The Plight of the Stateless: The Rohingya Diaspora

This article was written in collaboration with Eshpelin Mishtak for umnotablogger.com, a Bangladesh-based e-magazine, to address the recent Rohingya refugee crisis of Bangladesh.

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Photo courtesy: The Daily Star

The photo shows a Rohingya man pleading to officers of the Bangladesh Border Guards to let him and the children and women of the boat to land ashore on Bangladeshi land. The military officers then gave them food, water and fuel, and mandated them to return back to their home from where they had escaped to flee a murderous sectarian violence between the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhines in the state of Arakan.

Heart-breaking as the photo looks, it clearly symbolizes what the Rohingyas have been going through in Myanmar for decades.

Rohingyas are a particular ethnic tribal group of Myanmar who speak a local dialect of Bengali and are all Muslims. These two reasons make the Myanmar government claim that the Rohingya are actually Bangladeshi immigrants who have settled there when in fact the tribes have existed there for centuries at a time. During the partition of India in 1947 when the British packed all their belongings to leave, the Rohingyas asked Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, to include Arakan in Pakistan (which was formed as a separate state for the Muslims) because of the huge Muslim population prevalent there.

While the Myanmar government persistently claims that Rohingyas are actually Bangladeshis, the Bangladesh government in turn says that they are all

Photos from the conflict

Burmese(people from Myanmar). As a result of this, the government of Myanmar has denied citizenship to the Rohingyas, keeping them widely segregated outside the wider Buddhist communities. They are severely repressed and no family is allowed to have more than two children. Access to their basic human rights such as food, shelter and education are all controlled by the central government. They are not allowed to get posts in the government or in the private sector, and no Muslim minority is allowed to be employed in the police or army.

However despite all these problems the Rohingyas have coexisted peacefully with the Rakhines in Arakan. Most of the youth have crossed the seas and traveled into Malaysia and Thailand, where they work as illegal laborers with no security as the law enforcers there can arrest them off as illegal immigrants. But the majority have moved into the neighboring Muslim-majority state Bangladesh.

Now in Bangladesh, which is already brimming with a huge population of its own with a severe competition for resources, most of these stateless Rohingyas get captured by the Border Guards Bangladesh and are then dumped into the UN refugee camps found in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. An estimated 30000 Rohingyas live in these camps while the number of Rohingyas present in Bangladesh is actually around 300000. The ones who survive abuse and arrest from the Bangladesh border forces escape into the nearest villages. A significant portion marry off among the Bengali Muslim communities, get a Bangladeshi passport and a national id card and become Bangladeshis for life. A good number use the Bangladeshi passports to go off to the Middle-Eastern countries, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where they work as laborers and foreign expatriates.

But recently the plight of the stateless Rohingyas have escalated all of a sudden. When a group of three Rohingya men raped a Buddhist woman, the Buddhist communities fired assaults on the Muslim minorities. A bus carrying Rohingyas was burned down in response to the rape and eventually this fueled into a huge sectarian conflict between the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhists. Far from being rational, the state media and the political leaders of the newly-democratic Myanmar launched countless assaults on the Muslims and thus brought about a huge anti-Muslim fever among the apparently peace-loving Buddhists. Houses, shops and businesses were vandalized and openly Muslims were persecuted under the heat of the day by the locals and also the law enforcers. The people dubbed the Muslims as terrorists and compared the violence to that of 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks without having absolutely no knowledge of the events that led to the aforementioned attacks.

