Today’s New York Times has an article on the plight of the Rohingya people from western Burma, who are now refugees in Indonesia.

Unless one follows Amnesty International, one might not know about this Muslim tribe in mostly Buddhist Burma who has been prosecuted by their present day government as unwelcome outsiders. As a result, hundreds of thousands have fled, mainly to Bangladesh, but also to Thailand, where over 100thousand live in refugee camps.

From Wikipedia

While some historians write that the modern Rohingya people are the result of migrations that started in the 7th century, the Buddhist Rakhine people and the Burmese military government claim that such migrations started in the 18th century.[3]

The Rohingya are physically, linguistically and culturally similar to South Asians, especially Chittagonian people. Some of the Rohingya settling in Arakan are descendants of Arabs, Persians and Pathans who migrated to Arakan during the Mughal Empire.

In other words, they have been there for a couple hundred years, but nevertheless have been denied citizenship by the Burmese government.

Because of ethnic and religious persecution, many have fled: in 1978, 200thousand fled the Burmese Army’s pogrom, and in 1990-1991 another quarter million fled persecution that included forced labor for military projects and summary executions.

The latest horror story comes from Thailand, which houses tens of thousands of Burmese refugees in camps. According to the refugees, their boats are being denied entry; instead, the Thai army has towed several boats out into the sea and abandoning them (something that Thailand denies).

The NYTimes story is about a small group of these present day “boat people” who were helped by Indonesians in the poor province of Aceh.

If you vaguely remember Aceh, it might be because that area was hit badly by the Tsunami; but it was also an area where local “insurgents” tried to secede from Indonesia and terrorized locals trying to impose a strict version of Islam. (Most Islam in Indonesia is influenced by the Sufi mystics and has much less literalism than the Saudi version).

So the poorest of the poor are the ones who are welcoming the boat people, because they remember their own days of suffering, and because as good Muslims they are obeying the religious rules of charity toward those who need help.

I have no expertise in this area, but this is a regional problem and the Bali process (i.e. a meeting of the local ASEAN and NGO organizations that are involved with helping the refugees) are trying to figure out the best way to resettle these refugees.

(note: the Philippines is part of the ASEAN conference but we are too far east to have received these latest boat people fleeing religious and ethnic prosecution).

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes on human rights in Africa at Makaipablog

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