(This article is part of our special package on Myanmar. Read more articles here.)
The rains are here, and the seas are rough, so the sails are drawn down. But once the monsoon recedes and the storms fade, the waters turn calmer in the Bay of Bengal. Boatmen will unfurl their sails to mark the beginning of another season. The fishing trawlers, shuluks, and shampans, which dot the world’s longest stretch of uninterrupted beach from Chittagong to Shah Porir Dwip, will begin carrying goods to small ports along the sea, as traders and seafarers have done for centuries, from the time when the seas and places did not have names by which they are known today.
Some of the boats will be carrying people. Some will be passengers. Some will have paid thousands of dollars to intermediaries as they seek to escape poverty. Some will be captives of people smugglers who will take them to unknown places from where their relatives will be called and more money demanded, if they are to be set free. And many will be fleeing persecution.
One group of people embodies all three misfortunes – they are desperate, some have been abducted, and almost all have been persecuted; they are the truly wretched of the earth. They are the Rohingya, or the people of Rohang, as they have called their home, which Myanmar today calls Rakhine and what the British earlier knew as Arakan.
Many Rohingya have been leaving Rakhine by crossing the river Naf, which forms the boundary between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Neither government, on either side of the river, wants them; nor do the islands across the Andaman Sea, all the way to the Straits of Malacca. They are the world’s flotsam.
In May 2015, many Rohingya were left abandoned on the high seas by people smugglers, as country after country in Southeast Asia shunned them. Many had paid people smugglers extraordinarily large amounts, which they would never be able to pay back to lenders, so that they could leave Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many had died and had been dumped in the sea or buried in mass graves.
The excitement around the de facto presidency of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar has naturally attracted global attention. The Nobel laureate has been the icon of democracy in Myanmar, and she has scrupulously followed the path to power by following the rules set by generals, who were never popularly elected, and crossed every hurdle to come close to power. Even after her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won an overwhelming majority in the parliamentary elections in 2015 – the first truly representative test since 1990 – she cannot become president, because earlier governments had defined the office of president such that anyone with a foreign-born spouse or children is barred from holding that position. (Suu Kyi’s husband, the late Tibetan scholar Michael Aris, was British; their two sons are British citizens).
Those political developments have meant that the tragedy of the Rohingya has receded in memory. The tragedy in the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asian waters is inevitable after the rains recede – and with the global attention focused on the refugee crisis in Europe, the Rohingya face the prospect of being ignored once again.
The discrimination the Rohingya face in Myanmar has been systematic. For one, the government doesn’t want them to be called Rohingya. The minister of religious affairs and culture in May 2016 called Muslims and Hindus “associate citizens”. In the same month, shockingly, Suu Kyi told the American ambassador that the US Government (and, by implication, the rest of the world) should call the Rohingya “Bengalis”. A local regulation in place, dating back to 2005 but implemented since 2013, in the Rakhine province requires the Rohingya to obtain government permission before they can marry and they are restricted to having only two children.
Myanmar officially recognises 135 ethnic groups but it doesn’t have room for one more; the Rohingya were not issued voter registration cards last year. In neighbouring Bangladesh, a country that knows what being a refugee means, given its own bloody birth when ten million had fled to India, fresh moves are under consideration to push the Rohingya deeper into oblivion. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has made plans to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya to an island barely above the sea-level, which frequently disappears during high tide.
Suu Kyi’s response to the Rohingya crisis has been the most perplexing. She has spent nearly two decades of her life under house arrest and knows what it means to be under someone else’s control and denied individual freedom. Her two books – Letters from Burma and Freedom from Fear – show her deep knowledge and appreciation of Myanmar’s diversity and commitment to democracy. When I heard her speak about human rights on the international human rights day at the Inya Lake Hotel in 2012, she spoke without notes, in full paragraphs, with a quiet eloquence and conviction that stirred the emotions of the jaded audience of diplomats and development experts assembled there that morning. Freedom of speech is important, she said then, but we must also listen. Burma needed healing, she said (she preferred the colonial-era name of the country, Burma, rather than Myanmar, which the generals had chosen). And healing was only possible if we respected each other. And yet, her government does not have room for the Rohingya.
