At the heart of the Rohingya crisis, a people in limbo

The exodus may have stopped, but the problems for Myanmar's more than one million Rohingya Muslims continue

In the refugee camps outside Sittwe, hope fights against despair.

Yasmin hopes to be reunited with the husband who left her.

U Ba Kyaw hopes that his son and daughter will be able to come home to collect their degrees, three years after passing their exams.

Although her 14-year-old son Amir Khan is almost certainly dead, Kalar Banu says that “he’s still registered at school.”

An elderly man named Sayed Hussein hopes his own son, Haron Rashid, will return from where he went, wherever that might be.

Fatima just hopes to start again.

Woman in camps outside Sittwe, Rakhine state

Before the tragedy in 2012 that brought them all to the government-run camps outside Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, some of these men and women lived in the same town. They didn’t have much in common, beyond being Rohingya Muslims, members of one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. They were tailors, housewives and schoolteachers, living in brick houses and wooden huts. Some were educated, others were not. Some had money, others did not.

Now, the vicissitudes of life in a country that does not want them have brought them all here together. And together they wait.

In hot season, the unsparing sun beats down on wood and bamboo shelters that spread across this sprawling wasteland just 15 minutes drive from downtown Sittwe. More than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims were forced into camps like this across the state in 2012 after clashes with Rakhine Buddhists drove them from their homes. Most share their cramped ‘longhouses’ with as many as eight other families. Dank alleyways are choked with smoke from cooking fires. It smells like dirt, sweat and sewage. Walking into one shack that buzzed with fat, black flies, an elderly man with sunken eyes and a thousand-yard stare let out a rasping laugh and said, “and you wonder why
they are leaving?”
It’s a short truck ride from the camps to the long, sandy beach where the boats used to dock. On a recent afternoon, women and bone-thin children walked up the dusty path from the shore balancing water buckets on their heads. In recent months, however, groups of men, women and children came down here at night to board fishing boats. Sometimes their families, friends and neighbors waved them off. The fragile vessels sailed for a few hours before meeting big ships out in the ocean. They carried desperate Rohingya as well as migrants from Bangladesh to supposedly better lives. The journey was long and the conditions arduous. But it was the way out, so people went.

Now, the boats have reportedly stopped. Sailing season, which usually pauses during the rainy months, came to an abrupt end in May when Thailand launched a high-profile crackdown on regional trafficking rings. Grisly smugglers’ cramps were uncovered in Thailand and Malaysia. Migrants had been kept in cages and beaten while traffickers extorted ransom money from their families. The images demanded action from the authorities. As crews feared arrest, boats en-route from places like Rakhine were abandoned. Images of starving Rohingya adrift in the Andaman sea made headlines around the world. In Myanmar, which denies the Rohingya citizenship and says they are migrants from Bangladesh who should be called “Bengali,” newspapers carried the images with mocking captions.

Migrants were found stranded on boats in the middle of the ocean

The immediate crisis appears to be over. But the long, slow one that has prompted the exodus of so many continues. The difference now is that the door is shut. Myanmar’s Navy has been patrolling the waters with increasing frequency monitoring boat activity. “All day, I think about what to do in the future,” said Yasmin, who is 27 and like many Rohingya goes by one name. She and her five small children were trapped on a boat when the crackdown happened, but her brother-in-law managed to scrape together a ransom. To do so, he sold Yasmin’s bamboo shelter and the ration book she needs to receive food aid. “I am thinking seriously because I have no food now, no business, no healthcare,” she said.

In their former lives, often referred to simply as “before the violence”, many Rohingya were urban people. They were laborers, cyclo-drivers, and small business-owners. They worked at the markets and in tea shops. Some say they had good relationships with the Buddhist Rakhine majority.

U Ba Kyaw, a gentle middle-aged man with lively dark eyes, remembers when his hometown, Myebon, south of Sittwe, was peaceful. He was born there in the 1950s to a Buddhist Rakhine mother and Rohingya Muslim father. He grew up and raised two children in the town. He was a teacher. He owned his house. His family were “very close” with their Buddhist neighbors. “Life was very okay,” he said.

The way he remembers it now, the trouble started with a chant: ‘Rob the property. Kill the people. And destroy the religious places’. It was June, 2012. His son and daughter had passed their final year university exams. The previous month, three Muslim men had been accused of raping and murdering a Buddhist woman. It’s a narrative that has now become depressingly familiar in Myanmar. Skirmishes between the two religious groups broke out all over Rakhine. More than 200 people were killed, mostly Rohingya.

