More than 300 Rohingya refugees are missing somewhere in the Andaman sea. Their boat was last seen on Saturday, May 16th when the Thai navy towed it away from Thailand towards Indonesia. It had previously been batted back and forth across the maritime border between Malaysia and Thailand; with neither country’s government willing to let the refugees land.

They are part of a mass exodus of Burmese Rohingya, fleeing ethnic violence and political repression aboard rickety wooden boats. But a recent crackdown by regional authorities has upped the risk to the smugglers who pilot the boats, leading them to abandon the refugees at sea. Thousands of people are now stranded, floating somewhere in the waters of Southeast Asia with rapidly dwindling food and water supplies.

None of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which would obligate them to protect refugees on their territory. (Not that the obligation necessarily prevents governments from pushing boats full of desperate refugees out of their waters. Ahem, Australia.) They’ve also all already taken in hundreds of Rohingya, and apparently feel that they’ve done enough.

Amid high level regional talks about how to handle the crisis, the Philippine government announced today that it was willing to help. It may already be too late for the people aboard the missing boat.

Things You Can’t Say in Burma

Burmese newspaper “Voice of Arakan” has been informed by the government that its English name must be changed to “Voice of Rakhine”.

Arakan state was renamed Rakhine by the military junta in 1989. Situated on the border with Bangladesh, it is home to the majority of Burma’s beleaguered Rohingya minority. Since 2012, attacks on the Muslim Rohingya by Buddhist Arakanese have displaced approximately 140,000 people.

“Rohingya” is of course already a banned term in Burma, whose government does not admit to their existence. Recently, extremist monk Wirathu excoriated UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, calling her a “bitch” and a “whore” for speaking on Rohingya rights. (He’s not sorry.)

Now the name of their home has also become politicized. The editor of the newspaper (already named “Voice of Rakhine” in Burmese) says that the English name will not change. But journalists in Burma have little protection from the government, and if pressure escalates, he may have no choice.

WTF Friday, 11/14/2014

2012-08-02 00.14.53OMG you guys, President Obama went to Burma and said “Rohingya” yesterday. And that’s just a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also said it, calling on the Burmese government to ensure humanitarian access to the beleagured minority.

More than a million Rohingya live in Burma. About 140,000 of them currently reside in squalid camps, displaced by attacks on Muslim Rohingyas by the majority Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012. They lack adequate food and shelter and, since the ejection of Doctors Without Borders in February, their access to medical care is limited.

They are also stateless, denied citizenship by the Burmese government, which claims that they “have never had ethnic nationals called ‘Rohingya'”. In its 2014 official census, the government refused to count individuals self-identifying as Rohingya. Instead, it insists that they are “Bengalis”, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who should go home. (Population data for Rakhine State reveals no influx of Muslims from Bangladesh, or anywhere else.)

Recently, the regime has stepped up pressure on members of the international community not to employ the term “Rohingya”. In June, it demanded an apology after a UNICEF staffer used the word during a briefing. Many international actors have bowed to the government’s absurd demands, in order to continue working with a population desperately in need of help, or simply to avoid stirring up trouble.

But Obama and Ban’s strong statements suggest the tide may be turning. Yesterday, the Burmese ambassador to the UK conceded that the Rohingya are “people”. Maybe with a little more prodding, they’ll get around to admitting that they have rights.


*That’s a photo I took of festival observers at Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda in 2012.

WTF Wednesday, 12/19/2012

I’m headed out of town for the holidays tomorrow, so here’s a supersize dose of absurdity to tide you over until 2013:

  • Apparently half of Africa fell for a spoof article reporting Mike Tyson’s sex change surgery and subsequent adoption of the name “Michelle.” Because excessive lactation totally seems like a plausible explanation for the 1996 loss to Holyfield… (h/t Ben in Lusaka)
  • The Teletubbies will begin airing in Burma in January. Call me crazy, but this does not seem like a great way to incentivize other authoritarian regimes to liberalize.
  • Current longest-serving-African-dictator Teodor Obiang is building a shiny new capital city deep in the jungles of Equatorial Guinea, where he won’t have to worry about sea invasions. (But he will have a 6-lane highway and a golf course.) The government plans to drag approximately 1/3 of EG’s 700,000 inhabitants along with it when it moves into Oyala in 2020.

WTF Friday, 4/6/2012

This is kind of the perfect set-up. Nick Cage hasn’t done a prison movie since 1997, and I think we all know how well that went.

