Rohingyas swap suppression for squalor

November 11, 2009 12:00 am

, KUTUPALONG, Nov 11 – As one of Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya, 45-year-old Manjurul Islam endured a lifetime of oppression before he finally fled the country for a squalid refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Described by UN officials as one of the most persecuted minorities on earth, the Rohingya are not even recognised as citizens by the Myanmar junta. They have no legal right to own land and are forbidden from marrying or travelling without permission.

For Islam, decades of systematic discrimination came to a head six months ago, when he says his 18-year-old niece and another woman in his village were raped by soldiers.

Islam said he "foolishly" took the case to the chief of the local army camp.

"He listened and I thought we had made progress, but then they tied me and my friends up, beat us with leather belts and bamboo sticks and kicked our chests with their boots."

Rohingyas hail from Myanmar’s Arakan state. Widespread abuse and exploitation have prompted hundreds of thousands to flee across the border to Bangladesh since the early 1990s.

Islam and his friends were released a few days later — but only after his family paid a bribe.

Then a group of soldiers destroyed their village’s shrimp farms — their only source of income — forcing Islam and his neighbours to make a decision they had seen so many make before them.

"In the night, we piled into a boat and crossed the river Naf into Bangladesh," he said.

According to Islam, more than 800 people fled his village over a two-week period in April, with some crossing into Bangladesh by boat and others walking across the forested, hilly border.

"My fifth child was born in the jungle under the open sky as we were fleeing," said Shamsun Nahar, 32, showing her six-month old baby. "Thanks Allah that both of us survived."

— An escape to destitution —

But survival brought with it fresh deprivation as Nahar and Islam joined an estimated 25,000 Rohingyas living in appalling conditions in a sprawling, refugee camp.

Only 28,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh have been granted official refugee status, allowing them access to three official camps which provide basic amenities.

The rest, like Nahar, are confined to the unofficial camp in Kutuplaong in conditions which even hardened aid workers find difficult to imagine.

"There is no water or power. Barring children and pregnant women, none have access to food or medicine. When it rains it’s impossible to walk and the mud shacks became too muddy to even sleep in," said a worker with Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger, ACF).

Following EU pressure, the Bangladeshi government has since May this year allowed ACF and another French charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) limited access to the unofficial camp.

"Twenty five thousand Rohingyas are living in dire humanitarian conditions. It’s extremely disturbing," said Paul Critchley, the MSF head of mission in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh says it is unable to cope with the continued influx of Rohingyas and the spread of the unofficial camp has stoked local tensions.

In July, police moved into the camp and destroyed several hundred makeshift dwellings in an operation condemned by MSF as "aggressive and abusive".

Despite the squalor and alienation, many Rohingya still feel they are better off here than back in Myanmar.

"Here at this camp there are days I don’t have any food. But at least I can live freely," said Mamun Rafiq, a Rohingya farmer who migrated three years ago.

"In Myanmar if you are a Rohingya, you are entitled to a dog’s life: They don’t even allow us to wear clean shirts or travel outside our village."

— Long history of persecution —

Rights groups like the New York-based Human Rights Watch say they have gathered volumes of personal testimony to the abuses visited on the Rohingyas by the Myanmar authorities, including extra-judicial killings and forced labour.

"The Burmese government does not just deny Rohingya their basic rights, it denies they are even Burmese citizens," said Elaine Pearson, a deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

Mohammad Ali, a Rohingya and head of the Bangladesh-based Arakan Historical Society, said his community’s plight began the day Myanmar, formerly Burma, gained independence.

"Our fathers fought hand in hand with the Burmese people to win freedom from Britain in 1948. But once Burma won independence, the new rulers thought it was their country not ours," Ali said.

Such was the experience of Ezhar Hossain, the son of a wealthy farmer who was elected as a lawmaker in Burma’s second post-independence polls in 1956 when he was still in his early 20s.

"But my rivals alleged that I used the religion card in the elections. In February 1957, the authorities stripped me of my parliamentary membership," said Hossain, now 75.

When democratic rule ended in 1962 following a military coup by general Ne Win, Hossain, still a prominent Rohingya leader, was accused of being a foreigner and standing illegally for election.

"I did not wait for justice. I’ve seen how other leaders were hounded and jailed by the junta. I took a boat one night and fled," he said.

Hossain now lives in southern Bangladesh in a tin-shed shack with his son, a janitor at a college.

Hossain was lucky in one respect as he became a naturalised Bangladeshi when the country won independence in 1971.

For contemporary refugees like Islam and Nahar, the future offers a devil’s alternative between life in the camp or a risky and illegal journey by boat to another Southeast Asian country.

Hundreds of Rohingya migrants were rescued in Indian and Indonesian waters between December and February after being abandoned at sea with few provisions by the Thai navy.

Scores are feared to have died as they drifted in rickety boats for weeks before reaching land.


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