The Rohingya of
Myanmar have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the world’s most
marginalised communities. They make the news, often with tales of horror, as
they escape Myanmar in less-than-seaworthy boats, at times adrift in the
Andaman Sea for months. They are not recognized as citizens under Myanmar’s
law. The 2012 violence that erupted in the Arakan (Rakhine State), state from
where the Rohingya originate has pushed them out of their homes and into camps
for internally displaced people where they live in a hostage like situation,
guarded by armed forces at all times. The United Nations has issued to a stark
warning, calling boats full of Rohingyas as “floating coffins” yet neighbouring
countries— Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and the Philippines—deliberate
on appeasing Myanmar, and on their domestic polices of emigration.
Greg Constantine is an award-winning journalist and author of Exiled to nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya, has spent six years documenting the struggles of the Rohingyas with substantial amount of time spent travelling within the Arakan state. Edited excerpts from a conversation with him on the state of the Rohingyas.
The Rohingya plight
comes to light when matters have gone too far, when they have been pushed out
to the sea in search of a homeland. What were the challenges in their
home state of Arakan that pushed them out?
There are two distinct phases in the Rohingya struggle, the period before the violence of 2012 and the one immediately after. Prior to the violence, the leading reason behind the Rohingya leaving was complications in the most minor acts of life such as getting permission to get married. There are local orders in place particularly in North Arakan where Rohingya have to go to a local official and ask for permission to get married and this opens them to a humiliating process that also includes bribery, extortion, seizure of property. A lot of people aren’t even granted permission to marry. Many feel as though they have no option but to flee.
There are acts such as the seizure of land so that military instalments are built on the site of villages. There is also the case that land is taken and appropriated to people within the Buddhist community. There are severe restrictions such as the denial of the right to travel freely. This is particularly in North Arakan prior to the violence of 2012. Sittwe didn’t have many problems prior to 2012, there was a sort of status quo and most of the problems were in North Arakan which is a black hole. It is impossible for a journalist to set foot in there; there is a complete denial of access.
In North Rakhine, the population is 90 per cent Rohingya, the Buddhists are a minority but this is where all the problems for the Rohingya took place prior to the violence of 2012. They couldn’t travel freely from one village to the next, they would need permission from the authorities to open a business, they were heavily taxed, laws were in place to prevent anybody from doing anything. They have absolutely no rights and without rights, people do whatever they want to do with them. All of these things, these are just measures of discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion that are not violent, they don’t capture the media’s attention and so for years and years all of this has been taking place.
But after the alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by a group of Rohingya men in 2012 which was the precursor to the violence, life has only gotten worse for the Rohingyas.
What is life like for
the Rohingyas in Arakan state?
Once upon a time, the market place in Sittwe was a place where Muslims and Buddhists ran businesses for generations. In the central market, there are roughly 250 Rohingya owned shops but today every single one has been boarded up and confiscated. Since 2012 the Rohingya have been pushed out to live in IDP (Internally Dispalced People) camps and they are not allowed to return to work in their businesses.
The Rohingyas used to live in two different Rohingya neighborhoods and they are called Muslim Quarters, 11 of them wee destroyed during the violence of 2012. In the neighbourhood of Omlingnar, and it is located right in the centre of Sittwe, the last remaining Rohingya that live in the historical port town of Sittwe are trapped in this ghetto where you can’t come and go freely, where supplies can’t come and go. The entry and exit points to every single part of that neighbourhood are manned by Burmese police and it’s like a siege. There are barbed wire fences at the entry and exit points.
So every Monday and Wednesday at the IDP camps small caravans of police trucks take family members living in IDP camps and living in Aung Mingala in armed caravans and escort them so that they can see their family and some limited supplies can be traded between the two places. The police-escorted trucks are to control the movement of the Rohingyas and also in a way to protect them from Rakhine Buddhist extremists. Inside the IDP camps, 140,000 Rohingya are languishing in a ghetto. You have a huge police battalion that has been constructed.
So now most live in IDP camps outside Sittwe. Everything is being done to push them out of Burma, they are living in apartheid. They can’t move, they can’t work, they can’t go to school, they can’t receive medical assistance, they are managed by the government and some international NGOs. The UN is involved, the WFP is there, there are big international organisations but the assistance they (Rohingyas) are receiving is meagre. They are not getting on to these boats for economic reasons but because they are so heavily persecuted that they have no choice but to leave. In Arakan, it is so awful right now and it is getting worse every year.
