The Myanmar government has given the estimated one million Rohingya people in Sittwe, the coastal region of the country, a dispiriting choice: Prove your family has lived here for more than 60 years and qualify for second-class citizenship, or be placed in camps and face deportation.
The policy, accompanied by a wave of decrees and legislation, has made life for the Rohingya, a long-persecuted Muslim minority, ever more desperate, spurring the biggest flow of Rohingya refugees since a major exodus two years ago.
In the last three weeks alone, 14,500 Rohingya have sailed from the beaches of Rakhine State to Thailand, with the ultimate goal of reaching Malaysia, according to the Arakan Project, a group that monitors Rohingya refugees.
The crisis has become an embarrassment to the White House ahead of a scheduled visit by President Obama to Myanmar next week. The administration considers Myanmar a foreign-policy success story in Asia but is worried that renewed conflict between Buddhist extremists, who are given a free hand by the government, and the Rohingya could derail the already rocky transition from military rule to democratic reform.Mr. Obama called President Thein Sein of Myanmar last week, urging him to address the “tensions and humanitarian situation in Rakhine State,” the White House said.
In his most public appeal to the government yet, Mr. Obama asked the Myanmar leader to revise the anti-Rohingya policies, specifically the resettlement plan. Myanmar must “support the civil and political rights of the Rohingya population,” he said.
The Rohingya have faced discrimination for decades. They have been denied citizenship and evicted from their homes, their land has been confiscated, and they have been attacked by the military. After one such attack in 1978, some 200,000 fled to Bangladesh.
The latest flare-up began with an outbreak of sectarian rioting in 2012, in which hundreds of Rohingya were killed and dozens of their villages burned to the ground by radical Buddhists. Since then, close to 100,000 have fled the country, and more than 100,000 have been confined to squalid camps, forbidden to leave.
As conditions in the camps have deteriorated, international pressure has mounted on the government to find a humane solution. Instead, the government appears to be accelerating a strategy that human rights groups have described as ethnic cleansing.
For many Rohingya, the new policy, called the Rakhine Action Plan, represents a kind of final humiliation, said Mohamed Saeed, a community organizer in a camp on the edge of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.
“People really fear this plan,” he said. “Our community is getting less and less. This is where they want us — out.”
Many Rohingya came to Myanmar in the 19th century when the British ruled all of what is now India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. But the government’s demand for proof of residence since 1948 is too onerous for many, who either do not have the paperwork or fall short of the six-decade requirement, human rights advocates say.
Those who can prove their residence qualify only for naturalized citizenship, which carries fewer rights than full citizenship and can be revoked. Moreover, they would be classified as “Bengali,” rather than Rohingya, suggesting that they are immigrants from Bangladesh and leaving open the possibility of deportation.
Under the plan, those Rohingya who cannot meet the standards for naturalized citizenship or refuse to accept the Bengali designation would be placed in camps before being deported.
Human Rights Watch described the plan as “nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness.”
The government asked the United Nations refugee agency to participate in the resettlement, but the agency refused, a spokesman said.
The Rakhine Action Plan is but one element of a host of policies and tactics aimed at marginalizing the Rohingya. This year, in line with the government’s position that they are foreigners, the Rohingya were prevented from participating in the national census.
Legislation introduced in Parliament two months ago, and expected to pass, would bar Rohingya from voting in next year’s election. Parliament is also considering a bill that would ban interfaith marriage, a measure human rights advocates say is designed to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment.
The policies come on top of an increasingly dire situation in Rohingya camps and villages. In the camps around Sittwe, where about 140,000 Rohingya live, health services are virtually nonexistent.
The main medical provider, Doctors Without Borders, the international nonprofit group, was chased out six months ago and has not been able to return.
In the villages around Maungdaw, a Rohingya-dominated town near the border with Bangladesh, there has been a sudden increase in the arrests of young Rohingya men and boys, United Nations officials and human rights advocates said.
The Border Guard Police arrested more than 100 Rohingya on charges of holding illegal gatherings and over refusals to participate in the action plan. Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, said the arrests were part of a campaign to force the men to leave the country.
For many, the high-risk boat trips to Thailand en route to Malaysia, a Muslim country that quietly tolerates the refugees, begin at a gray sandy beach at Ohn Taw Shi, a fishing village fringed by coconut trees on the outskirts of a camp for the displaced.