The military has ruled Myanmar since 1962, when General Ne Win overthrew the last democratic government. The generals pursued autarkic policies of self-reliance which would make the India of 1960s and 70s – of permits and licences – look like a liberalised haven. Myanmar’s economy stagnated. In 1988, Suu Kyi, the daughter of the slain freedom fighter General Aung San, (who was assassinated with his key associates in July 1947, months before he was to lead Burma after independence in 1948), returned from Oxford, where she lived with her family, to look after her ailing mother. She stayed on after her mother’s death, promising a democratic revival, and the generals miscalculated the veneration and support she commanded when they called the 1990 elections.
The NLD won 59.8 percent of the votes, which gave the party 392 of the 492 seats. But the Tatmadaw, as the military is called, cancelled the outcome, jailed the NLD candidates who had won, renewed Suu Kyi’s house arrest and suspended democracy.
The international community rallied round the democrats. Suu Kyi was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Union in 1990, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1993. The US and the EU imposed military and economic sanctions. India aided dissidents from Myanmar who had sought refuge in India. Angered by the international reaction, including targetted sanctions against businessmen close to the military, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (as the junta described itself) jailed more people and forged closer ties with China. A furious regime stubbornly tightened its grip, using forced labour to build pipelines to carry gas, continuing wars with several of the country’s ethnic minorities – the Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan – and attacking the Rohingya, forcing them to flee to the immediate neighbour in the east, Bangladesh.
Violence against the Rohingya has been rising since 2010. The Irish Centre for Human Rights has called the “widespread and systematic attacks” a crime against humanity, citing forced labour, deportation, forcible transfer of population, rape and sexual violence, intimidation, and persecution. The same year, the then-President Thein Sein decided to reorient the country’s foreign policy. He released Suu Kyi from house arrest. He called for by-elections in 2012, and of the 45 seats that were contested, the NLD won 43 seats; Suu Kyi finally entered Myanmar’s parliament. She began touring around the world, kindling hope that the Myanmar saga would have a fairy-tale ending.
In order to get the more conservative legislators and the military on her side, she toned down her criticism of the military and the government. On BBC’s popular radio programme, ‘Desert Island Discs’, she said all Burmese soldiers were like her family, since her father, General Aung San, was the father of the Burmese Army. When she was appointed to head a commission of inquiry investigating a violent police crackdown on Buddhist monks and communist activists, who were protesting a Chinese-owned copper mine, she recommended that the project should go ahead despite agreeing that the project failed to adequately address environmental concerns.
When violence erupted against the Rohingya, Suu Kyi said little. After riots against the Rohingya, she told the Indian network NDTV in 2012: “Violence is something I am appalled by completely and condemn completely, but don’t forget that violence has been committed by both sides. This is why I prefer not to take sides and also I want to work to reconciliation between these two communities. I am not going to be able to do that if I am going to take sides.”
She repeated that view in an interview with Mishal Husain of the BBC, a year later. (In a recent biography, the British journalist Peter Popham claims that she was unhappy when she found that Husain was a Muslim). Following another violent incident against the Rohingya in 2012, Suu Kyi said that the country’s citizenship laws should be “clarified.” But when she was specifically asked if the Rohingya ought to be citizens of Myanmar, she said, “I do not know.” Vikram Nehru, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “A firmer response to these kinds of challenges will be needed.”
Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak out has, at least, partly been influenced by the prevailing mood in Myanmar. Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who likes to wear dark sunglasses and is known for making inflammatory remarks in a monotonous drawl, wants all Muslims, and not just the Rohingya, to be expelled from Myanmar. He had been arrested in 2003 for his anti-Muslim rhetoric which some analysts blame for the deaths of ten Muslims. From the Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay, the northern town that was once the capital of Myanmar, he has called for boycott of Muslim businesses making full use of the freedom he has won after his release from jail in 2010, as part of the political liberalisation process.
