YANGON, Myanmar – Many of the thousands of migrants abandoned at sea in Southeast Asia this month are Rohingya Muslims who fled their home country of Myanmar. Here are facts about the history and persecution of the ethnic and religious minority:
WHO ARE THE ROHINGYA?
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, also known as Burma. Numbering around 1.3 million, they are concentrated in western Rakhine state, which neighbors Bangladesh.
The Rohingya have been in Myanmar for centuries. Some historians say they are indigenous to Rakhine state, while others say they originally migrated from the west. In 1826, when the country was under British India rule, Muslims from Bengal were encouraged to move to the then-depopulated state of Rakhine — or Arakan — fueling ethnic tensions with local Buddhists that continue to this day. The numbers of Rohingya increased dramatically over the next few decades, further polarizing the two communities.
Denied citizenship by national law, the Rohingya are effectively stateless and have limited access to education, adequate health care and the right to freely practice their religion. Their movement is severely restricted. In some cases they cannot travel between villages without paying hefty bribes to police and other authorities. If they want to go to the main city of Yangon — even for emergencies — they can expect to pay up to $4,000.
After the country moved from dictatorship to democracy in 2011, newfound freedoms of expression gave voice to Buddhist extremists who spewed hatred against the religious minority and warned Muslims were taking over the country. The attacks that followed left up to 280 people dead. Another 140,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes and are now living under apartheid-like conditions in crowded displacement camps.
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
The Rohingya want the same rights as others in Myanmar, starting with citizenship.
Soon after President Thein Sein came to power in 2011, he stated the Rohingya do not exist and advocated for their deportation.
The government says they are "Bengali," a term that implies they are all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are not eligible for citizenship under the country's military-drafted 1982 law, because they are not on an "official" list of ethnic groups that had permanently settled in Myanmar since at least 1823.
The legislation does provide an alternative, "naturalized" citizenship for Rohingya, but only for those willing to identify themselves as "Bengali." They also have to be able to prove their families have been in the country for at least three generations. That's difficult for members of the religious minority, who have little in the form of documentation and are frequently uprooted.
Even those who gain alternative citizenship would continue to be discriminated against. The status falls short of full citizenship, and would continue to deny Rohingya the right to own land, to run for office, to form or lead political parties and to enter professional fields like law, medicine and engineering.
The Rohingya have little say in their future. They will not be allowed to vote in upcoming general elections. And a controversial "action plan" warns they could face eventual deportation or indefinite internment.
WHY THEY ARE FLEEING?
With little left for them in Myanmar, the Rohingya have for decades set their sights abroad, most hoping to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia where they can find under-the-table jobs and security.
The number of men, women and children who fled the country skyrocketed after the 2012 violence, with more than 120,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis boarding boats in the last three years. Many sold everything they had — land, cattle, gold — to get to a third country. They give human traffickers a little money upfront, the rest coming while they are in transit. Urgent calls are made to their families demanding $2,000 or more before they can continue on their way. Until recently, the first stop along the route was neighboring Thailand, where they were held in secret jungle. Those unable to come up with ransoms risked being held for months, sometimes longer, enduring beatings and getting little food, water or medical attention. Many died; in recent weeks authorities have discovered dozens of shallow graves in abandoned camps.
The tactics of smugglers changed in November following a crackdown by Thai authorities on human trafficking networks. Instead of bringing their "passengers" to land, they held them on large boats that were effectively offshore camps. They shuttled them to the Thai-Malaysian border on smaller, rickety vessels once they were paid off.
When the heat turned up — not only traffickers but also politicians and police were getting arrested — brokers and agents got spooked. People were no longer allowed to disembark. Still more boats kept coming until there were up to 8,000 migrants stranded at sea — both Rohingya, fleeing persecution, and Bangladeshis, who fled their country largely for economic reasons.
This month, some alarmed traffickers started abandoning their ships, leaving their human cargo at sea without fuel, food and clean water. More than 3,000 people have so far washed to shores in Southeast Asia. The United Nations estimates an equal number are stranded at sea.
After weeks of inaction — and in some cases exacerbating the crisis by pushing boat people back to sea — foreign governments have in recent days started to step in. Indonesia and Malaysia have offered to give temporary shelter to thousands of migrants. And the United States and the tiny, African nation of Gambia have offered to resettle some of the Rohingya.
Search-and-rescue operations have begun, with Malaysia deploying four ships and putting helicopters on standby. The Pentagon says it's preparing to send maritime aviation patrols throughout the region.
Foreign governments, right groups and activists say much more needs to be done, starting with addressing the root cause of the problem: Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya.
Sources: Arakan Project, Center for International and Strategic Studies, the United Nations.