Shining light on the Rohingya
25 February 2013
A new photobook compassionately illustrates the lives torn apart by the Rohingya tragedy.
“We Rohingyas are like orchids,” an 18-year-old Rohingya man called Shamsul once told me. “We are not able to grow any roots in the ground so we are left with only one way to stay alive and that is to cling on to others.”
– Emma Larkin, in the foreword to Exiled to Nowhere
For nearly half a century after 1962, Burma was ruled by a military dictatorship with one of the world’s worst records of human rights abuses. In that oppressive society, where the Burmese army fought numerous ethnic insurgencies, the Rohingya – Muslim settlers of the northern part of Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State), who prefer to call themselves Arakanese Muslims – have been among the most persecuted.
After the 1982 Citizenship Law passed under the rule of General Ne Win, Burmese Muslims were denied fundamental citizenship rights. They were restricted from marrying, owning land, travelling beyond their villages, or enrolling their children for formal education. Such treatment by the Burmese state has driven the Rohingya into neighbouring states like Bangladesh, where they have received only temporary shelter amidst hostility from the host community. Support from the international community has also been fragile, limited to a coterie of humanitarian workers, journalists and academics.
Greg Constantine’s Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya tells the story of the Arakanese Muslims through a series of black-and-white photographs accompanied by personal narratives, interviews and testimonies from this community. Constantine, an award-winning photojournalist who has been documenting the struggles of stateless minorities around the world for the last six years, tells this story through photographs taken over the course of eight trips to Bangladesh from 2006 to 2012.
Besides recording testimonies, the book is also an attempt to make the Rohingya past and present known to a broader circle. The book begins with a foreword by Emma Larkin, a noted US journalist and Burma scholar, and a section titled ‘Voices’ that comprises statements by different policymakers and researchers with knowledge of the situation, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana.
Lifetimes of pain
Exiled to Nowhere is organised into three parts, each documenting a particular phase in the struggles of Rohingyas who have been forced to flee oppression in Burma and take shelter in Bangladesh. Part one covers their terrible treatment in Burma. Here we are introduced to stories like that of Jafar, who was born in Buthidaung, Rakhaine State, on the Bangladesh border. Jafar had to flee to Bangladesh with his family when, in February 1978, the Burmese military junta under General Ne Win launched Operation Naga Min, or Operation Dragon King, which aimed to purge Burma of ‘illegal foreigners’ – taken to mean anyone without citizenship and identity papers. In the border areas, this operation was executed with extra ferocity. Jafar’s family were repatriated in 1979 under a formal agreement between the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments, but within three years the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law denied the Rohingya any hope of Burmese citizenship, effectively making them stateless. When Operation Pyi Thaya, or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, was unleashed in 1991 and 1992, the widespread violence, forced labour, harassment, rape, arbitrary seizure of land and destruction of property forced Jafar’s family to once again cross the Naf river into southern Bangladesh, along with about 250,000 other Rohingya.
Part two presents the conditions the Rohingya face in Bangladesh: the squalor of the refugee camps, the health hazards, the constant struggle for livelihoods, often resorting to illicit and hazardous activities. Yet through it all, Constantine shows us the persistent rhythm of life and death that strings the exiled Rohingya together as a people, a community and a nation. This section is even more visually striking than the others. The black-and-white photos situate the refugees on the marshlands of the Tal makeshift camp (now dismantled and relocated), amidst the muddy drains, the tattered rags and plastic sheets of their new homes. Constantine’s camera stares straight into the eyes of women and children who have nowhere to go, who struggle from one day to the other, caring for their babies and for the sick. His lens follows people bearing heavy loads, digging deep into the earth, pulling in fishing nets, drying fish in the baking sun.
And still, the Rohingya continue to suffer and be displaced, again and again. Constantine shows us a woman thrown out of a village she took shelter in, after the villagers discovered she did not have an ID card. An unregistered refugee states that the Rohingya “eat once, but starve twice”. In their ultimate refuge, the Kutupalong makeshift campsite, the Bangladesh Government allows only the minimal sanitation and health care, and provides no rations. Wailing mothers and desolate men bury their children’s bodies in a strange land. “My son,” one parent says, “was born in Burma without an identity. Now he has died without an identity here in Bangladesh.”