The widespread persecution have prompted a diaspora of the Rohingya populace into Bangladesh in boats and fishing trawlers. Now for Bangladesh, this has become much more than a problem. It is quite evident that the government of Myanmar will never accept these Rohingyas back into their land, and there is no way that the government of Bangladesh will be able to accede more people into the already impoverished country. Therefore the best thing that the government decided to do was to strengthen the Bangladesh-Myanmar borders and coerce the incoming Rohingyas back into their land, where they are almost sure to be persecuted by the wider Buddhist communities. This not only violated several international UN laws for refugees—-through which international human rights groups have asked Bangladesh to open up its borders—–but also brought about an ubiquitous dilemma for the Bangladeshis living inside the country. On the one hand, denying the Rohingyas into the land automatically increases the likelihood that they will be persecuted and discriminated against in their own homelands. While on the other hand, Bangladesh happens to be both one of the most populace and poverty-stricken country at the same time.

The decision sparked massive outrage among the public in Dhaka and the rest of the cities. A poll carried out by the Daily Star shows that most of the people want the borders to be opened for the Rohingyas to come in. But the majority of the intellectuals think that Myanmar should solve its own problems. The Rohingya massacre should be stopped no doubt, but Dhaka is unwilling to comply with mounting international pressure to allow the Rohingyas into Bangladesh because of the obnoxious, racially-prejudiced Myanmar government which continues to call the Rohingyas Bengali immigrants.

According to international journalist and Myanmar specialist Francis Wade, more Muslims are being persecuted than reported by the media. This is what he had to say:

“The role of security forces in the violence has also been underreported, which contributes to statements like this one yesterday from an EU spokesperson: “We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult intercommunal violence in an appropriate way.” That does not marry with reports from locals on the ground.
At least four people have told me that police are acting alongside Arakanese in torching homes of Muslims, while several reports have emerged of police opening fire on crowds of Muslims (NB: Muslims are forbidden from entering Burma’s police force or army – this does carry significance when violence is of this nature). An NGO worker said last night that her family friend, a former politician from Sittwe, has been killed after being arrested over the weekend, while AFP reports that a Rohingya shot by Burmese police has died in Bangladesh.
The UN is unlikely to act unless there is clear complicity in the violence by state agents. The trouble is however that with few journalists or observers on the ground, those responsible for the deaths (which could well be in the hundreds by now) are hard to pinpoint. The UN has withdrawn staff from the region, but Human Rights Watch has urged the government to allow observers in.
There also seems to be something of a PR campaign to cast Muslims as those behind the killings (to make clear, Muslim groups are not innocent bystanders, but have also been involved in arson attacks across the state). One such example is the shaving of the heads of dead victims, often Muslims, and dressing them in monks robes – “and they (media) will take photos of this fake monk corpse to show to the world that these dead bodies were murdered by Muslim [sic]”, one source wrote.”

On the other hand, Rohingyas captured by BGB, Bangladeshi Border Guards, tell horrific tales of persecution and abuse by the Buddhists, who are normally perceived as peace loving and gentle. One family reportedly lost a daughter en route to Bangladesh, and were forced to bury her at sea since they could neither go to Myanmar to bury her, nor reach Bangladesh without being pushed back. Reports of robbers/pirates attacking refugee boats are also prevalent, with one boat captured by BGB with no-one but a malnourished new-born inside; supposedly, the elder members could not take him when they jumped out of board in order to save themselves from pirates.

Amidst all of these, the Bangladeshi Government is maintaining a strict policy of not calling them refugees, and nor allowing them entry. The newly formed democratic government of Myanmar agreed on principle, to take back 30,000 registered “non-refugees”, but the project has seen no light since the talks, and it appears that the Bangladeshi government is scared about taking in more of them because of the categorical denial of citizenship of the Rohingyas as Burmese.

In this situation, many Bangladeshis, who are in favor of allowing the Rohingyas to enter Bangladesh, have started publicly supporting the view. Facebook groups have opened up, and many are blogging in support of them. Some categorically suggest invading Myanmar, an improbable idea, while others opt for allowing entry on humanitarian grounds. Bloggers have even asked the widely popular Bangladeshi premiere, Shiekh Hasina, to intervene directly into the matter and not forget that the prime minister herself was given asylum by Germany when her life was in danger back in 1975.

