Burmese Muslim Refugees Seeking Shelter and Survival
By Antonio Graceffo
“We know you help Shan people Burma. Please help we. We Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.”
This was an email I received nearly two years ago. It was accompanied by heart-wrenching photos of people on the brink of starvation. Children with distended bellies, covered in parasites. The “camp” seemed to be submerged in a foot and a half of filthy water.
From September of 2007 to February of 2008 I was embedded with the Shan State rebel army in Burma, documenting human rights abuses and genocide waged by the tyrannical Burmese Junta, lead by Than Shwe. The military government, which is completely in the hands of the Burman ethnic majority has been slaughtering Burma’s many ethnic minorities for decades. Some are fighting back. Some, after forty years of waiting in vein for the US, UK, or UN to come help them, have just given up.
Most of the foreign volunteers, aid workers, and journalists who are working in Burma, are working with ether the Karen or Shan ethnic groups, as well as smaller ones such as Karenni, Pa-O, Padaung, Lisu, Lahu, and Akha. But the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority have the misfortune of living in Burma’s Arakan State (Rakhine), which is nearly unreachable from the outside.
The first cry for help that I heard from the Shan people was in 2004, when I was studying in a monastery with Shan refugees whose families had been murdered by the Burmese government. I never forgot the faces or the names of those young monks, and I vowed to help as much as I could. It took me three years to finally get inside of Burma and work with the Shan.
Today, sitting in Malaysia, writing an article about the Rohingya refugees here, I stumbled across this old email, and realized it has been three years, and I still haven’t done anything to help. The magazine asked me to write an article about the Rohingya to help educate the public. But I am going to hijack this article and also use it as a cry for help. I really want to launch a health mission into Arakan State, or at least to help the Rohingyas on the border of India or Chin State. If there is anyone out there who would like to help, please contact me.
Who are the Rohingyas?
Burma is home to countless ethnic minorities. The Rohingyas are the only significant group of Muslims in the largely Buddhist country. There are also Indian Muslims, but they are a much smaller group, and they lack a unique ethnic state. The Rohingya population is about three-quarters of a million. They live in their own ethnic state called Arakan State (Rakhine), which borders on Bangladesh.
Their spoken language is called Rohingyalish, which has never had a traditional writing system. The language has been written with Latin, Burmese, Hanifi, Urdu or modified Arabic script.
In Burma the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) which is the repressive army of the Burmese Junta, has been waging a steady war against all of the minority peoples, who together, comprise nearly 60% of the population. The crimes against the Rohingya have been similar to those against other ethnic groups, namely: forced labor, murder, imprisonment, torture, rape, denying them citizenships, freedom of movement, basic human rights, or even a national ID card. Since 1978, when the government began launching major offensives against the Rohingyas, many have fled to Bangladesh where life in the refugee camps was not much better, and often worse than remaining in the Orwellian-Hell of Burma.
In 2005 the Bangladesh government began forcing Rohingyas to return to Burma. Many refugees believe that they will be jailed or killed if returned to Burma. But remaining in Bangladesh was also horrible because of the rape, torture, extortion and abuses perpetrated on them by the Bangladeshi government soldiers.
Although the Rohingyas always knew about themselves and their suffering the world first heard about the Rohingyas in 2009 when CNN, Aljazeera, and other international news media reported that the Thai military had towed boatloads of Rohingyas out to sea and abandoned them. At least one boat was rescued by Indonesian authorities and all 190 passengers gave testimony of beatings by Thai military and of having been set adrift on the ocean.
In 2004, the government of Malaysia announced that it would extend refugee status to the Rohingyas. Since then, many have sought refuge in the Muslim majority, Southeast Asian nation.
The Rohingya market outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
“Back in Burma, if the police saw you with a Koran outside the house they would beat you and take it from you and burn it.” Said a Rohingya man who we will call Asyef. “So, we tried hiding Koran in the house, up in the roof.” He was telling us a long list of reasons why he had to flee Burma.
We were sitting in a small eatery in the Rohingya community which I am told is home to 80,000 Rohingyas and another 30,000 people who the Rohingyas loosely refer to as Buddhist Burmese. My translator and guide is a Malay, named Saya, who seems to know everyone and everything that is happening in his country.