In Myebon, mobs set fire to Muslim villages, forcing U Ba Kyaw’s family and other residents to flee to a local hilltop. They watched their homes burn. “All night they burned down,” he said slowly, in English. Rakhine villagers tried to pour petrol on the hill and set fire to it, he said. He saw a man die after a gas tank exploded. “I never expected this kind of violence to happen in my lifetime,” said U Ba Kyaw, who is now 63. “I had never seen people killing each other.”

In Sittwe, where Kalar Banu, Amir and his two sisters lived, the same terrible scenes played out. Yasmin and her husband, who worked as a rickshaw puller, lived there too. The riots swept through their neighborhoods downtown. There were more than a dozen mosques, most of which were burned. Sayed Hussein ran a successful tailor shop in the area. He had many children, including a 19-year-old son, Haron Rashid, who spent most of his time studying at the madrasa. Sayed remembers how his neighbors cried out that the Rakhine people were coming to set fire to their houses. His family escaped before the flames consumed everything.

Rohingya activists say ‘kon mar ri faylon’ when they talk about genocide. Roughly translated from the Arakanese it means ‘kill the people’ and is used in the phrase ‘Burma government jay kon mar ri fay lar’ or ‘the Myanmar government is killing us.’ When representatives of the Simon-Skjodt Centre of America’s Holocaust Memorial Museum visited Sittwe, they reported that the Rohingya are “at grave risk [of] additional mass atrocities and even genocide.” The United Nations usually gives more conservative statements but even their Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana last year went so far as to say there are “elements of genocide” against the group. The Myanmar government strongly denies this. Maung Maung Ohn, Chief Minister for Rakhine state, could not be reached for comment for this article. At a public debate in May, he said that the internal displacement camps were developed and invited anybody to come and take a look.

Some historians argue the Rohingya presence in Myanmar can be dated back to the eighth century, when Rakhine was an independent kingdom called Arakan. Further waves of immigration came from Bengal in the 17th century and mid-19th as Arakan was brought into British Burma. They fought on the side of the British during the Second World War, to the ire of the Japanese-aligned Rakhine, who already resented their arrival into the local job market.

Now, the Rohingya are stateless. The white cards, or temporary registration documents, that for a long time served as their only claim to identification, expired in March. Some, but not all, will reportedly be given turquoise replacements until their claims to citizenship “can be scrutinized”. They can’t vote. Their children can’t go to local schools. They are forbidden from leaving their camps and villages. Some who remained in Sittwe are trapped in Aung Mingalar, a Muslim ghetto sealed off by armed guards. When George Soros, who was raised in Hungary to a Jewish family but managed to evade Nazi concentration camps, visited, he said the place recalled the ghettos of World War Two.

The government says that the ‘Bengalis’ flee the country for economic reasons, not because of persecution. It’s true that many of those who leave cite their desperation to work. But that is because, in the places where they are trapped, there is none to be had. Those who are lucky enough to be registered with the authorities depend on rations, or food aid. Representatives of the World Food Programme said the monthly food ration per person consists of: 13.5 kilograms of rice, 1.8 kilograms of pulses, 900 grams (or one liter bottle) of oil and 150 grams of salt. The government, they said, adds to this when they have support from donors.

Many say it is not enough. “Sometimes the children are crying for more food,” said Sayed Hussein. At least one in 10 children under six in the Sittwe camps are malnourished, according to UNICEF data from 2013. The situation looks to have worsened, and is even more desperate in isolated areas where access for aid workers is difficult.

Pierre Peron, the U.N Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Myanmar spokesman, put it like this: “Because people have limited access to movement, that impacts everything. If I can’t go to the market, or go fishing, or go to the fields, I am totally relying on that food basket. And if I need to pay for other stuff, like education, I am going to have to sell some of that food. So, basically, over the course of two or three years, people have slowly eroded all the stuff they have… It’s that slow erosion of someone’s resistance over a long period of time. Being displaced for six months is something, but this is not being able to go home or move around or empower yourself for three years.’

For Fatima, the tipping point came when her infant son died. He fell ill at the start of the year. They never figured out what was wrong. All she knows is that one Saturday morning he couldn’t urinate and the camp clinic couldn’t organize a transfer to the hospital over the weekend. “They said, ‘On Monday, Sittwe hospital will be open. But if he dies between Saturday and Sunday, they can’t do anything.’” Bureaucratic hurdles like these can have life-changing consequences for the Rohingya. One checkpoint needs permission to let them through. The next checkpoint needs permission. According to interviews, all these people need bribes. The hospitals need bribes. For those without money, it’s impossible.