While all decisions rest on the government, the enraged public is patiently waiting to see an end to this massacre. Because this is not only a crisis and a violence that disrupts interfaith and interracial harmony, but also prompts a huge humanitarian crisis for the world. After all, each drop of human blood, regardless of religion, castes and creeds is equally important.

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The girl who was in love with the mountains

Of all the things Zainab wanted to achieve, mountain-climbing was the most important and perhaps the most idiotic dream a 12 year old could have. It was not only because of her abject poverty—a state from which people like her will never be able to escape—but also because she belonged to the dominated sex in a male-chauvinist society. Yet at English class when Mr. Kumar asked all his students to write a 300 word essay on ‘Reaching my Dreams’ the eccentric girl felt no hesitation in talking about an imaginary expedition to a hill-top.

Living in a lowland village where television had not as yet set its foot at that time, Zainab was unaccustomed to having seen any mountains in her short life. Ironically she did not even know the proper difference between a hill and a mountain despite her regular attendance at the Geography class. And yes sir, it was far superior from her knowledge that the world’s highest peak was located in one of her neighboring countries and also the fact that the river she used for drinking, bathing and playing actually originated from that mountain. These were things that her geography teacher had not as yet covered and so Zainab eagerly anticipated the time when she will be told more about her love in the aforementioned class.

So how do you think a girl who has never seen mountains or even read about them actually became infatuated with such an existence? It was her brother. Her dear brother, the most precious person in her life after her father, was a soldier in the army and also the one paying for all her tuition fees and petty yearnings. He was the one who had seen mountains and trained among them in extremely hostile conditions. The name of the place was Boderbon, no Bonderban. Gosh! She could not even spell or pronounce it properly. According to her brother the place was more than a week’s journey from her home. But once you reached there it was bound to feel the most heavenly place on earth. It was like you are the most special and the only one living in this universe. Nothing else mattered. Everything was for you to use and command.

But the English master Mr. Kumar was up to no such romanticism. He taught his students with iron-clad rules——both in terms of grammar and the students’ behavior——and always believed in grounding up facts. For him therefore, ‘Reaching my Dreams’ was supposed to be an essay about what you wanted to do in the world of pragmatism. Whether you wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Or a policeman or simply a house-keeper. And outrageous as it was, mountain-climbing could never be a factually-grounded student’s dream. And never so in the case of a girl born in the cradles of the destitute.

And hence, slapped with an F in the English essay with a detention to boot during the tiffin break, Zainab was unable to enjoy the hide-and-seek matches during the break period today.

The village she lived in was located in the outskirts of a district that had never seen urban life in its entire existence. The only buildings composed of cement were made by the government in ‘a plot to bring the people under a legal system’ as described by the leader of the village council. As for the government, no one was really bothered about them. From the building bearing a huge ‘Department of Agriculture’ placard, men in clean and expensive English clothes occasionally came to the fields owned by Zainab’s father and the other locals. They called themselves the ‘agriculture scientists’, although what the profession meant or demanded was a huge point of entertaining political debate in the road-side tea-stalls and shops for the illiterate villagers who remained sitting there most of the time engaging themselves in every single conversation they could get hold of. The so-called agriculture scientists inspected the crops and the fertilizers and advised the farmers on the what-to-dos and how-to-dos for maximum output. Although most of the locals eyed these English-dressed Bengali people with skepticism fully encouraged by the village leaders and clerics, Zainab’s father knew better the value of education. Although a complete illiterate himself he had educated his only son till the 12th grade—one of the very few young people in that particular village to have achieved such a feat. And so it was with great pride when he had enrolled that worthy son of his at the Bangladesh Army to serve the country. The entire village had proclaimed him to be a model father of a model son, and such was his value in the rural community that he was always the center of attraction at every single village occasion.