In September 2012, Wirathu supported Thein Sein’s call to move the Rohingya to another country. The radical monk leads a campaign known as 969, a reference to Buddha’s nine attributes, six teachings, and nine attributes of the Buddhist order. He urges Buddhists to do business only with other Buddhists. Other monks have criticised him, but Wirathu’s following continues to grow. In late 2012, after violence in Meiktila in which 40 Muslims died, his followers distributed “969” stickers in the town. Wirathu also enjoys a following outside Myanmar. Sasana Ramsi, a monastery in the UK gave him the Freedom of Religion award in February 2013. Maung Zarni, an activist from Myanmar, who is a senior fellow at the London School of Economics, told me during a seminar: “Why is his rhetoric permitted when Islamic preachers who say similar things are called hate-mongers?”
Of the 3.2 million people in Rakhine, around 60 percent are Buddhist, and Muslims, including Rohingya, account for about a third of the population. Rakhine’s capital Sittwe is a town of colonial houses with peeling paint and ramshackle wooden huts where traffic flows smoothly. Its crowded bazar is noisy and crows create a racket as they chatter loudly, sitting on telegraph poles. The town has grown along the Kaladan River, which meets the Bay of Bengal. It is famous for the ruins of Mrauk-U and its promenade has a long beach, Ngapali, where young men play football.
In early 2012, three Muslim men reportedly raped and murdered a Rakhine woman. In the retaliatory violence that erupted in Sittwe, several Muslim homes were burned, some 200 Rohingya were killed, leading to nearly 140,000 people rendered homeless who moved into camps. More rumours surfaced, and in central Myanmar, Buddhists attacked Muslims who weren’t Rohingya. Sporadic incidents escalated into mass violence within a year. In a powerful report ‘All You Can Do Is Pray’, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published photographs of scores of Rohingya homes and businesses being burned and people fleeing violence. The beach in Sittwe became the staging post for Rohingyas to flee, as they made the hazardous journey towards Southeast Asia. The less adventurous and the physically weak fled north, towards River Naf, and crossed to safety into Bangladesh.
In its report, HRW wrote how “the events of 2012 provide strong new evidence of” crimes against humanity – committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a specific population, as a part of a state or organisational policy – and ‘ethnic cleansing’ against the Rohingya in Rakhine State. It added, “Since the 1990s, UN special rapporteurs have identified these abuses in terms indicating the commission of international crimes, referring to the abuses as ‘widespread,’ ‘systematic,’ and resulting from ‘state policy’.” Former UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said: “The Rohingya are in a process of genocide.”
Lawyers don’t use words like genocide loosely. Some academics and world leaders have tentatively started using the term in the Rohingya context. (The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, calls the Rohingya crisis a “slow genocide”.) Researchers at the interdisciplinary academic group International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) for example, have described the violence as ‘planned and organized’. The ISCI says its researchers have spoken to Rakhine men who have admitted they were brought to Sittwe specifically to attack Muslims and asked to bring their own weapons. Buddhist monks and local politicians made inflammatory speeches, urging them to use violence to stop the spread of Islam.
Penny Green, affiliated with ISCI, has described the process of genocide in four stages – it begins with stigmatisation of a community, followed by harassment, isolation, and systematic weakening of their civil rights. After these conditions are met, mass annihilation of people, or genocide, becomes possible, although it is by no means inevitable.
Social science is not exact, and conditions necessary for mass violence to be described as genocide may not always be sufficient. Terming any act of mass violence as ‘genocide’ often gets mired in politics. Turkey is so concerned about its reputation that it prosecutes those who call the mass killing of Armenians between 1915 and 1917, a genocide. It has recently recalled its ambassador to Germany after the German parliament called the killings of Armenians, a genocide. The US could not convince the rest of the world to call the mass violence in Darfur genocide. The Nazi annihilation of Jews in World War II, Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union or Mao’s in China and Pol Pot’s in Cambodia, were genocidal.
After HRW released satellite images of the sheer scale of devastation in the coastal towns such as Kyaukpyu, where most Muslim homes were deliberately targeted in October 2012, Thein Sein admitted that unprecedented violence had indeed occurred. The Norway-based broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma revealed that a monks’ group in Rakhine had called for the Rohingya to be expelled from the province. Some 811 Muslim homes were destroyed. The chorus of disapproval mounted worldwide.
