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Photo exhibition captures Rohingya people's statelessness

A visitor to a gallery in Jakarta examines shots by photojournalist Greg Constantine portraying the plight of persecuted Rohingya people in Burma and Bangladesh. [Photo: Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata/Khabar]

By Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Khabar Southeast Asia
March 18, 2014

A lack of belonging created "the general sense of not having any kind of future ahead of them," photographer says of the beleaguered Rohingya.

The plight of the stateless Rohingya Muslim ethnic group has been captured in black-and-white by photojournalist Greg Constantine, who spent eight years documenting their lives in Burma and neighbouring Bangladesh.

The photos were on display for ten days in February at Jakarta's Cemara 6 Art Centre. The exhibit, titled "Exiled to Nowhere: Burma's Rohingya", is as part of Constantine's long-term "Nowhere People" project spotlighting the struggles of stateless communities.

"The title could also mean exile from everywhere. It is quite fitting," said Lars Stenger of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international NGO that co-organised the exhibit.

The Rohingya live primarily in Rakhine state in western Burma, but a 1982 law revoked their Burmese citizenship. In June 2012, riotous fighting between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists resulted in at least 200 deaths, and displaced thousands of Rohingya.

Constantine said he never frames his work religiously, instead focusing on the context of being denied a sense of belonging to a country.

"It is the various kinds of human rights abuse that the Rohingya community face every single day and the general sense of not having any kind of future ahead of them, which most people from the Rohingya community feel," the American artist told reporters at the opening of the exhibition on February 6th. "It is the most extreme example of statelessness."

Constantine's photos were taken in Burma's Sittwe and in southern Bangladesh. The photos show them living in small, primitive huts made primarily of bamboo straw and hay.

One captured burial preparations for a 15-year-old who died of typhoid. Others show Rohingya facing intolerance in Bangladesh, where they are considered illegal economic migrants.

Photos also showed the shell of a broken-down, 200 year-old mosque in Sittwe's Zaldan Kama quarter. Another shows a Rohingya child scavenging for iron or metals to sell from a destroyed Muslim neighbourhood in Kundar, Sittwe.

Rohingya in Indonesia

Though no photos were taken of Rohingya in Indonesia, Febionesta, chief of the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection (SUAKA), said the exhibit would increase awareness regarding problems they face here.

Febionesta said there are currently 711 Rohingya asylum seekers in the country, 10% of Indonesia's total asylum seeker population and its second largest group after Afghans.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees' (UNHCR) meanwhile granted another 781 Rohingya Muslims refugee status. But 98% of them still await resettlement to a third country, Febionesta said.

Because Indonesia is not a party to the United Nations' 1951 refugee convention, resettlement could take years.

"So far, there has been no resettlement. So, there is a big question on what we can do, countries can do, to stop them from being exiled," Febionesta said, adding that NGOs can help push the government to establish a policy creating a legal framework for the Rohingya in Indonesia.

Constantine hopes his work generates more discussion in Indonesia on the plight of the Rohingya, whom he describes as "very determined people".

"That's my role. It's very specific and that is to use documentary photography and photojournalism as a way to spark an active discussion," Constantine said.

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