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Portraits of Much Persecuted, Oft-Ignored Rohingya

Greg Constantine’s unflinching yet sensitive look at the Rohingyas’ plight has made an impact. (JG Photos/Tunggul Wirajuda)

By Tunggul Wirajuda
February 10, 2014

The elderly Rohingya man epitomized his people’s plight. One of more than 300,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, the former forced laborer fled his home state of Rakhine in the 1990s following years of oppression by the Myanmar authorities and the Rakhine ethnic group. The years of suffering and exile are etched in his face, while his shaded right eye symbolized his blindness in one eye after a beating by his Burmese overseers. Next to his photo, a snapshot of a Rohingya family contrasts with the photo of a woman fleeing persecution under it. The former aptly represents the families and lives shattered by the ethnic and sectarian conflict suffered by the Rohingya, while the latter’s blank, forward looking gaze seem to point towards an uncertain future.

The photos are part of “Exiled to Nowhere,” an exhibition at Jakarta’s Cemara Gallery showing American photographer Greg Constantine’s pictures of the Rohingya ethnic group. Taken in a number of refugee camps in Rakhine and Bangladesh between 2006 to 2013, the event aims to highlight the Rohingya’s struggles, particularly after the Rakhine state riots which left 80 Rohingya dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of them.

“The situation for the Rohingya has deteriorated over the years. Their challenges are bound to increase, especially as Myanmar will get a bit of power as it assumed the chairmanship of Asean for 2014,” said Constantine, who displayed “Exiled to Nowhere” as part of his project Nowhere People, which documents stateless communities around the world.

“The Rohingya crisis isn’t going to go away anytime soon, especially as Myanmar will hold elections in 2015,” he said, adding that one of the few ways to mitigate the Rohingya’s plight is to have major Asean members like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia to exert pressure on Myanmar.

“The Rohingya have been denied their rights as Burmese citizens since 1982. The Burmese authorities systematically dehumanized the Rohingya by extorting, mistreating and humiliating them,” said Constantine, whose work in Nowhere People garnered him awards from Pictures of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, and the Human Rights Press Award. “Persecution of the group has gone back hundreds of years before World War Two or even the British colonial presence in Burma. So I disagree with some people’s conclusions that their plight is a by-product of colonialism and sectarian tensions.”

Constantine’s work, which was previously shown in London, Washington and Madrid, cast light on this bleak fact. In one photo, relatives of a 15-year old boy set out to bury him after he died of malaria in an internally displaced persons camp in Rakhine. In another, a malnourished man sat against a wall, seemingly resigned to his fate.

Constantine’s unflinching yet sensitive look at the Rohingya’s plight made an immediate impact on many people, including “Exiled to Nowhere” exhibition organizer Lars Stenger.

“I was inspired to hold the Exiled to Nowhere exhibition in Jakarta after I saw over 400 Rohingya refugees in Aceh who were held in inhuman conditions at detention centers. For them and other Rohingya displaced in countries around the world, the title aptly describes the uncertainty that comes with a stateless, unclear future,” said Stenger, who works for the Jesuit Refugee Service. To date, there are more than 1,400 Rohingya refugees in Indonesia.

Constantine hopes that the photos will stimulate discussion of human right and other issues. “I hope that Myanmar and other countries will be more responsible in controlling symptoms of nation building like persecution and social upheavals. We live in a globalized world, so their actions will affect other peoples and nations around the world” he said. “I hope the photos would also make the Indonesian people more introspective about their treatment of persecuted minorities.”

Exiled to Nowhere
Through Feb. 16
Cemara6 Gallery
Jalan HOS Cokroaminoto No. 9-11
Menteng, Central Jakarta
Tel. 021 391 1823

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