But Suu Kyi was silent about the violence. Some analysts believe that she calculated that if she spoke out against the persecution of the Rohingya, she might lose support of the majority Burmans, the traditional Buddhist voters. In 2014 she told the Washington Post, “I am not silent because of political calculation. I am silent because whoever’s side I stand on there will be more blood. If I speak up for human rights, they (the Rohingya) will only suffer. There will be more blood.” Because of her equivocation, she has lost the credibility she had among international human rights organisations, and many of Myanmar’s minorities no longer trust her. “She can no longer be called a leader of all the people of Myanmar,” a land rights activist told me in 2013. A year later, a Rohingya refugee I spoke to near Teknaf on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border told me: “When she was in prison, our fathers and others in community prayed for her, hoping she will come out and she will do good for the country. But they are not finding anything good from her, so we are upset. But we hope she might do something for us and we still support her.”
Many are willing to overlook the plight of the Rohingya as the necessary cost to ensure that the country’s transition to a functioning democracy is not derailed. Western investment has returned and streets in Yangon and Mandalay have large billboards of consumer products which were earlier not available legally in Myanmar. Fancy cars can be seen on the roads, new hotels have been built and prime land areas are being boarded up, with billboards advertising futuristic townships and shopping malls, which would be constructed in the city, creating more jobs. The treatment of the Rohingya is important, but so are many other issues, and punishing Myanmar over it, some development experts believe, would be counter-productive.
At its heart, the Rohingya crisis raises uncomfortable questions about who is actually a citizen of Myanmar. For sixty years the military has fought wars with several ethnic minority groups. An agreement signed in 1947 at Panglong by Aung San and ethnic leaders was fine in its intent but is thin on detail. The Rohingya are considered outsiders because many in Myanmar see them as Bengalis – settlers who came to Rakhine along with the British. As the British have left, so should the Bengalis, or so runs that logic.
Muslims arrived first in Myanmar in the eighth century, in Rakhine, a sprawling land of rugged hills and mountains, fertile plains, long beaches and mud flats. The International Crisis Group has called the area “a frontier between Muslim and Buddhist Asia, and the politics of religion continues to heavily influence the popular consciousness.” In the 16 Century, the kingdom of Arakan attacked Bengal and Bengali Muslims were brought to Rakhine, many of them to work as menial labourers.
Arakanese dominance was short-lived; the kingdom collapsed to Burmese kings in 1785. In 1826, the province had an even more distant ruler, the East India Company, as the Anglo-Burmese wars ended in the British ruling over Burma (now Myanmar). After British rule extended to the Irrawaddy delta, including the commercially vibrant city of Rangoon (now known as Yangon), King Mindon retained nominal sovereignty in Mandalay. In 1886, Britain consolidated its gains and the entire country came under British control, ruled from Delhi. Myanmar was a classic case of colonial expansion for the British, who used the country’s resources for exploitation (in the process transforming the country into one of the world’s largest producers of rice). More Muslims, many from Bengal, began coming to Arakan. By 1941, about a third of Sittwe’s population was Muslim, almost all of them Rohingya. The Arakanese have resented Muslims since then. Austen Josephs, a London-based strategic analyst, who has studied the Rohingya question in some detail, says that the community initially suffered from ‘Indophobia’ (the Burmese resented Indians who came as the empire’s clerks, bureaucrats, money-lenders, soldiers, workers, and traders).
There are four distinct groups of Muslims in Myanmar. There are the Zerbadees, or Muslims who have adopted many Burmese customs and intermarried with other groups. They have assimilated into Burmese society. There are the Panthay Muslims, who are ethnically Chinese and who may have descended from Mongol invaders in the 13th century, but many in fact came to the country fleeing Han Chinese persecution in the 19th century. Muslims from British India arrived after 1826, and Burma’s 1931 census divide them into Bengalis, Chittagonians, Oriya, Tamil, and Telugu, many of whom returned to India when the Japanese invaded Myanmar in 1941. But many have stayed – many of the pharmacies in Yangon are owned by Tamil Muslims; two taxi drivers who took me to various places in Yangon were Muslims who thought their ancestors came from Bihar. (One called me his brother and accepted money from me only reluctantly at the end of my trip). According to recent figures from the UN, the Rohingya form the largest group, at around 1.1 million.