When I asked him to help me get a story on the Rohingyas in Malaysia he told me.
“I can take you there. But it is very dangerous. You have to go easy. And maybe you can’t take any pictures.”
As sad as the Rohingyas’ story was, there was an even darker side. The Rohingya community is centered around a principle fruit, vegetable, meat, and fish market for the restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. The men told us it was very hard to get a job in there and that seemed to be the aspiration of most. My translator Saya, told me that he had seen guns being shipped through the market and that everyone knew drugs were being smuggled there. The principle export product of Burma, apart from refugees is opium. The whole complex was flanked by two lakes.
Saya told me. “At least one person gets killed here per day. Last month, the police had to drain the lakes because they were just too full of bodies.”
Trying to build rapport with the men, I mentioned my intense hatred of military junta leader Than Shwe.
The mere mention of his name evoked a flood of hatred and horrific stories from the men. They also knew about the boat loads of Rohingyas that had been set adrift in Thailand, and they were very upset.
“Many Rohingya die trying to get here.” They explained. And where was here? A country where there was a slight possibility of getting a UNHCR card and living peacefully. But the cards were not easy to get.
“There are Nepali guards at UN now, and they chase away Rohingyas when we go there for help.”
Nearly all of the people we spoke to were undocumented aliens, living at the mercy of the gods.
“Last month, the police raided the community and arrested 100 people.” Said Osama, a 22 year old Rohingya man who had been in Malaysia for four years. He proudly showed me his UNHCR card (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). It made him an official refugee and gave him residence and work privileges in Malaysia. He was still unemployed, but at least he couldn’t be arrested.
RELA is the Malay word for “volunteer”. Unfortunately, the Rela corps is a volunteer police force, of more than half a million people, in a country with less than 30 million population. The main focus of Rela corps is to check the documents of foreigners. They are paid a bounty for each undocumented alien they catch. Rela has been the bane of Burmese refugees, particularly non-Muslim refugees who find it more difficult to get a residency permit of any kind. The Rela volunteers act more or less with impunity and have been accused of numerous abuses. Many international bodies have asked the Malaysian government to disband Rela.
The men continued their accounts of atrocities in Burma.
“They burned the mosques.” said one man. Another used the word “broken.”
“If they saw we had long beards, they would catch us and cut them.”
“On Fridays the police blockaded the way. If they saw us trying to go to prayers they would beat us or put us in jail.”
Saya and I had been sitting alone drinking coffee in this market, which everyone knew was home to a lot of dodgy and down right illegal activities, such as weapons and drug smuggling, and murder. Eventually, he asked the waiter if he could speak Malay enough to give me an interview. Surprisingly, the waiter tried, but finally had to give up. He left the restaurant. The Rohingyas are famous for being sea pirates, and I assumed he was on his way to gather a bully-squad of swashbuckling scallywags who would make us walk the plank for asking too many questions. Instead, he returned with a neatly dressed, well-mannered, young man, named Osama, who spoke Malay passably well.
At first, he was slow about answering our questions, not sure what we wanted. The vast majority of the Rohingyas are unemployed, so the two funny journalist men, one of them a white man, became a diversion for the whole neighborhood. A crowd slowly formed around us. At first, it was all men, and I was getting a bit nervous, but Saya, always the professional continued with his questions.
“Things in my country are so bad.” Said Osama, answering Saya’s question. “If the police catch you, they simply kill you. There was a curfew. Muslims weren’t allowed on the streets past 9:00 PM. In my country we were so poor we worked a whole week and had enough food for one day. I only went to school for two years because we didn’t have money.”
Even with the money Osama sends back to Burma now, it is not enough, and his little sister can’t go to school.
By this point, the restaurant was nearly full of people who had come to look at us. When I saw groups of women and children in the back, I breathed a sigh of relief. They probably weren’t going to kill us in front of their families.
I added a bunch of stools to our table and signaled the waiter to get drinks for everyone. The mood began to turn festive, as one by one, the people voiced their feelings about Burma and why they had left. Those that could speak Malay just blurted their stories out.
“If we go back they will arrest us.” Said one man.
