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Rohingya: A people without a place

Children in the Thet Kae Pyin camp for displaced Rohingya. Picture: Graham CrouchSource: News Corp Australia

By Amanda Hodge
June 30, 2015

As her delivery time grew near, Zubaida’s fears for her unborn baby began to escalate.

For the duration of her pregnancy, normal but for the baby’s size, the 23-year-old college-educated woman and her teacher husband, Saed, had been lobbying the government for permission to travel from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state to the capital Yan­gon to give birth.

As members of the country’s 1.3 million Rohingya Muslim ­community, they have been confined to vast internally displaced people’s camps on the outskirts of the provincial capital Sittwe, where they lived until June 2012 when long-simmering religious tensions boiled over into mob violence. About 120 people were killed and 140,000, mostly Rohingya, were displaced from the city.

Rohingya students in Sittwe were expelled from schools and colleges (including Zubaida who was in the second year of a history degree), tens of thousands lost jobs and livelihoods, but, most significantly, the entire local population lost its freedom.

There is no line on the road to Sittwe marking the point beyond which Rohingya Muslims may not pass but everyone knows where it is: at a junction marked by a police checkpoint and a power substation.

Zubaida is not Rohingya, but she married one and so is subject to the same gross state discrimination. The city of their birth is closed to this couple as is the right to vote, send any future children to public schools, obtain citizenship or ­government jobs.

The baby she carried for nine months now lies in a cemetery on the Rohingya side of that invisible line.

In what appears to have been a cruel joke played by local authorities, permission to travel to Yan­gon was finally granted to Saed but not to Zubaida.

So when her time came four weeks ago she spent 10 hours in ­labour on the bamboo floor of her family’s hut before her frantic husband rushed her to the camp health clinic, which spent another futile four hours trying to speed the delivery.

By the time emergency permission was finally granted to transport Zubaida, her own life now in peril, to Sittwe General Hospital (where many Rohingya fear to go because of stories of mistreatment) her baby was dead in her womb.

That same night another Rohingya woman rushed to Sittwe hospital died in childbirth. Within days a third woman lost her baby.

Doctors allowed Zubaida one look at her stillborn son and then sent him for burial. Saed never saw his baby boy, their first child. He was not allowed to go to the hospital.

“The people who buried my baby came to me the next day,” the 29-year-old geography graduate tells The Australian. “He told me he didn’t know it was my baby. He said, ‘If I knew it was your baby I would have come to you and shown you.’ ”

Both Saed and Zubaida are ­adamant their baby would have survived had they been permitted to have it in Yangon.

Directly behind the young couple’s dwelling, in one of a series of rickety bamboo huts, lives Kyaw Hla Aung, an august Rohingya lawyer and human rights activist.

He was released last November from his most recent imprisonment on charges of inciting violence against the state, after he called a meeting in the IDP camp mosque to arrange a polio vaccination drive.

The former state law ministry clerk, who can trace his family heritage back more than a century through official documents saved from his home before it was burned to the ground by a Buddhist mob in 2012, has been in and out of prison since he contested the 1990 elections.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won those polls in a stunning victory which the military government overturned, before placing Suu Kyi under house arrest and imprisoning thousands of other political and student activists.

The 75-year-old Hla Aung pre-dates the Myanmar government’s 1982 decision to disenfranchise the Rohingya population, and so still has a passport and a National Registration Card — for all the good that does him, given he’s entitled to travel anywhere in the world but cannot leave the camp area.

Hla Aung was invited to last month’s Oslo conference to discuss the Rohingya crisis where Archbishop Desmond Tutu appealed to Myanmar’s donors to make their funding “conditional on the restoration of citizenship, nationality and basic human rights to the Rohingya”.

Of course he could not go.

“Before 1990 we could travel anywhere we like,” he tells The Australian. “After 1993 they began restricting our travel. It’s religious discrimination.

“I am a citizen, I am a former government employee, I receive a pension. Why would the government give a pension to a non-­citizen?”

The Myanmar government, and most Myanmarese people, say Rohingya are ethnic Bengalis who crossed the border from East Bengal to Rakhine State back when India was a British colony, and should return to Bangladesh.

Bangladesh reluctantly hosts a refugee population of more than 200,000, most in unregistered and desperately impoverished camps around Cox’s Bazaar, but will take no more.