During World War II, the Burman supported the Japanese, the Muslims sided with the British and the Japanese expelled Muslims from areas the Japanese controlled. The British-controlled North Arakan had Muslim majority areas; the Japanese-controlled southern parts had a Buddhist/Burman majority. The Japanese overran much of East and Southeast Asia, but they met fierce resistance in Arakan, which was the furthest point the Japanese reached in its attempt to attack British India. The jungle became a formidable barrier that the Japanese could not cross.
In 1948 Myanmar became free, with Rakhine forming its border with what was then East Pakistan. Many Rohingya did not recognise that border. As India moved towards independence, Arakanese Muslims attempted to join the new Pakistan, but some accounts suggest Pakistan’s founding-father Mohammed Ali Jinnah was against the idea. The boundary meant little to the Rohingya, and many Muslims found themselves on the “wrong” side of the border, as Harvard professor Sunil Amrith, has argued in his book, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: the Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants. Historian Manan Ahmed points out:
Some Rohingyas migrated to East Bengal – later named East Pakistan – in 1947; some followed in 1952, some in 1965 – as riots, persecution and famine created more and more displacements. As they crossed from Burma to Pakistan, each country accused the other of perfidy and dissidence. After the bloody war of 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh, Burma claimed that the Rohingya were Bengalis fleeing into its territory from the Chittagong hills and that Bangladesh should take them back. In 1978, Burma launched a major military action to eradicate these Muslims, called the King Dragon Operation. Over 200,000 fled from Burma to Bangladesh. They were asked to go back.
The influx of the Rohingya blurred the distinctions in Myanmar between Muslims who had lived in the country for a long time, and the new arrivals. When Myanmar’s leaders tried to cultivate an ethno-nationalist ideology, the status of Muslims was undermined further, according to Josephs. In the post 9/11 era, rising Islamophobia equating Muslims with terrorism, reinforced domestic fears that Rohingyas would become part of a giant fundamentalist conspiracy to transform Myanmar’s society.
In her book Living silence in Burma: surviving under military rule, Christina Fink cites a 1996 leaflet, which says:
“Burmese Citizens – Beware! The Muslims living in Burma are attempting to expand their religion while destroying Buddhism in Burma by using the following ways: 1) Land: All the land in the country shall be owned by Muslims; 2) Money: To organize Buddhists to become Muslims using the power of money; 3) Women: To organize Buddhist women to get married with Muslims using money and other ways.”
In a country with strict censorship until the political reforms in 2010, rumours were believed because newspapers had no credibility. In 2001, Buddhists attacked Muslim homes and shops after a rumour emerged that a Buddhist girl had eloped with a Muslim boy and converted to Islam; in 2003 in Kyaukse, near Mandalay, Buddhist monks retaliated against a Muslim youth who had attacked monks who were chanting sutras; in 2004, the police arrested three Muslim men who violated an order that had closed a Muslim cemetery in Myeik, in the Tanintharyi division; in 2005, a Muslim teacher in Yangon offering free private tuition to poor students was arrested and charged with converting pupils, even though he was teaching from the official curriculum; in 2005, an Islamic school was shut down in Sittwe; and there were more incidents where Muslim homes were torched after unfounded rumours circulated of women being raped.
In 2009, after images of shipwrecked boats with emaciated Rohingya refugees leaving Myanmar flashed on television screens, Ye Myint Aung, the Myanmar consul general in Hong Kong wrote a letter that was published in local newspapers. He called the Rohingya “ugly as ogres” who did not share the “fair and soft” skin of Myanmar’s ethnic groups. The political reforms of 2010 created the space in which openly xenophobic leaders vilified the Rohingya, leading to more violence against them.
Some 142,000 Rohingya live in camps in Rakhine. According to the US State Department’s report on religious freedom on 2011, Myanmar does not permit large Muslim gatherings, bans the use of loudspeakers as a call to prayer, does not allow construction of new mosques and restricts the restoration of old ones, and has imposed restrictions on printing or importing religious books. Muslims who want to join the military are told to describe themselves as Buddhist in application forms. In more recent years, Myanmar has imposed restrictions on the number of children the Rohingya can have, and on marriages.