But what about a girl’s education? Now that was somewhat of a dilemma for the illiterate father. Although Zainab was being given lessons on the religious doctrines at home by a female teacher and also had been sent to the primary school for learning her letters, he was doubtful whether educating the girl would bear a fruit. It was the soldier brother who had asked his model father to think better. Not only would educating the girl allow her to contribute to the village community in the near future but also make her a good mother and house-wife, and also a good religious devotee. And besides she could even join the Bangladesh Army or the Police to serve her nation. Although the man was not really idealistic about the latter, he eventually gave in and decided that Zainab should continue education, learn about mountains, write essays in English, read history and recite poetry. And so yes, in a way you could blame her father and brother for Zainab’s depravity at the English class.

After the class was over, on this particular Spring afternoon as Zainab came out along with her class compatriots she was surprised to find out a piece of paper lying folded on the bench in front of the headmaster’s office. Actually this was not a single piece of paper. It was a bunch of papers all folded together in an extraordinary fashion to preserve all the pages inside it. For us city-folks, one look at it would suffice to tell us that this was a daily newspaper. But for a 12 year old who had seen cement buildings for the first time only two years back, who had never even seen or heard about televisions or radios, newspapers were definitely something she was unaccustomed to. Her family’s and other neighbor’s only connection to the outside world was through people like her brother, who came home only once or twice a year with tales of unseen forests, religious extremists who made bombs, robbers who had evolved into political leaders and of course, the usual mountain-clad stories which fascinated the young Zainab most.

So the girl, perplexed with the printed pages that bore a strange semblance to her free books, tried to decipher what they said.

This was no ordinary book, as she realized. It was abuzz with tales from around the world. But the first thing she noticed on the top of the first page was the image of a young girl with heavy glasses and clothes as if she was in an extremely cold vicinity, at least much colder than the winters of her village as judged by the heavy clothes she was wearing. In the background of the woman what she saw made her heart skip a beat.

It was a huge land turned ninety degrees or more to one side. The land was covered with a bed of green grass, or perhaps, forest. It was impossible to tell from the distant photograph. The land rose up slanted and at many regions was covered by a prevalent layer of something brilliantly white. Gradually as the land ascended from the ground it emerged into a peak, a peak that seemed to point towards the Creator who had created it with such artistic hands, towards the Architect who had built it with such classic beauty, implicit precision, impeccable appearance and the enormous possibility of touching the sky.

Except that it did touch the sky.

The weird woman was standing atop one of these peaks holding a flag, which unmistakably belonged to her country, and a smile on her face boasted her achievement of having reached the sky.

What lay behind those rotated green fields? The silly girl wondered. Maybe a huge djinn or something?

By then all her class-mates had left her and gone ahead. If she did not catch up with them she will have to walk the three miles to her home all by herself, something she really did not want to do.

But still in deep consternation, she still stared at that image.

As if someone had merely whispered it to her she immediately understood what those rotated lands represented.

Her eyes gleamed with a light of warmth, pride and disbelief as her thoughts were confirmed by the headline below the photograph: “Bangladeshi woman climbs the highest mountain ranges”.


Eyes glistening with a pride and passion more fierce than anyone looking at her at that moment could have discerned, Zainab gently put the newspaper back to its resting place. Unknowingly her hands reached her soft cheeks and quickly rubbed away the tear that had manifested itself all of a sudden. It was as if she was filled with a bliss of the dreams that she saw every night. As if the diaspora of her heart to meet the mountains was not going to go fruitless after all. As if she knew that if this woman could do it, there was no reason why she couldn’t.

Except that the woman had not merely climbed mountains. She told herself. She had touched the sky.

For the first time in her life, Zainab had seen mountains, albeit in the way she least expected.

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This fictional post is dedicated to Wasfia Nazreen, the female Bangladeshi mountain-climber whose achievements make all of us proud. The impetus for this piece was derived from Aminatta Forna‘s brilliant novel Ancestor Stones when one of the characters described her feelings of having seen the sea for the very first time in her life.