Fatima’s baby died at noon on Saturday.

Aged 25, Fatima lives under a bare sheet tacked onto someone else’s longhouse in Baw Du Pha camp. None of the some 600 people who live in her part of the camp are registered, meaning they are not entitled to food rations. If someone is not registered it may be because they were not officially classified as ‘internally displaced’ by the violence. They may be children whose births were not registered. They may have simply slipped through the cracks. These people rely on sporadic donations from others in the camps, as well as aid organizations, they said. “In the Sittwe Region, with its finite resources, WFP has up to now taken the decision with its donors to target registered displaced populations only,” representatives of the organisation said in an email. “However, we recognize that registration is critically urgent as there are highly vulnerable people in the region who are currently not registered. WFP is working alongside other agencies operating in the region to encourage the government to expedite full and complete registration lists.”

Among Fatima’s community, even water is a problem. As she spoke, two women fought viciously over the supply of a nearby well. But health is the most immediate need, said Ahmed, a community leader. Three young girls have died from diarrhea since the start of the year. A government-led initiative does run mobile clinics to the camp a few times a week, but “they cannot give good treatment because they have not enough medicine,” Ahmed said. “We are struggling.”

Shortly after her son’s death, Fatima decided to board a vessel supposedly bound for Malaysia. The ocean is in sight of her house, but she had never been there before. She left her oldest child, four-year-old Sadek Khan, with her parents. “If I am alone, I can do whatever I can to make money,” she said, bowing her head. “If there is a baby, I will not be free.”

In a different camp, at around the same time, another young mother also chose to flee. Yasmin’s husband had left the camps for Malaysia some months before. The last time she saw him he told her, “I want to change my life.” Later he called her from Kuala Lumpur, where he had found a job in construction and told her: “If you have a problem, come here.”

“One day, when I was sitting at the door of my room one of the agents came to me,” she continued, her story spilling out in an urgent voice. As she spoke, one of her thin arms shook uncontrollably, prompting her son to grip it tight. “I asked the man, ‘what are you looking for?’ He replied that he was looking for people who wanted to leave by big boat. If you want to go to Malaysia you don’t need to pay any kyats.” They left that evening. It took five hours to reach the ship. They arrived in the early morning. As night fell, and the ship was still stationary, she asked the crew when it would leave. “The crew replied, ‘now there are only 150 people on the boat. We need at least more than 300. So you have to wait.”

She waited nearly three months. Conditions on the ship were wretched. There were so many people crammed aboard that Yasmin couldn’t lie down, only sit in a crouched position, arms folded around her knees. The strain has left her legs stiff and painful. They could not use the toilet apart from at scheduled times, twice a day. “If you were dying they would not open the toilet,” she said. Those who couldn’t hold it in were beaten. There was a terrible smell. Yasmin was allowed to bathe just twice.

She was given two small water bottles a day to share between her five children. They had a packet of noodles each. When Yasmin asked for more food she was kicked and beaten with an iron rod.

Others said they had boiling water thrown in their faces.

“The noodles were not enough for the children. They just ate them up as a snack, so when lunch or dinnertime came they demanded rice. At that moment the trafficker told us: ‘You have been sold to us. We are feeding you just out of sympathy. You cannot have any more food from us – we have no stock – so you must keep silent.’”

When the children cried, the crew stubbed cigarettes out on them. The marks can be seen today.

A few weeks into their journey, the traffickers, spooked by ongoing arrests, told Yasmin they would not be going to Malaysia. But they couldn’t go home, either, without a fee. “’You have had so much rice, water and snacks – you have to pay for that,’” Yasmin recalled them saying. The price was $800. “I told them, ‘How can I get this kind of money? I have no money, I cannot pay.’”

The trafficker asked for the number of her brother-in-law in Sittwe. He sold her house and her ration book, and borrowed some money to scrounge together $500. The traffickers agreed. She and her children and sent back to Sittwe in a fishing boat. There were about 30 other people there. Some had headaches. Some were crying. Others were lost in thought. When she arrived back in the camps, exhausted, Yasmin passed out.

Fatima, whose family also scraped together a ransom to free her, says her experience was similar. “We suffered too much,” she said, her shoulders slumped forward, staring at the ground.