Unwanted, uncounted, and disenfranchised, the Rohingya have been voting with their feet. But as they leave Myanmar, they keep running into barriers. Many of them have been trafficked, some among them abducted, traded, and mistreated in rickety boats in violent storms, often stranded on the high seas, where if they die their bodies are dumped unceremoniously. Occasionally they are not allowed to land and are turned away, like in Thailand. Many are smuggled to the Thai coast and kept imprisoned by people smugglers, and later killed and buried in unmarked graves if deals go sour. Many are brought to Malaysia where they work on the country’s many construction projects. And many are herded into camps surrounded by fencing, on the thin strip of land where Bangladesh ends and Myanmar begins.
Crossing the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh is not an insurmountable challenge. The easiest – although the most well-guarded – route is through the river Naf, which separates the two countries, like two ends of a pair of scissors. Crossing the river at Teknaf can take about three hours. The boatman has to take the boat to the sea and then turn towards Bangladesh to get to the shore. On foot, the journey takes a day.
I reached Cox’s Bazaar in January 2014. Middle-class Bangladeshis had flown there for holidays, enjoying the ambient weather and eating fresh seafood at beachfront restaurants as we drove to the edge of the country, towards Kutupalong, the vast camp where Rohingya refugees live. I was curious as to why Bangladeshis were so reluctant to host the Rohingya. Bangladesh’s tortured history would have made the country acutely aware of the plight of civilians fleeing conflict, I had thought. During its war of independence in 1971, ten million people sought refuge in India. Soon after the war ended, some 90 percent of them returned to Bangladesh.
Officially, there are some 29,123 refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, but unofficially, perhaps 200,000 undocumented Muslims from Rakhine live here. They should return, many Bangladeshis say. But Chowdhury Abrar, a professor at the Dhaka University who runs a special unit that investigates migrants’ rights, told me:
Bangladeshis came back in 1971 because the successful end of the war ensured that not only the brutal Pakistani army regime and their cohorts were defeated and deposed but also that a new state was born with the professed aim to protect its citizens. The pertinent question to ask is, what would have happened if the war had dragged on for years, and India did not have any geopolitical and strategic interests to pursue, and its patience in hosting Bangladeshi refugees wore thin? As against the 1971 scenario, the sources of oppression of the Rohingyas are still controlling the state apparatus in Myanmar, their citizenship issue has remained unaddressed, and not only has the state shunned their claims to protection, even Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to take any responsibility. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that the Rohingyas continue to flee Arakan and those in the squalid camps and outside in Bangladesh refuse to go back.
Part of Bangladesh’s reluctance stems from the fear that the Rohingya might be extremists. This is because the Rohingya are devoutly Muslim and the Myanmar government’s propaganda has attempted to link them with terrorism. Bangladesh’s nominally secular government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed is worried that if the Rohingya are allowed to remain in Bangladesh for the long term, they will support fundamentalist organisations like Hefazat-e-Islam or join the Jamaat-e-Islami Party and strengthen its ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which bitterly opposes Hasina’s Awami League.
But Bina D’Costa, a fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra, who has done field work in Southasia’s troubled borders, says:
I have asked this question over and over again to activists and the political elite, including 88-generation political activists from Burma, why there was such profound tension and anxiety over Rohingyas. The international humanitarian discourse on refugees provides some insights on how in the age of the ‘Global War on Terror’, refugees are no longer welcome and are seen as security threats. While citizens can be under surveillance and, at the same time ‘protected’ from outside threats, illegal immigrants, refugees, stateless residents and internally displaced people remain as threats, thus creating moral and ethical dilemmas for states.
That the Rohingya may become fundamentalists may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. With most countries shunning them, the Rohingya are receiving support from some radical non-government organisations, and Bangladeshi development workers say the Jamaat has been active in the area. After an attack on the Rohingya in Sittwe, fundamentalist Muslims near Cox’s Bazaar went on a rampage, destroying Buddhist pagodas in the village Ramu. In 2013 in Ramu, I saw a Buddhist shrine there where I was told Buddha’s head had been severed only recently, and there was graffiti on the walls of another pagoda I saw. The violence had begun after a fake post appeared on the social networking site, Facebook, which claimed that hundreds Muslims were killed by Buddhist monks in Myanmar. Some of the images that were used were old – some were not even from Myanmar; they were from Thailand, and the dead bodies were those washed ashore after the tsunami in 2004. But the damage was done; 22 Buddhist pagodas were torn down in southern Bangladesh, and Buddhist homes were destroyed.