This is why so many Rohingya seek an escape from their present circumstances. Part three shows us their attempts to escape their present in the hope of a better future. Sadly, it is a quest that often ends in disaster. This is the story of the ‘boat people’, who venture out in boats that are barely seaworthy, and often end up in foreign prisons or left to die on the high seas by callous foreign authorities. Constantine shares these stories, and also tells us of the despair of the bereaved families that are left to struggle for existence and grieve their disappeared. He captures the desperation of the makeshift camps, of the mother who scrapes shrimp off a market floor to feed her seven children, and of the boats that wait at Teknaf to take young Rohingya to Malaysia. He interviews young people who are constantly hounded by both the Bangladesh Border Guards who try to chase them into Burma, and by the Burmese officials trying to imprison them.
Throughout the book, Constantine’s photographic style adds power to these disturbing narratives. While using a spectrum of compositions, from close-up shots to panoramas, Constantine positions his subjects very astutely. His close-ups often show subjects placed off-centre, implying dislocation and insecurity. The human emotion behind the photos is never obscured, as evident in a striking portrait of a grieving woman, her sorrow amplified by having the photo spread across two pages. Constantine also has a dramatic sense of light and darkness, evident in shots where the dark inside of a shack is pierced with a hopeful shaft of light, or where crouched, burden-bearing figures are silhouetted against a blinding sun.
Historical and political amnesia
Exiled to Nowhere traces the roots of the Rohingya problem back as far as Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, but in understanding why both the Bangladesh Government and the Burmese junta consider Rohingyas to be outsiders we need to look deeper into the complex histories of the region and its peoples. Historically, Northern Rakhine State in Burma and the bordering areas of Chittagong in Bangladesh are best defined not as geographical borders but as cultural frontiers. Various historians and Muslim scholars have recorded evidence of a Muslim presence along parts of the Arakan coastline since as early as the eighth and ninth centuries AD. These first Muslim settlers, it is presumed, were largely Arab seafarers, merchants and, occasionally, holy men. However, as Islamic and, later, Mughal influences came to dominate Bengal and the region of Chittagong, these religious distinctions became less clear in a world of poly-ethnic and poly-religious societies. Ever since colonial times, however, the Burmese state has denied this syncretic coexistence of peoples and cultures, giving rise to the notion that the Rohingya were originally Bengali Muslims. The fact that the Rohingya share a language with people living across the border in Chittagong has also been used to bolster that idea, which Bangladesh adamantly denies. In their determination to impose restrictive definitions of ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, both governments are denying the complex history of the region.
The Rohingya issue has historical foundations, but it has only received global attention in fits and starts, whenever it has contributed towards destabilizing either existing or emerging power configurations in the region. In this sense, the interest in the new influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh in June 2012, a trend that continues to date, is connected to the broader politics of Burma’s democratic ‘opening’. The new refugees are fleeing bloody clashes between the Muslim Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists in Burma’s remote but resource-rich Rakhine State. Armed gangs from both communities have killed dozens, burned down several villages, and displaced tens of thousands of people. Meanwhile, Burmese security forces have stood by watching or, in some cases, targeted the Rohingya. The Rohingya crisis has embarrassed those with an interest in seeing – or at least projecting an image of – a seamless transition to democracy through the reforms being pushed forward by Burmese president Thein Sein and supported by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Inside Burma, those interested parties include Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which expects to dominate if open elections are held. One of the reasons behind the Nobel Laureate’s lukewarm stance on this issue is a reluctance to upset her predominantly Buddhist support-base with forceful statements in support of the Rohingya. Foreign powers, many of them hungry for a share of Burma’s market and resources, have also been treading carefully so as not to provoke the government. This is equally true of regional and Western powers eager to tempt the country’s rulers away from the influence of China, which has dominated the Burmese economic landscape since the era of international sanctions and is increasingly seen as trying to project its power further into the ASEAN countries and beyond.
Given these circumstances, it is little wonder that the international obligation to protect the Rohingya is often sidelined in favour of economic and geo-strategic considerations. Exiled to Nowhere is a timely book to help us awaken to the reality of our stupor and apathy. Unfortunately, the impetus for humanitarian action often comes more from the dictates of realpolitik than it does from well-meaning projects such as this one, but that fact only serves as an indictment of our callousness. Constantine’s book is a reminder of the Rohigyas’ humanity, and a call to ours.
~ Meghna Guhathakurta is the Executive Director of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh, and a former Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka.
~ Photos and captions courtesy Greg Constantine.