More From Alder's Ledge

June 27, 2013

The People From Nowhere

With Nowhere To Return To
(The Darkness Visible series)

(Rohingya Men In Thai Detention Center)

Where Is Nowhere?

If anywhere on the planet could be described as "the middle of nowhere" the Arakan in Burma could very well be it. Since Myanmar was created it has been one of the most neglected places on the planet. Aid organizations and NGOs have long been working in Thailand to help refugees fleeing violence and war, but that is on the other side of the country. The Arakan remains isolated as it is tucked between Myanmar and Bangladesh. There it rest as a small sliver of land filled with rivers, mud, and hills. For most of the world it is might as well be on another planet.

So it is of little surprise that when genocide reappeared in the Arakan that most of the world didn't realize it... many still don't. When I ask people if they have heard of the plight of the Rohingya in Burma they often first ask where Burma is. The next question is who are the Rohingya. This is the extent of Western knowledge of Myanmar and the people it oppresses. It is one of the reasons that few in the West are taking action to stop this genocide.

The one term that brings a connection to in the minds of people I talk to is that of "boat people". The images of Burmese refugees taking to rickety boats and braving the waves to hopefully reach safety in Malaysia or Indonesia still rest in the minds of Westerners today. However most of the people in my area of the world don't make the connection between Muslim Rohingya and "boat people" right away. Usually it takes a good deal of explaining to convince people that the Muslims are not the ones committing genocide and creating "boat people" but rather are the refugees. It is this awkward connection between the name Rohingya and "boat people" with which I have been able to describe what "nowhere" is like for these fleeing refugees.

I have come to view the Arakan as being somewhat of "the middle of nowhere" for Rohingya because they aren't legally part of it. Though they have lived there for countless generations and have a strong heritage in the Arakan, the government of Burma claims they are "Bengali invaders". For this reason the Rohingya are homeless in their own homeland. Without citizenship in their own country the Rohingya might as well be anywhere else on the globe than right there at home. And yet they have nowhere else to go.

Those who flee from decades of oppressive rule and modern outbreaks of organized violence are left without a place to which someday return. Due to their lack of Burmese citizenship they have nowhere left to call home. Countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have nowhere to send them home to once they arrive. Those who flee this new wave of genocide enter a state of limbo... a state of unlawful existence according to the countries in which they end up.

The country from which these Rohingya refugees flee is a country where they are targeted for mass executions, slave labor, starvation, and exploitations of all the usual deviant ways. They cannot return to Myanmar with any hopes of a free and dignified life. With hate speech readily preached against them across their homeland, with the threat of more pogroms, and with the reality of starvation and isolation; the Rohingya who flee Burma become people with nowhere to call home.

“They should go to Bangladesh, where they came from, or they should be killed,” Hla Moe Thu, Rakhine Buddhist.

What is Nowhere Like?

For the Rohingya the place that has driven large numbers of them to flee as refugees the place they called home is hellish at best. In June of 2012 their Rakhine neighbors seemed to suddenly realize that Myanmar's "civilian" (an ex-general is President) government was just as xenophobic as the junta had been. Only now the civilians in charge were less likely to stop violence against minorities than their military predecessors had been. All it took was one spark for all hell to break lose.

With the excuse of one Buddhist woman's death the radicalized sect of Buddhism in the Arakan region took to violence instead of the preachings of their Buddha. Arming themselves with guns, knives, and machetes the mobs began to target all Muslim minorities in the region. The Rohingya were prime targets since their typically darker skin and religion made them distinctly different from the Rakhine Buddhists. These few minor differences meant that entire Rohingya villages were easily targeted by torch wielding mobs intent upon slaughtering any Muslims they could catch.

"When the wife of Mohamed Salam was found dead floating in a river, her body carried a sinister message. She was abducted along with two of her children in June, and Salam was later told by sympathetic Buddhists how they had died. According to them, her captors said her breasts gave milk to Muslim babies and her womb gave birth to future generations of Muslims. Her breasts were then hacked off and her genitalia mutilated with sharpened bamboo. Her teenage son was tethered to a motorbike and dragged across a rocky road. Salam would not elaborate on how his daughter met her end." ~ As reported by Brendan Bradly of The Daily Beast.

An eye for an eye. Tooth for a tooth. The Rakhine extremist would exact revenge for the unconfirmed death of a Buddhist woman with such ferocity that no Rohingya person was or is safe today. The need to defend "their people" from "Bengali invaders" was forced upon the rest of the population of the Arakan. People who had been neighbors for years were now enemies due to nothing more than their ethnicity and religion.

This unimaginable hatred is what makes the Arakan a place worthy of being considered "nowhere". When violence is justified through the simplistic view of "us verses them" nobody is safe. When one house is burned, when one life is stolen, there will always be a victim's relative, or friend, or neighbor who is willing to take it upon themselves to exact revenge. It is in this cycle of violence that the Arakan has become a place where no one can truly consider it home.