The government acted quickly; the charred remains were quickly cleared and walls were freshly painted. Homes were rebuilt, and one of the pagodas was being repaired when I went there. Buddhist pagodas from abroad had sent new images which were now placed in the pagodas. Some pagodas now have new gardens. This is in marked contrast to Rakhine, where mosques and homes remain in ruins, and the people displaced.
I went to the Rohingya camp in Kutupalong; it is a picture of misery. Children born in camps remain unregistered; there are no schools for them. Madrasas in mud huts offer what passes for basic education. The doctors who visit the camps have limited facilities. The nearest hospital, in Chittagong, is over two hours away if the road is good and it is not raining and transportation is found (there are few cars in the area). Conditions are worse in the camps with the undocumented Rohingya, where the vast majority of refugees live, but the persons who brought me to Kutupalong were unwilling to take me there – they are concerned that Bangladeshi authorities would place restrictions on their activities if the authorities came to know that they had helped me go inside those camps.
One man in late thirties told me how he had to bribe the police constantly in Myanmar, and to avoid that harassment, he left for Bangladesh. The army frequently called up villagers to carry their weapons and food and supplies as the soldiers pursued insurgents. Naimullah said sometimes the exhausted workers fainted, and a few would die; the soldiers wouldn’t allow time to conduct a proper burial; they would dump the body in a hole and move on.
Another man in his late thirties was one such army porter. He was taken away by the military when he was 16. “They would beat us up if we said no,” he said. He worked for about seven weeks, after which he escaped to Bangladesh. “Now I am in a camp here, which is like a jail, but when I speak to my family which is still in Myanmar, they say they are also in a jail. But it is a bigger jail.”
The camps in Bangladesh too are, in effect, prisons. The refugees are not permitted to leave the camp. (The Rohingya who came out to meet me were taking a risk in doing so). The World Food Programme gives the refugees 5.5 kilograms of rice every 15 days per person. “Being hungry is very painful; I cannot explain this. When I am hungry I feel like crying,” a nine-year-old boy told a researcher of the Arakan Project, an NGO that campaigns for Rohingya rights.
Bangladesh now wants to move the camps to a remote, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, called Thangar Char. It probably wants to turn the long stretch of beach facing the Bay of Bengal into a miles-long tourist resort. The UNHCR has called the move “logistically challenging.” This island often disappears under water at high tide. It has no roads. Its soil is like melted chocolate and just as precarious to walk on. It is difficult to grow crops on such islands, or to build foundations for concrete homes or build motorable roads.
What I recall the most, in the end, is the encounter with a young man, in his 20s, who broke down while talking to me, as I was leaving Kutupalong. He wanted to study science but Bangladeshi regulations were such that refugees were not allowed to pursue higher education. Being a refugee, he is not allowed to work.
The man saw no future for himself in the camp – he cannot go back to Myanmar, and there is nothing meaningful or productive that he can do legally in Bangladesh either. “If a bird lives for twenty years in a cage, it will die,” he said. “We have gone from one prison to another. Will we ever know freedom?” he asked. It sounded very similar to what the Myanmar dissident, Min Ko Naing had told me when I met him in 2012. “When we were let out of the prison, we were in a bigger prison; the whole country was a prison.”
Min Ko Naing was talking about his release from jail into military-ruled Myanmar. The refugee I met was talking about being in Bangladesh, a country which understood what it meant being a refugee, but which kept him in a refugee camp, and unable to return to his country, Myanmar, which was once a dictatorship but soon to be ruled by a liberal who herself had been a prisoner.
I had no answers for him.
~ Salil Tripathi is the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy and Detours: Songs of the Open Road. He is contributing editor at Mint and Caravan in India. He’s the chair of the writers-in-prison committee of PEN International. He lives in London.
~This article is part of our special package on Myanmar. Read more articles here.