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The nowhere people

Blind in one eye after being beaten in the head during forced labour, the man fled from Burma in the mid 1990's and is one of an estimated 300,000 undocumented Rohingya now living in the southern part of neighbouring Bangladesh. (Photo taken in 2006) Photo by Greg Constantine

Publication Date : 25-07-2012


There are many tales of misery in Myanmar, but among the worst is that of the Rohingya - Muslims of Bangladeshi ethnic origin living in western Rakhine State.

Myanmar has a formidable array of diversity. The government acknowledges 135 different ethnic minorities, but the Rohingya are not among them, having been dropped from the list of recognised "national races" by the Ne Win government in 1982.

Ethnic minorities have endured the worst of half a century of brutal military rule, with conflicts on an slew of fronts in the north, east and northwest. The Shan, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Chin and Kachin have all had rebel insurgencies that dragged on for decades, with drastic implications for ordinary citizens.

Ceasefires have temporarily quelled all but one of these long-running wars that raged generally in the groups' respective home provinces. Fighting continues in the far northeast, where the Kachin continue to pay a heavy price for two controversial deals with China - the Shwe oil and gas pipelines and the massive Myitsone Dam project.

And while the junta has donned civilian garb and appears to be finally leading the country towards democracy - opening its political system to opposition groups and cutting draconian restrictions on the media - the legacy of its nightmare era is more apparent than ever.

Aside from the Kachin, there is one other appalling sore that shows no sign of healing: the plight of the Rohingya in the country's west.

A new book by American photographer Greg Constantine illustrates the extent of the Rohingyan crisis - with graphic black-and-white photos and a thoughtful, measured text. This is a timely publication given the violent flare-up in Rakhine last month, which claimed at least 80 lives and left thousands homeless, and the government's extraordinary request to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees last week to resettle these supposed "intruders".

The Thein Sein regime claims the Rohingya are recent arrivals in Myanmar, although a historic timeline in the back of Constantine's book notes that "Rooyinga" were documented as living there in a 1799 volume on Burmese languages by Francis Buchanan.

Inter-ethnic clashes erupted between Arakanese Buddhists and Muslims in 1942 following the retreat of the British after Japanese troops entered Arakan, as Rakhine State was formerly known. "The clashes split Arakan in an ethnic division that still exists today, with South Arakan consisting of mostly Buddhists and North Arakan consisting of mostly Muslim Rohingya," the timeline notes.

In 1978 Ne Win launched Operation Naga Min (Dragon King), a sweeping check of identity papers along the border to purge the country of illegal foreigners. It created, the book says, a wave of terror in Rakhine - there were widespread reports of summary execution, rape and brutality - and culminated in 250,000 Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh. The United Nations intervened and helped most of the refugees to return to Myanmar the following year.

A hammer blow came in 1982 when Ne Win enacted the Citizenship Law. Some 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine were "denied Burmese citizenship, effectively making them stateless".

In 1991 and '92 a quarter of a million Rohingya flooded into Bangladesh after another crackdown. Bangladesh forcibly returned many of them as the decade progressed but they only received temporary residency certificates and were hit by "increasing incidents of forced labour, violence, excessive taxation/ extortion and travel restrictions".

As Emma Larkin notes in the book's foreword: "They are restricted from marrying or owning land. They cannot travel beyond their own villages or enrol their children in formal education."

This suffocating cycle of suffering convinced thousands to get into boats and undertake a risky two-week journey down the Andaman Sea to Malaysia or other countries in a desperate bid to find work and a better life.

In Ranong three years ago Thai authorities were revealed to be secretly pushing these modern-day boat people back to sea. Hundreds died, but the boats continue to come, and the "pushbacks" allegedly continue, although in a less brutal form.

"Exiled to Nowhere" quotes UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana as saying he had met Rohingya in Rakhine and heard their "awful stories". "The Rohingya are definitely from Myanmar. They have lived in Myanmar with other ethnic groups for centuries," Quintana writes. "The new government faces many and complex issues, but the cause of the Rohingya must be a priority."

Constantine has captured their bleak circumstances, particularly in the camps on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. His book is mainly a pictorial record but also contains several short personal accounts of dreadful hardship - easy to read, fascinating and disturbing.

The format is smaller than most photo books - the pages 24 by 17 centimetres - but perfectly suited to this noble expose of their plight. The content is grim, but the book is a quality product, straight and credible. Constantine should be congratulated.


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