What are the
conditions in these IDP camps?
Awful. In 2012 the people were living in huts made of straw and bamboo. In 2014, during my last visit, huts have been made into barracks built by the government. These are iron and metal structures and each barrack holds eight families. There is a water pump and it may sound as though conditions are better than living in huts but the reality is that those structures mean that they are permanent. They are coming to the realisation that there is no hope that they will be able to go back to their homes and actually most of their homes have been destroyed and bulldozed.
What signs of
segregation, of apartheid are most visible?
The IDP camps are located near Sittwe University, the biggest in all of Rakhine state. Every single morning a caravan of three-wheeled tuk tuks of Buddhist Rakhine students drive to Sittwe University. They pass by two small Rohingya villages that are within the camps contained behind barbed wire, being watched by police. They helplessly watch students going to university and they drive by them.
The Rohingya are witnesses to this every single day. These types of things have huge psychological impacts on young Rohingyas. They watch their peers going to university and they can’t do anything about it. Their futures have been completely put on hold and it is not temporary. And they don’t want to leave, who wants to leave their home country?
What about the
Roadmap to Democracy and the opening up of Burma and the easing of restrictions
by the ruling junta? What changes have they brought?
Yangon is a whole different city compared to what it was four years ago. Yangon has changed dramatically, the amount of freedom that people have to express themselves, the amount of newspapers that are being published, the number of businesses being run, the amount of investment in the country. Everybody has mobile phones now when five years ago nobody had, cars are proliferating on the streets. There is a dramatic change over the past few years. But reforms have not been seen by the Rohingyas at all. It has got worse for them as these reforms have taken place.
Is there anger within
the Rohingya community that could lead to the creation of an organised
opposition like we have seen with other communities such as the Karen and
The Kachin and everyone else are citizens and therefore have a level of political acceptance, and access to rights. The Rohingya are not even recognised as citizens. This is the one big difference. Rohingya aren’t even considered Myanmarese. One of the really interesting things here, which is a tragedy, is that the Rohingya community has always been so marginalised that they have not been able to organise a politcal identity like the Karen and Kachin.
But the diaspora has become more vocal internationally. It is the only organised vocal group of Rohingya. The one thing that is making a difference right now is the actions of the Rohingya living in the UK or Japan. If you look at other communities, like the Kachin or the Karen, they have for decades been well-organised as an exiled community, and it has benefited those who are still inside the country.
What can you tell me
about their journey aboard a boat and about life at sea?
The traffic is a highly organised economic system, in place for years now. It is a network of government officials, countries around the region, officials, police, military, and human traffickers. It is a huge web and the Rohingya have no choice but to pay someone to get on one of these boats. Often they are taken to Thailand and handed over to human smugglers who hold them in jungle camps until they have extorted money off them. If the families can’t pay they languish in these jungle camps. The network for Rohingya movement is benefiting many people from Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries. In these jungle camps, they are treated as commodities that are expendable. Every single one of them is treated this way.
What do you make of
Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence and what have you heard from the Rohingyas?
Suu Kyi was once a human rights activist but now she is a politician. Speaking out for the Rohingya would result in her losing political capital and she has admitted this herself. She is a politician now, she is not a human rights activist. Her role has changed and a lot of people are extremely disappointed with her absence of response. She is somebody who has lifted herself up in the world’s eye based on fighting for democratic reform, inclusion, rights, the rule of law, all of these things that have never been extended to the Rohingya community.
She hasn’t spoken up at all for a million Rohingyas. Most of the Rohingya community voted in support of the NLD, for Suu Kyi’s party, in past elections. There is no quick solution to the Rohingya problem, what’s happening right now is something that has been created over decades of discriminatory policies between the government and the Rakhine community.
A number of different steps will have to be taken. Perhaps most important is for the 1982 citizenship law to be amended to extend citizenship to the Rohingyas. Myanmar needs to to have the political will to change the policies between the political establishment, Suu Kyi and the Rakhine political establishment. But they have been completely unwilling to make any kind of adjustment.