Escaping from Myanmar

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Escaping from Myanmar

People see the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya people as a genocide. Parsa Sanjana Sajid visits the people on the Bangladeshi border.

On a day in September 2017, Rashida (not her real name) thought about her next meal, clean water, safe shelter, sleep without terror. She had no control over these things. And Rashida wanted rest.

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

She also wanted to get herself checked. Rashida was several months pregnant. Sad and in pain, she and her family walked several days from Myanmar to reach Cox’s Bazar. They escaped terror, and feared for their lives. The Rohingya refugees built the camps at Balukhali a few weeks before with help from local people. A new place, a new home, new beginnings, a baby on the way. She had so many uncertainties. Rashida was tired and it was difficult to rest. She stood in line. They had been standing more than an hour and she wanted to sit.

We talked about home, the one she left. In Myanmar, she knew everyone in her village, her family, the community, and their farms, the daily routines of life. But there was always fear, so no one knew what home was, Rashida told me. There were disappearances, arrests, torture, and murder of Rohingyas in Myanmar for as long as she could remember. This is not a home. She does not want to return to the situation now. She will return only if there are ‘guarantees’. But who can be sure about safety when the government in Mynamar and ‘so many people’ in that country are against her? And for Rashida the camp in Bangladesh was not a home. And there were more important needs now. After standing in line for the medical checkup, they stand in line for food, and then again to take a bath. Women preferred taking baths at night in the camp, when it was more private in the dark.


Where is home? A Rohingya refugee in a camp at Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 2017. She is one of over 670,000 people escaped over the border from Myanmar since August 2017. The high numbers make this the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. Photo: Enamul Hasan/Drik

In just a few months in late 2017, more than half a million refugees escaped from Myanmar for safety in Bangladesh. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the persecution of the Rohingya people is a clear example of ethnic cleansing. The Rohingyas brought stories of death and mutilation, torture and rape, houses and lands burned, families broken up. From refugee interviews and satellite pictures, the Associated Press has now found evidence of mass graves near the village of Gu Dar Pyin. This is where the Myanmar military made a planned attack. There is similar evidence of massacres from Tula Toli. The Myanmar government says the stories are not true but it is clear that the many murders were planned. And there has been persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar for many years.

Loss of rights

There have been quiet times between periods of great violence and some examples of Rohingya representation in politics in Myanmar after independence. But most of the time they have been accused of not having connections to the nation. The result has been a slow loss of rights. The Arakan region of Myanmar has been the home of the Rohingyas for five hundred years. Here, migration, conquests, political exchange of lands, and, in modern history, British colonialism and then independence is the difficult history of identity and community for the Rohingyas. But according to the state, they should not be there because of a wrong understanding of history when the British brought people from India to the region and many others left for economic opportunity.

After independence there was bad treatment or expulsion of 1.3 million Rohingyas. Myanmar’s military rule wanted to accept only certain races. And so Rohingyas escaped to Bangladesh in large numbers from the 1970s to the 2000s. Many were forced to return. Rohingyas are not one of the 135 recognized national races in Myanmar. And after1982, when the military government made a law that said they were Bengali foreigners and took away their citizenship, they remained homeless and stateless.

Repatriation dangers

The Bangladeshi government has agreed with Myanmar to repatriate refugees within two years. But it did not want to think about the conditions that forced the Rohingya to escape.

Ro Nay San Lwin is a Rohingya activist. He says that they must give the Rohingya citizenship before repatriating people back to the ‘killing field’ of Northern Rakhine state. He says, ‘This genocide must end. About 150,000 Rohingya have been in concentration camps in Sittwe in western Myanmar and other towns since June 2012. Myanmar must change their policy of persecuting Rohingyas and only then the Rohingyas can start thinking about returning.’

He also asks that Myanmar give citizenship cards at reception centres instead of National Verification Cards when refugees voluntarily return. Or they will likely go to camps with no guarantee that they can return to their villages. ‘We cannot send back our people without any guarantee,’ he said. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also worried that refugees will return without any of these guarantees. Myanmar has built special camps for returning Rohingyas and this is why they are worried.

For many years there were solidarity campaigns in the West but Myanmar’s terrible treatment continued and no other foreign governments knew. The generals continued their campaigns against Rohingyas and other ethnic groups.

Myanmar is the largest country of southeast Asia and is between the two most populated countries in the world, China and India. They both want the natural resources Myanmar has - plantation agriculture, mining, and water extraction. The Rohingyas lose again this time because of the economic interests of the international community as the Rohingyas are turned away from their lands.

In UN Security Council meetings China refuses again and again to accept criticisms of Myanmar and to call for an end to its persecution of Rohingyas.

No guarantees

Myanmar is doing very little to help the crisis. The chances of return are small. Evidence suggests Myanmar is still continuing with ethnic cleansing. Refugees and aid groups in early 2018 reported forced starvation as the military stopped access to food. People were ‘locked in their villages, sometimes even in their homes,’ reports the Associated Press, ‘and stopped from farming, fishing, finding food, trade, and work’.


Refugees wait in line for humanitarian aid. international help led by the government of Bangladesh, is giving life-saving support – such as food rations, medicine, immunization campaigns, borewells and latrines – and assistance to the local community. Photo: Mahmud/Map/Drik

Across the border in Bangladesh the Rohingyas’ situation is uncertain.

What Rohingyas want

How do we end this crisis? Putting pressure on Myanmar could help the situation for the Rohingya people. I think this is the only way to stop the persecution, an d the killings, and give the Rohingya their rights. A possibility is a campaign to stop foreign investors and companies with connections to the country, to find evidence of ethnic cleansing, and to give aid to refugees and support refugee rights.

But what matters most is what the Rohingyas want. Their demands, and their calls for justice for past and present wrongs, must be the most important. As San Lwin says, this crisis did not begin suddenly: ‘The 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 living in Dhaka, Bangladesh.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).