups may target or exploit the desperate reality of these people? I am not. I expect that if the situation of Rohingya Muslims is not addressed quickly, with an emphasis on justice and their rights, their refugee camps can easily become a security issue for the world and a prolific breeding ground for future extremists and possibly even cheap terrorists (yes, indeed, terrorism is often a paid job!).
There is enough desperation among the Rohingya Muslims, who fear terribly for their lives and the lives of their loved ones in Burma, that exploitation of their emotions and needs would perhaps be an easy vulnerability for a radical organization.
If anyone can gain from the desperation of the Rohingya Muslims as people and individuals, it is certainly neither the Southeast Asian countries, nor the Western ones, but rather those extremist, violent, “jihadi” groups that today have more and more difficulties to recruit people for their bloody plots. Now we may ask ourselves: are the silent, hoarse voices of radical violent Islamic groups so innocent?