The Myanmar government refuses even to recognise the word Rohingya, insisting it is a modern political affectation, and attended last month’s 29-nation meeting in Bangkok to discuss the Rohingya crisis only after assurances that no delegate would use the term.

From a sheath of rescued documents, Hla Aung produces photocopied pages from a 1799 edition of the Asiatic Researches journal, obtained from a Kolkata library, which talks of “three dialects spoken in the Burma Empire”.

“The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans who have long been settled in Arakan (Rakhine) and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan,” reads an underlined passage.

He pulls out a greying photograph of his uncle posing with fellow members of the Rohingya Muslim Association of 1960.

“They did not call us Bengali before Bangladesh independence (in 1971),” says Hla Aung. “They called us Rohingya, or Rakhine Muslim.

“Back then we could apply for government jobs, we could study medicine, engineering. Now no one can. My family does not want to live like this. Most of our relatives live in Yangon.”

Earlier this year Hla Aung was given permission to go to Yangon for treatment. But after two months authorities came to his door and drove him back to the Rakhine camp.

The government is now reviewing the citizenship status of all Rohingya in Rakhine state. Applicants for citizenship must first agree to identify as Bengali and produce the citizenship cards of their grandparents or parents — an impossibility for thousands of displaced people.

The situation for Rakhine-based Rohingya is intolerable, which is why tens of thousands have fled the country in search of a better life in Southeast Asia.

Since last month’s refugee crisis, precipitated by a Thai crackdown on refugee trafficking camps that saw 4500 starving Rohingya and Bangladeshi boatpeople bounced across Southeast Asia, no new boats have left the weather-beaten natural harbour that punctuates a long, miserable ­avenue of huts.

Early this month, after years of ignoring the trade, the Myanmar navy seized two boats of 900 migrants off its coast. Authorities insisted most on board were Bangladeshi and sent them over the border, but dark rumours circulated in Sittwe’s IDP camps about the fate of 208 Rohingya.

Last week authorities reported they had returned 195 Rohingya migrants to their homes around Rakhine state.

“We verified each of the migrants and contacted the respective township authorities to check whether these people actually lived in these places,” said immigration official Khin Soe.

There are others, however, who quietly returned to Sittwe’s refugee camps before the government could even note their absence.

Their release from boats moored off the Sittwe coast was secured, as the Rohingya refugee crisis was unfolding in April, for 200,000 Myanmar kyat ($230) per person by a local Rohingya businessman who spent $15,000 in the space of a month buying the freedom of 75 Rohingya from trafficking agents.

Kyaw Hla, a startling-looking man who made his money building and annually repairing the refugee shelters to which his countrymen are now confined, says he was first approached by a mother seeking a loan for her son’s release from a trafficking boat.

“I told her to go home and I would arrange for her son to come back to her,” he says from the half-finished brick home he is building for his second wife and baby girl.

“It was good luck for me and for the people in the boat that one of the (traffickers’) agents turned out to be a friend of mine. He said there were about 1000 people on the boat and I asked him to help me get back this boy.”

The traffickers, out of pocket now the trade had been halted and they could no longer recoup costs through the usual ransom demands or fishing industry slave trade, agreed to release the boy if Kyaw Hla would also take 11 others on board from local camps.

“I asked to speak with all of them on the boat and then agreed. People were dying on those boats. I was trying to save their lives.”

Sensing a new income stream, within days the agents contacted Kyaw Hla with a proposal to free another 26, and later 34 more. Seven children were thrown in free of charge.

Kyaw Hla has faced some scrutiny of his motivations but says he “learned something about the value of human life” working for international aid agencies.

He has refused to hire any of those whose release he secured to avoid accusations of exploitation, and is resigned to the fact he can never recover money from families who can barely afford to eat.

But he will not do it again.

“If I do, then it will be a kind of habit for migrant people and traffickers. Instead I will inform the international community and media,” he says. He admits he also worries about the repercussions of having brought unwanted ­Rohingya back to Myanmar.

The government says it has caught 93 human traffickers since the beginning of the year, but none of those arrests was in Rakhine state.

Both Kyaw Hla and Kyaw Hla Aung say that is because the human traffickers are protected by the government and that “by not taking action, the government is encouraging this activity”.

Those who can afford it are still leaving the camps, but they are travelling by road to Yangon and then leaving the country by air.

Says Kyaw Hla Aung: “The sea is rough now and the international community is watching. But in a few months the boats will start again.”

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