Fleeing Myanmar

The treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya people has been seen as a genocide in the making. Parsa Sanjana Sajid visits those trapped on the Bangladeshi border

On her mind that day, in September 2017, was all that was immediate. And all that was immediate – the next meal, clean water, safe shelter, sleep without terror – clamoured for her attention but were things over which she had very little control. Rashida* wanted rest.

She was at an NGO-run medical facility at Balukhali refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, trying to get her five-year-old daughter examined for several ailments: cold, cuts to the knee, stomach pain.

She also wanted to get herself checked – Rashida was several months pregnant. Expecting, grieving, in pain, she and her family walked several days from Myanmar to reach Cox’s Bazar, escaping terror, fearing for their lives. The makeshift camps at Balukhali had gone up just a few weeks prior, built by the Rohingya refugees themselves with help from locals. A new place, a new home, new beginnings, a baby on the way. But being alive felt numbing, so many uncertainties remained and chained her hopes. Rashida was tired and rest was elusive. A calm, steady register permeated her words as she stood in line – they had been standing more than an hour and she wanted to sit.

There had been disappearances, arrests, torture and murder of Rohingyas in Myanmar for as long as she could remember

We talked about home, the one she left. In Myanmar, she knew everyone in her village, her family, the community, their farms, the familiar tenor of life and surroundings. A familiarity that also included constant fear, so who knew what home was, Rashida told me. There had been disappearances, arrests, torture and murder of Rohingyas in Myanmar for as long as she could remember – not what a home should be. She would not want to return, not under the current circumstances, not unless there are ‘guarantees’. But who can assure safety when the government in Mynamar and ‘so many people’ in that country are hostile? This, what she called a blessing, being alive, was also a curse with all the uncertainties. Rashida did not see this – the shelters which barely passed for a shelter, Bangladesh – as home either. Besides, there were more immediate needs: once standing in line for the medical checkup was over, they would stand in line for food, and then again to take a bath. Women preferred taking baths at night in the camp, she quipped with a faint smile, because darkness afforded privacy.

Rohingya refugees
Where is home? A Rohingya refugee takes a moment’s pause, shortly after arriving in a makeshift camp at Teknaf, Bangladesh, last September. She is one of over 670,000 people to have fled over the border from Myanmar since August 2017. The high numbers and sheer rate of arrivals make this the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. Photo: Enamul Hasan/Drik

In the space of just a few months in late 2017, more than half a million refugees escaped Myanmar in search of a safe haven in Bangladesh. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared the persecution of the Rohingya people a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’. With them, the Rohingyas brought accounts of death and mutilation, torture and rape, houses burned, charred lands, families scattered, a grotesque culmination of that slow-burning familiarity Rashida described. Pieced from refugee interviews and satellite images, the Associated Press has now uncovered evidence of mass graves near the village of Gu Dar Pyin where the Myanmar military perpetrated a planned attack. Similar evidence of massacres also emerged from Tula Toli. Although the Myanmar government denies many of these accounts, the scale at which a campaign of premeditated carnage was conducted is clear. And that familiarity, the everyday humiliation and violence seamlessly embedded into the country’s social-economic-legal-cultural architecture, has allowed for the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar for decades.

Loss of rights

Although there have been lulls between extreme violence and temperate, if still uneasy, co-existence – including even instances of Rohingya representation in political office – in post-independence Myanmar, they have been mostly accused of possessing insufficient ties to the nation. The result has been a gradual hacking away of rights and dignity with very little space for challenging state injunctions and crackdowns. A history of migration, conquests, political bartering of lands, and, in modern history, British colonialism and eventual independence course through the formation of identity and community in the Arakan region of Myanmar, home to the Rohingyas. But in official state lore, they are interlopers, viewed through a lopsided reading of history when the British settled people of Indian origin in that region and many others migrated for economic opportunity. That is, on the one hand, more telling of colonial machinations; and on the other, a deliberate and partial misreading of history ignoring more than five centuries of Rohingya ancestral belonging and habitation in Arakan.

In post-independence Myanmar, successive decades saw the crackdown or expulsion of its 1.3 million-strong Rohingya population. A political ideology of arraying and purity-testing communities emerged during Myanmar’s military rule with the notion of approved ‘national races’, solidifying existing ambivalence into formalized distrust and hostility. In response, Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh in large numbers from the 1970s through to the 2000s. Many were repatriated or forcibly returned under various bilateral agreements, but by now the periodic refugee influx is more of a constant than exception. To note: Rohingyas are not currently among the 135 recognized national races in Myanmar and since 1982, when the military government enacted a law that declared them Bengali foreigners, stripping them of citizenship, they have remained stateless, non-citizens, aliens in their own land, homeless at home.

Repatriation dangers

The Bangladeshi government has cast securing the return of refugees as a metric of success in how it handles the crisis, as manifest in the bilateral agreement with Myanmar to repatriate refugees within two years. But without addressing any of the conditions that forced the Rohingya to flee – lack of citizenship, legally and socially sanctioned discrimination and violence – any attempts at return are irresponsible, a reckless endangerment of their lives.

Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist, stresses that citizenship must be restored before repatriating people back to the ‘killing field’ of Northern Rakhine state: ‘This genocide must be ended,’ San Lwin says. ‘About 150,000 Rohingya IDPs [internally displaced peoples] have been in concentration camps in Sittwe [western Myanmar] and other towns since June 2012. Myanmar must change their national policy of persecuting Rohingyas and only then can the Rohingyas start thinking about returning.’

He also demands that Myanmar issue citizenship cards at reception centres instead of National Verification Cards when refugees voluntarily return. Otherwise they will likely end up detained in squalid camps with no assurance ‘that they will be allowed to settle back to their original villages. We cannot send back our people without any guarantee,’ he says, echoing Rashida. Referencing refugee rights instruments on voluntary repatriation, international organizations and human rights groups – including the UN refugee agency, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – are also alarmed at the prospect of returning refugees without any of these safeguards. Myanmar’s construction of special camps for returning Rohingyas lends credence to these fears.

The Rohingya crisis reveals the double-edged nature of geopolitical interests. Throughout many decades, Myanmar’s atrocities did not figure on the radar of foreign governments, despite condemnation from solidarity campaigns in the West. The generals continued their campaigns unimpeded, not only against Rohingyas but also against other ethnic groups.

Now Myanmar is mapped as a country of strategic import, leaving Rohingyas yet again in the crosshairs, this time due to the agenda of members of the international community. Sociologist Saskia Sassen argues the recent rise in violence is ‘partly generated by military-economic interests’ as swathes of land in the Rakhine state are being parcelled out for extractive economic activities which inevitably requires clearing out its inhabitants. Sassen explains: ‘Myanmar has become a last Asian frontier for our current modes of development – plantation agriculture, mining and water extraction. Its location makes it even more strategic. Besides being the largest country of southeast Asia, Myanmar is between the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, both hungry for natural resources.’

These interests are laid bare in UN Security Council proceedings, where China has repeatedly blocked and opposed statements that criticize Myanmar and call for an end to its persecution of Rohingyas. Yet Chinese actions follow a pattern within the Council – with unfailing US support for Israel perhaps the most obvious of these patron-client relationships.

No guarantees

The Rohingyas find themselves with choices of only different degrees of ruinousness. As reports of violence continue and with Myanmar doing very little to address the crisis meaningfully, the prospect of return is bleak. Evidence suggests Myanmar is still intent on ethnic cleansing, with refugees and aid groups in early 2018 testifying to a new tactic of forced starvation as the military cut off access to food. People were ‘locked down in their villages – sometimes even in their homes,’ reports the Associated Press, ‘and prevented from farming, fishing, foraging, trade and work’.

Rohingya refugees wait in line for humanitarian aid.
Staying alive: refugees wait in line for humanitarian aid. A huge international response, led by the government of Bangladesh, is providing traumatized Rohingya arrivals with life-saving support – such as food rations, medicine, immunization campaigns, borewells and latrines – as well as assistance to the local community. Photo: Mahmud/Map/Drik

Across the border in Bangladesh, still without formal recognition and its attendant rights, the Rohingyas’ status is uncertain. As urgent as it may seem to grant them refugee status, many Rohingyas at the camps are ambivalent about a life, perhaps generations, spent as refugees. They want better. For San Lwin, the central Rohingya demand is simple: ‘Myanmar must recognize Rohingyas as one of the indigenous ethnic groups as the [Burmese independence leader] U Nu’s government did and all restrictions against them must be lifted.’ Along with this, the very existence of only prescribed ‘national races’ belonging to a political community itself must be dismantled.

At the camps, services are bare and a public-health crisis is mounting. Recent outbreaks of diphtheria and measles have burdened an already stretched emergency medical infrastructure. At Balukhali, under a ‘Made in Korea’ orange plastic tarp, Rashida wondered where her baby would be delivered, and how – among strangers or around family? She wanted the lines to move quickly but then that meant she would get only a few minutes with the medical staff. Would she need to return, stand another day in line, to get all her questions answered?

What Rohingyas want

How do we end this ordeal? Bringing pressure to bear on Myanmar by intervening in its intricate political, business and strategic interests – the sources of which are external to the country itself – could turn the situation in favour of the Rohingya people. I suspect this is the only way to stop the persecution, halt the killings and achieve the restitution of their rights and dignity. Consider the following, all working in tandem: a campaign to boycott foreign investors and companies with ties to the country; systematic efforts to document available evidence of ethnic cleansing; aid for refugees and upholding of refugee rights.

But what matters most is what the Rohingyas want. Their demands, and their calls for justice for past and current wrongs, must take centre stage. As San Lwin points out, this crisis did not begin suddenly: ‘The UNSC [UN Security Council] must refer the military criminals to the International Criminal Court. There must be justice for all the injustice of the last 40 years.’

And rest for Rashida.

Parsa Sanjana Sajid is a writer, editor and artist currently living in Dhaka, Bangladesh.