When the government did show up it rounded the Rohingya up into concentration camps. Taking the opportunity to deal with it's "Rohingya question" once and for all, Burma laid siege to the Rohingya community. Government officials allowed for Rohingya in internally displaced peoples' camps (IDP camps) to be blockaded and refused international relief. Only the most presentable camps, considered wretched and squalid by NGOs, were allowed visitors from the outside world. And even in these concentration camps the Rohingya were found to be starving to death.

This is what nowhere is like for the Rohingya. It is a country where their homes have been burned, where those still left in their villages are kept prisoners by the government, where their children starve due to neglect by Burmese officials... this is nowhere for them to call home.

Life On The Outside...

"Thailand should respect the basic rights of Rohingya ‘boat people’ and stop detaining them in horrific conditions. The government should immediately allow them to pursue their asylum claims with the UN refugee agency"
~ Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch

For the Rohingya who make it out of Burma there is often no time to breathe a breath of freedom. In Thailand the Rohingya are vulnerable to human trafficking, at times at the hands of Thai officials themselves. Those who evade exploitation are more often than not captured by Thai police and taken to detention centers. Instead of being allowed to seek legal asylum in Thailand, these Rohingya are treated like common criminals with little regard to the tragedy that made them refugees in the first place. 

Organization like Human Rights Watch have noted the horrific conditions in which Rohingya are kept in Thailand. Detention centers where 10 to 15 immigrants are supposed to be held now hold upwards of 250 men at a time. These Rohingya are kept in cages like animals. There is little room for them to sit down let alone move about. In these facilities there is no bathroom for the Rohingya men to use. They are simply locked up and forgotten about. 

For nearly six months now these Rohingya have been kept caged in Thailand. In conditions that many pet owners wouldn't keep their dogs or cats, these Rohingya are made to live the most undignified of lives. They are not allowed to be leave. They are simply made to wait till their "temporary stay" in Thailand expires and the government can ship them back to Burma.

Yet these are just a handful of the 20,000 estimated Rohingya who fled so far this boat season. For the rest there is still the threat of exploitation at the hands of human traffickers. Many of which are subjected to trafficking before they even leave Myanmar itself.

Growing concern for these refugees has been fueled by reports that ethnic armies in Burma have engaged in trafficking of Rohingya trying to flee the violence in Burma. This was reported in the Trafficking In Persons report by the United States this year. It stated that the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army had willfully trafficked Rohingya refugees in both Thailand and Myanmar. Other groups have been known to traffic Rohingya along the borders with China and Bangladesh as well. All of these victims are extorted of money and valuables before being either abandoned or sold to traffickers across the border in the destination country. 

Then there has been the issue of Rohingya women being trafficked across Southeast Asia as mail-order brides and sex slaves. Many of these women and girls are taken from the areas hardest hit by the genocide back in Burma. They are sold by "brokers" who then ship them to Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand. From there it is anyone's guess where the Rohingya girls end up. One can only imagine the life these girls are forced to live once they are snatched up from the middle of nowhere and sent away from what family they have left.

Nowhere Left To Run.

“The government should help Rohingya who escape from oppression and hardship in Burma – not worsen their plight.”
~ Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch

For most of the civilized world it is obvious that if a refugee manages to escape the repressive hold of a tyrannical system they should be given an opportunity to taste freedom. However the government of Thailand (along with others) remains of the opinion that Rohingya refugees should simply be "helped along" to their next destination. For many of the Rohingya in Thai custody this means that they will either be sent back to Burma to suffer once again or introduced to a new and equally terrifying version of hell. The willingness to purchase and sell fellow human beings will forever remain a blight upon Thai society as long as the Rohingya are trafficked by Thai officials. And the over eagerness of the Thai government in sending Rohingya back to the torment of genocide will never be forgotten.

If the Rohingya are to have any hope of a better future they must first be granted a glimmer of hope in neighboring lands. The perilous journey that many take to only be once again rejected by the world must be brought to an end. Governments however cannot be expected to alter their current stances upon the issue as long as prejudices against the Rohingya remain ingrained in the societies which they govern. People across the region in which the Rohingya find themselves must find it within themselves to set aside minor differences and take the opportunity to bring relief to a hurting people.

Though it would be ideal for Rohingya to be granted the ability to remain at home in the Arakan the current situation in Burma makes this impossible. If Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and all other host nations want to end the tidal wave of Rohingya refugees they will first have to pressure Myanmar to end this genocide. Any economic engagement with Myanmar will need to be done through the scope of how it will affect the genocide for better or worse. Governments around the world should rethink what it means to the oppressed minorities of Myanmar for them to take advantage of Burma's opening up to foreign investment. Sanctions should be reinstated and pressure should be applied both economically and militarily before Burma is allowed to return to the world stage.

As long as state sponsored genocide is being conducted in Burma there will always be Rohingya who find themselves with nowhere left to run. The waves of refugees will only increase for as long as the pains of hunger stab at their sides. This refugee crisis will only end when the genocide of the Rohingya is forcibly concluded... either the outside world or by Burma itself.

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Source Documents
(note: not all sources are listed)

Voice Of America 

The Daily Beast 

Human Rights Watch

The Democratic Voice of Burma

Al Jazeera 

BBC News

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