To be a Rohingya is to lead a life of rejection. It is a metaphor for being unwanted, being persecuted and to be discarded. As an ethnic minority living at the fringes of the Arakan state in Myanmar, they also essentially cling at the fringes of society, and have known neither peace nor security for a long time.
Their homeland, which is wedged between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is a border region that has witnessed the changing fortunes of the Rohingya people. Their ancestors settled in the area from the beginning of the 15th century but it was not until 1799 that the first mention of “Rohingya” appeared in an article about the language of Muslims living in Arakan state. By 1869, 43 years after the British Empire annexed the country, the population had risen to comprise 5% of the state’s population, encouraged by the colonial government’s encouragement of migration from Bengal to the frontier for work.
The Most Unwanted People
Making the news for all the most depressing reasons, the face of the Rohingya has become the posterboy for abandonment and disregard. The prejudice at home by the government, their Rakhinese counterparts and by neighbouring governments have been well documented, so too has their voyages of escape to places as far as Indonesia. Everywhere they have tried to seek peace and asylum, they have been met with mostly dismissal, as though a fly being chased away by a flick of the hand.
Globally respected democracy activist, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has all but ignored their plight. Boat loads of Rogingya escapees seeking asylum have frequently been refused entry and even towed further out to sea to fend for themselves by the Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian authorities.
Desperate to leave, yet ignored and shunned by many, the Rohingya have become susceptible to illegal human trafficking to work as construction labourers in countries like Malaysia. Often, their well-being is not regarded and many have perished on their journey, only to be dumped in shallow graves.
Even Bangladesh, the country which the Rohingya share the greatest ethnic connection is reluctant to offer sanctuary or help. Since 2016, the small coastal country has admitted more than a quarter of a million of them. However, any reprieve is only temporary as they are crammed into crowded refugee camps with little or no access to education or basic services.
Organising secretary for the ruling Awami League party in Cox’s Bazar, Najnin Sarwar Kaberi said, “We are a small country with a huge population”. If the refugees “settle here permanently, it will increase unemployment so we can’t give them the same opportunities as our citizens.”
In Their Shoes
Against this grim backdrop of events, Nazim, a young Rohingya man of University going age shared with us a regular day in his city in the provincial capital, Sittwe. I cannot recall how, when and where I met Nazim. It was probably inbetween volunteering with the Malteser International and wandering the majestic ruins of Mrauk U, an architectural marvel to match the ones at Angkor.
Ignoring the gravity of the back story, the day started much like any other day. Nazim, coming from a Bengali family that migrated to this part during the days of British India, was no street urchin. His family had a modest property within the city made of modern materials when most of his compatriots were housed in bamboo and thatch shacks and clustered in seggregated villages. He also spoke fluent English. Breakfast came in the form of a fish noodle soup called Mohinga, similar to that served in other parts of the country albeit spiced with chllis. A semolina flour cake called Sugee also made a delicious start to the day.
Sittwe, the capital is home to a splendid looking mosque built in 1859. The Jame Mosque or Friday Mosque houses the Immam and Muezzin who, until recently, were able to call out and preach openly to the faithful Muslim residents. Since the communal riots of 2012, access is periodically barred and the daily calls to prayer can no longer be done with a loudspeaker. However, as a familiar place of sanctuary, Nazim begins to open up on his experiences while safely within the walls. He begins with what everyone already knows: non-recognition of citizenship, severe restrictions on travel, marriage and child birth, non existent job opportunities due to racial prejudice, the impunity with which authorities operate with regard to Rohingya affairs.
“Do you know anybody who has tried to escape on boat”, I asked. He didn’t personally but brought me to the beach where many such voyages were staged. There was no effort to hide the endeavour. The beach was densely populated, and crowded. There were some desks and chairs surrounded by a stilted village. “This is a Muslim village”, he clarified. “They are fishermen”. I recalled what I learnt on my travels that fishermen were usually the poorest of the poor. The ones without ownership of land, pushed to the edges of habitable space to make a living at sea.
“You should be really good sailors then”, I blurted out carelessly without considering how callous that might have sounded. He grinned and then led me to another Rohingya village within the town. On the surface, it looked very quaint. There were rows of houses made with only natural materials. Wooden beams, Bamboo, and leaves for roofing were coaxed into all manner of patterns. Fences were made from strips of bamboo arranged in a neat lattice structure. Other than how pretty it looked from the surface, I was struck by how crowded the quarter was. People were busy shuffling down the dirt paths shoulder to shoulder, like a Sunday at Orchard Road. Without plumbing, water mains, and a garbage disposal service, water was obtained from tube wells or from large open pools. Refuse was collected infront of each home and either burnt in the evenings or tipped over into the nearby river.
“Do you want to see my school?”
Sittwe University is the premier institution in the state for higher education. Although worn and grubby when viewed from outside. It is a shining beacon of opportunity and hope to those fortunate enough to earn a degree, especially those of ethnic Rohingya origin. However, even the University has been dragged into the politics of Rohingya human rights. As of 2012 and again in 2016, the ethnic minority has been denied an education and has been outright blocked from entering the campus.
Nazim was lucky enough to have been mid-way through his education already when these new policies came into force. We walked through the halls, had coffee in the canteen and stole into class. Girls giggled when they noticed that even with my longyi around my waist, I still did not quite fit in with the local crowd. Nothing besides some strings of barbed wire and a security check at the entrance suggested the exclusion of Rohingya students on the surface. After all, even I managed to gain access with a borrowed student card.
Night by Candlelight
As a developing country, Myanmar is subject to periods of brownouts – hours in the day where electricity is unavailable. Candlelight or torchlights become the common way of illuminating the home. I was brought to a house that Nazim’s Uncle owned. By candlelight, I was brought to greet his wife. She was lying in bed, beads of sweat covering her face and soaking the sheets. She did not look well. Propping herself up, she said hello. Nazim indicated to me that there was something wrong with her abdomen.
We took dinner in the main area of the house, on a Linoleum covered floor, again by candlelight. The contents of the conversation led me to learn that daily human tragedies do not come with an ominous soundtrack and huge acts of injustice. They come in small poisonous doses that chip away at an individual’s resolve and sense of hope. Before we parted, Nazim asked me to help him. Possessing neither the courage nor the decency to, I said yes. A reply that, till this day is still a lie.