Even more harrowing than the stick-thin survivors and babies whose first memories could be the sizzle of cigarette burns are the stories of lost children. At the camps, mothers and fathers queued up to tell them. They thrust forward pieces of paper where they had written the cell phone numbers of the traffickers. None was still in use.

Sayed Hussein, the elderly tailor, had begged his son not to leave, he said. Now a 22-year-old man, Haron had not adjusted well to the family’s fall in fortune. Back in Sittwe, they lived in their own house. Here, the 12 of them were crammed into a longhouse with eight other families. “There’s no privacy here, so [Haron] didn’t want to live here any longer,” said Sayed.

His first attempt failed: one of his brothers dragged him back from the hut near the beach where he was sleeping. This time, he asked for permission. Sayed refused. He left anyway. It’s been nearly three months now and Sayed has heard nothing. He’s asked around the village but nobody has any concrete answers, just a rumor that he was last seen going into Malaysia with his hands tied.

A few doors down, Kalar Banu was sitting in the doorway to her hut, cradling her knees with her hands. Her rounded face looked drawn and tired and she drew circles on the floor nervously as she talked. The day her son, 14-year-old Amir, was taken, they weren’t on good terms, she said. They had argued. Amir had taken her cell phone and broken it. “I think he thought I would beat him,” she sighed. They had gone to the market together – Amir helped his mother run her small business selling wood for cooking fires. She only turned around to negotiate with the vendors for a moment. But when she turned back, he was gone.

Police in the village told her later that the traffickers had a scam going. They offered young boys 20,000 kyats ($20) to go with them, sometimes going so far as to beat, drug or force them onto the boats, with the hopes of extracting a large ransom from their families. She heard Amir took the money, but later decided he didn’t want to go and was beaten unconscious. “I heard when he woke up he wouldn’t go on the big boat, but the trafficker beat him and forced him,” she said.

When she realized what had happened, Kalar Banu went to the local agent and offered him $200 in return for her son. But the trafficker refused and sent Amir to the border. He called her again, from there, saying, “If you want your son back, you send 6,000 ringitts ($1,600).”

The negotiations went on for almost a month. She talked to Amir a few times on the phone and he begged her to help him. Kalar Banu said she was trying everything. She managed to collect 5,000 ringitts but it was too late. She was told Amir had died. She doesn’t know the details, just that he was “sick.”

“This is a very serious problem for the people, but some are going to Thailand by their own wishes. My son didn’t. He was organised by the traffickers.”

Kalar Banu wants the men who trafficked her son to be arrested. “She is always crying, saying that,” an elderly woman who lives nearby said, sadly. She wants another kind of revenge, too. “At the moment I want to beat [the trafficker] and do something to do him because I am so sad for my son,” she said. There have been reports of mob justice in the camps. But, most of all, she wants to find Amir. She has no pictures of him. “I want to go to Malaysia and bring my son’s dead body back, but I can’t,” she said.

Fatima is looking for work as a housemaid. Others in her camp are hoping to farm the land, but they need donations. “There are many acres of land here. If the international NGO provides some mechanized farming material like water pump, fertilizer and so on we can do that. We have the power and energy to do farming here, but we have no capital,” said Ahmed, the community leader.

Yasmin hasn’t decided what she will do. She hasn’t ruled out another dangerous voyage when the rains die down. She talks it over with her husband in the camp’s Internet café. He sends her money sometimes. “We were divided and I am facing difficulties here,” she said. “There is no peace in Myanmar. How can I get peace? If I can get peace anywhere, I will move there.”

Sayed Hussein thinks his sons will do the same, despite Haron’s fate. “I’m afraid of that,” he said quietly.

U Ba Kyaw wishes that his children or grandchildren will one day be able to live freely in the land of their birth.

“We are the citizens of this country. We were born here, and brought up here, so we want to live here,” he said. 

Late one afternoon, Ahmed, the community leader at Fatima’s camp, pulled out a hand-written note from the bottom of an empty rice sack. He wanted people overseas to see it, he said.

A friend who spoke English had helped him draft it.

This is what he wrote:

Now, we are dwelling at the camp of [illegible] clique and Baw Du Pha village west cemetary, in Sittway. So, we transferred from our origin places because we cant connect to any organisation and can’t fill of our needs.

So, we Rohingya Refugees applied to you gentleman to operate all of our requirements, as possible as.

Refugees Agent

(U Maung Than Kyaw)
Baw du Pha Camp,
near the west cemetary”


-Words, images and text for this story are by Poppy McPherson

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