“An exhibition of guns as art now in Mexico is making its way from Mexico to the United States, where many of the weapons presumably originated.” I think the ATF just set those guns free because they loved them so much, hoping that they would come back one day, thus reciprocating the love.

I kind of feel like I’m gonna jinx this if I talk about it.


WTF Friday, 4/1/11

Look at you, WaPo. Using middle school lingo to describe the diplomatic relationship between two authoritarian dictators. A headline after my own heart.

Kim Jong-il asserts his influence on Maine politics. I heard he can actually enter dreams Inception style.
Hm. A single-party state praising democratic change. Fake democratic change at that. Interesting angle…

Hmmm… (Burma Edition)

The opposition’s biggest mistake, he said, was its belief that “help from the West – through a mix of sanctions and democracy – would somehow force the regime to bargain.” In fact, Thant Myint-U said, sanctions may have entrenched the regime and slowed the pace of reform.

– Burmese Historian Thant Myint-U, quoted in Joshua Hammer’s profile of Aung San Suu Kyi, in this week’s New Yorker (subscription required)

WTF Friday, 11/5/10

The military junta in Burma has decided to cancel elections in several regions populated by ethnic minorities, shunning the ever-popular dictatorial move of rigging elections. Nice. Way to cut out the middle man.

BBC has apologized to Bob Geldof for running a series of reports insinuating that Live Aid money has been used to purchase weapons. This was in March. It is now November. Timely. Especially considering that, according to the BBC, there is “no evidence for these statements.” I think they at least owe him a fruit basket.
Zimbabwe has reached the 5-peat for the lowest ranking on the UNDP Human Development Index despite the life expectancy for the country increasing from 37 to 47 since a few years ago. Kinda calls into question the whole point of this list…

WTF Friday, 5/7/10

  • Speaking of homophobia, check out this little gem that was linked from a banner ad. Really thought-provoking stuff.
  • This sounds just incredibly awkward: “‘If we could work with members drawn from the Rhodesia front that oppressed us, what was there to prevent us from working with him?’ Mr. Mugabe asked, laying his hand on Mr. Tsvangirai’s arm. Mr. Tsvangirai, who has survived at least two assassination attempts in Zimbabwe, remained inscrutable and for several seconds, the room fell silent. Mr. Mugabe only smiled broadly. ‘This young fellow… of mine,’ he added, patting his arm. He coaxed another laugh from Mr. Tsvangirai and the audience.”
  • National League for Democracy (NLD), main opposition and pro-democracy party in Burma, has officially disbanded so as to not recognize bogus law that nullifies their 1990 victory.
  • BBC asks readers of this article about checkpoint bribes in Ivory Coast, “What do you think about bribes being paid at checkpoints?” I really want to hear what an extortionist has to say because, honestly, who else is gonna have a divergent opinion on this one?

The Penguin on Your Television Will Now Explode

This weekend the New York Times ran an article in the Fashion & Style section about the U.S. Campaign for Burma’s efforts to get Burma “into the orbit of A-list activist causes.” It’s all about the process of “branding” the human rights crisis. This hurt my soul (just play along) for a number of reasons. Let’s list them, kay?

  1. Ugh, do we really have so little capacity to care that our causes have to jockey for position on the Who’s Who in Atrocity Hierarchy?
  2. No one appreciates a meta-narrative as much as I do, but really, when the whole problem is a lack of public awareness of a crisis, wouldn’t everybody be better served if the paper of record reported on the crisis, rather than on the efforts to draw attention to the crisis? I’m just saying.
  3. Is it me, or does the article seem to suggest that our nation’s precious celebrities are out to convince us that Hitler has been reincarnated in the person of General Than Shwe? I’m pretty sure that’s not even temporally possible…

So then I looked at the U.S. Campaign for Burma’s website. It turns out, it’s kind of genius. (Where “balls out shamelessness” = genius.) As promised by the Times article, they’ve got tons of celebrities in reasonably clever and informative, high production quality, 30 second spots advocating for their cause. And their slogan is, no joke, “Millions Rallied to Free Nelson Mandela and South Africa. Now it’s Burma’s Turn.”

I mean, seriously guys? It’s Burma’s turn??? Is that really the direction you want to go in? Can’t you kind of hear the objections? North Korea: “We haven’t had lunch in 60 years… isn’t it our turn yet?” Zimbabwe: “I swear we were next – lunatic dictator, insane economic policies, political oppression, remember?” Congo: “We have the GREATEST RAPE IN THE WORLD; are we at least near the top of the list?”