On a recent day, a froth of waves lapped the shore, a few open wooden boats lay untended, waiting for use at night. The police slept in the afternoon heat in a wooden shack about 500 yards away.
A smuggler, Chan Thet Maung, a cellphone hooked to his pants and earplugs dangling from his neck, said that when the wooden boats were filled with Rohingya, they sailed north for about five hours to connect with larger vessels. There, in waters off the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, multideck boats sometimes idle for days or weeks, manned by armed and often brutal crews, waiting for a full complement of passengers bound for Thailand, the United Nations refugee agency said in an internal report.
The annual smuggling season, which begins in early October when the monsoon season ends, got off to a fast start, the smuggler said. The police wanted $2,000 — $100 for each of the 20 passengers — for a recent boatload, but the smugglers had offered slightly less, he said.
The trip was aborted, but another attempt would be made soon, he said.
Local officials abet the smuggling trips, according to Matthew Smith, the director of Fortify Rights, an organization that studies ethnic groups in Myanmar.
“The regional trafficking and smuggling begins with the complicity of Myanmar authorities,” he said. “We’ve documented Myanmar police and armed forces taking payments as high as seven million kyat in return for a boat’s passage to sea.” Seven million kyat is about $7,000.
In some cases, the Myanmar Navy escorted boats filled with fleeing Rohingya and operated by criminal gangs out to international waters, Mr. Smith said.
Most Rohingya who want to leave the camps or the villages in northern Rakhine pay brokers $200 just to board a boat. Once in Thailand, the refugees must pay smugglers an additional $2,000 for the second leg to Malaysia.
Some, like Nor Rankis, 25, who said she wanted to join her estranged husband and brother in Malaysia, do not pay anything, an almost certain sign she will be sold into servitude by traffickers in Thailand.
“I don’t want to live here; I cannot survive,” she said one evening as she waited for a smuggler to take her away. She had packed a few things in a pink plastic basket: a bottle of perfume, a new sarong and a box of vitamins — though nothing to protect her against the equatorial sun that would beat down on her across the Bay of Bengal.
For better-off Rohingya in Sittwe, brokers can arrange documents for a ticket on the daily 90-minute flight to Yangon for $4,000. Regular passengers pay $88.
A 20-year-old Rohingya student, whose family pooled savings for the $4,000, said his broker gave more than 75 percent of the cost to immigration officials. Like all Rohingya students, he was expelled in 2012.
The student, who refused to give his name for fear of retribution, said the broker escorted him with officials of the Department of Immigration and Population in a government car from the camp to the Sittwe airport.
“I was shaking with nerves,” he said. “But the broker gave me heart, and I was waved through the departure gate.”
In Yangon, the nation’s commercial capital, Rohingya say they have an easier existence. Long-established Rohingya families run businesses there, and documents are not scrutinized as carefully as in Rakhine, where segregation has become entrenched.
A spokesman for Rakhine State insisted the Rohingya did not belong in Myanmar and defended the Rakhine Action Plan as necessary because the higher Muslim birthrate threatened the Buddhist majority.
“There are no Rohingya under the law,” said the spokesman, U Win Myaing, assistant director of the Ministry of Information. “They are illegal immigrants. If they need labor in the United Arab Emirates, why don’t they ask people to go there?”
Some government officials have described the Rakhine Action Plan as a draft proposal, rather than official policy. But the government has already begun to carry out the plan in at least one camp, Myebon, 60 miles south of Sittwe.
In a gesture in advance of Mr. Obama’s visit, the government released 15 political prisoners in early October, including three Rohingya. Among them was U Kyaw Hla Aung, 75, a prominent lawyer, who was jailed after the violence in Sittwe in 2012.
One of the few Rohingya trained as a lawyer — Rohingya have since been barred from studying law or medicine — Mr. Kyaw Hla Aung said it was illogical for the government to insist that Rohingya were not citizens.
“My father was head clerk of the courts in Sittwe for 40 years,” he said in his bamboo house in one of the camps. “I was a stenographer for 24 years in the courts, and then a lawyer. How can they say we are not full citizens?”
After a few nights of waiting for a smuggler, Nor Rankis waded into the inky Bay of Bengal to a small wooden boat, jammed with a score of others, headed, she hoped, for Malaysia.
“I’m depending on God,” she said. “That’s why I dare to go.”
Jane Perlez is the chief diplomatic correspondent in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times.
This article first appeared in the New York Times
Photo by Tomas Munita for the New York Times.