“A one way trip. We can never go back.” Agreed another.
Those who couldn’t speak Malay asked friends to interpret for them.
“I walked thirty days across Thailand and twenty through Malaysia to get here.”
Another man said he used to like to call home once per week, but now his phone was out of credit and he had no work.
I asked the men how they sent money home to Burma. They told me there was a Rohingya bank in the grocery store upstairs. They would pay money to the clerk and twenty minutes later, a bicycle messenger would hand deliver the cash to the family in Burma.
Life had been hard for the Rohingyas in Burma. But it wasn’t easy for them in Malaysia either. I asked them what they liked best about living in Malaysia and to a man they all agreed, “attending mosque.” They all said they went five times per day, happy now because they could.
They blamed a lot of their suffering in Burma on the Buddhists.
They made comments like, the Buddhists did this to us. The Buddhists did that to us. But I know from my own experience, the Burmese government hates all of the ethnic minorities. They do horrible things to them equally. They persecute Christians and other Buddhists alike. It’s not because of religion but because of race. In Arakan State, the area where these men come from, there are basically only two types of people, Rohingyas and the government/military people. And the government/military people just happen to be Buddhists. So the only experience these people ever had with Buddhists was of being mistreated and repressed by the Burmese government.
These men are truly victims. Their whole way of life was taken from them. They will never see their families again. At best they will live as second humans in Malaysia forever. They will most likely never become actual Malaysian citizens. None of them had a passport form any country, and most had never had a Burmese ID card. The only ID they had was their UNHCR card, which only a few of them had.
The Rohingyas are not the only refugees from Burma, who have sought asylum in Malaysia. The Rohingyas told me that Buddhists could get resettled in third countries but Muslims couldn’t. This was a half truth. The Muslims have the distinct advantage that they can remain in Malaysia, legally, and eventually obtain the right to work. And a lucky few will be given citizenship. That option is not open to other ethnic groups from Burma.
When the men said Buddhists got resettled, most of the ethnic minorities in Burma are Buddhist or Christian. Several of these groups are on a UN list which qualifies the attacks against them as genocide, which makes the path to refugee status and then resettlement a lot easier. For example, the Karen, who are mostly Christian, can be re-settled in the US and Canada. Now, there are Karen communities in both of these countries. The Shan, the group I worked with, are Buddhist, but for some reason, they can’t even get recognized by the UN as being an ethnic minority. Which means genocide can’t be proven. Consequently, it is nearly impossible for them to get refugee status and resettlement.
Another issue that plagues the Rohingyas is that they are not cuddly or cute. The Straits of Malacca are the second highest piracy area in the world, and most of the piracy is done by Rohingyas. In southern Thailand, armed Rohingya groups have been encountered who were working as mercenaries in the conflict there. And of course, right now, a lot of countries are not as welcoming to young Muslim men, of foreign origin, between the ages of 16 and 29. In general refugee status and resettlement is easier for Buddhists or Christians.
The mood had been very somber, so I told Saya to ask the men what they thought of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Who is that?” asked Saya. He knew a lot about Malaysia, but decided little about Burma.
“Ask the men to tell you.” I said, with a sly smile.
The minute he mentioned her name, the room lit up. The men couldn’t speak quickly enough, singing the praises of “The Lady.”
“They told me she is in jail.” Said Saya, confused.
“That’s right. She has been for the last ten years.” I said.
“Just because she wanted democracy?” Asked Saya confused.
Malaysia, like many countries, had its good and bad points, but it was a relatively free country, where a significant percent of the population was middle class. And of course, it was a country where Muslims could worship in peace.
“That’s terrible.” Confirmed Saya, shaking his head.
Yeah, it was terrible. The situation of the Rohingya, and any other ethnic minority from Burma is terrible. Of the men in the room, only a few had a UNHCR cards. None of them had a Malay passport. None had a Burmese passport. And only one or two had a Burmese identity card. There was a small chance that a few of them might go on to be Malay citizens and find some kind of peace in their new life in Malaysia.
The others just sit and wait in limbo.
Catholics believe Limbo is a place between Heaven and Hell. Burma is definitely Hell. Hopefully some of the Rohingyas will find Heaven.
Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
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