Friday, 10 July 2020

M. Reddy


In October of 2004, the government of Malaysia, despite its generally ambivalent posture towards refugees, declared that it would recognize the Rohingyas, a group of Muslim people who live in Arakan State in Burma, as refugees and would furthermore offer them identification documents and work permits. Although the Malaysian government declined to offer Malaysian citizenship to any Rohingya refugee, the government’s actions are nonetheless significant, especially as Malaysia is the first and only country in the world to offer resettlement opportunities to this population.

 

A few months after this announcement, on the 15th of February, 2005, researchers from Forum-Asia, a Bangkok-based organization, conducted an interview with Kabir (not his real name), a 17 year old Rohingya refugee from Kutupalong Camp in Bangladesh, who decided to make the long trip to Malaysia with a group of men from his camp. In response to the lack of basic freedom and opportunities in camp life in Bangladesh, this young refugee resolved to forge new prospects in Malaysia, despite the risks associated with the long trip. His story, poignantly told on the eve of his departure to Malaysia, reflects the simmering frustration of other Rohingya refugees, who observe that their livelihoods in the refugee camps are no more certain or stable than they were in Burma. As this 17 year old says, “We may die at sea or may be arrested on the shore, but we consider that death or arrest is better than the present life in the camp”.

 

The Rock: Burma

 

"Why did our parents leave Burma more than a decade ago? Of course, there was no freedom of movement, no freedom of speech, no citizenship, no right to work, no support, and only persecution by the government. But here in the camp we face the same situation,” says Kabir2.

 

When speaking of their homes, Kabir and other Rohingya refugees from Arakan State, like refugees from other parts of Burma, tell similar stories of forced labor, land confiscation, extortion, sexual assault, and arbitrary taxation. However, the Rohingya, unlike other groups in Burma, must also face a regime that fundamentally opposes their rights of citizenship, and curtails their ability to practice their Islamic religious beliefs .

 

As this unrelenting campaign of disempowerment undermines their ability to survive in Burma, many Rohingya have journeyed into Bangladeshi territory and are now mired in the tenuous and unstable politics of two refugee camps, Kutupalong Camp or Nayapara Camp. As of November of 2004, both camps housed over 20,000 people and, because of refugee resistance to repatriation to Burma, the population of these two camps is not likely to decrease in the near future1.

 

The Hard Place: Bangladesh

 

The population of Kutupalong Camp and of Nayapara Camp largely represents the remnants of two large refugee flows from Arakan State; the first exodus occurred in 1978, probably in response to the repressive “Four Cuts” military operation launched by the Burmese government, while the second occurred more recently in 1991-1992, when over 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh after the newly created ‘Na Sa Ka’ police, with the explicit support of the Burmese government, began an excessively repressive campaign against the Rohingya. Those who have made the journey to Bangladesh, a country that itself is reeling from its own economic circumstances, often find that they are stigmatized, marginalized and even harassed by local people and camp officials3.

 

Kabir recalls a recent episode in which the police stopped him and another refugee on their way back into their refugee camp. He remembers, “The police beat us mercilessly and took us to their barracks. They ordered us to make a statement that we had gone out of the camp to meet refugees who had fled …They said that if we made this statement they would let us go.
When we refused, they beat us again and again and then they demanded money to release us.” Eventually, Kabir’s mother was forced to pay 400 Taka , all of it borrowed from relatives, to ensure the release of her son2.

 

Also, Kabir says that “the majees [refugee ‘leaders’ who are appointed by Bangladeshi officials] and the camp officials are always preventing us from doing anything. The officials and the majees always blame us when we try to organize any event, let alone when we want to organize protest and demonstration against camp authorities.” Furthermore, the police, according to Kabir, regularly and arbitrarily detain people, especially young men2.

 

As for the Bangladeshi people that Kabir has encountered, he complains that “the local people hate us even more than the Burmese do”2. Chris Lewa, a researcher from Forum-Asia on the Rohingya, reports that local news reports are rife with stories that construct the refugees and the camps, in general, as economic and security threats to the region1.

 

In addition to the hostility that is demonstrated by both camp officials and local people towards the Rohingya refugees, the camp facilities and conditions also prevent refugees from creating opportunities in Bangladesh. In particular, schoolteachers are frightened away from the camps by the threat of police and majee intimidation, thereby leaving the camps without the adequate manpower to educate Rohingya children. In fact, Kabir, whose formal education ended in Class 4, alleges that, “if I could get the chance to study here [in the camp], I would abandon the journey [to Malaysia],” even though camp officials often bully educated people2.

 

The Alternative: Malaysia?

 

To date, over 40 Rohingya refugees from Kutupalong area have safely made the trip to Malaysia, although not all of them have been successful in their attempts to find jobs there. Based on their reports, Kabir concludes that fleeing to Malaysia is the most reasonable alternative to a life in the camp. Additionally, Kabir believes that Malaysia, unlike the other potential destinations that he has apparently considered, including Saudi Arabia, has a similar culture to that of the Rohingya refugees2.

 

In the preparation for the trip, Kabir says, “In our group, we have experienced boatman...We have collected about 120,000 Taka among us and we bought the necessary supplies such as life jackets, rice, potatoes, diesel, binoculars, radio, two large maps…” Kabir anticipates that the trip will take 10 days, but, for good measure, the group bought enough supplies for 15 days. When asked about the risks associated with his impending journey, Kabir replies, “I already told you [the interviewer] that I know it is a very risky journey, but we don’t have any other option. We are leaving the camp to find peace and freedom”2.

 

However, Malaysia is currently in the midst of a strong anti-illegal immigrant campaign and, despite the announcement that the government will issue identification papers and work permits to Rohingya refugees, their assimilation into the Malaysian social fabric may indeed be hampered by the anti-illegal immigrant sentiment that is now sweeping through parts of the country.

 

Yet, Kabir says that many refugees “are fed up by all the restrictions and systems imposed on us. We can see no difference between the people living inside Burma and those living in the refugee camps,” it is hard not to understand this young man’s motivation for seeking an alternative to the life that he is currently leading in the Kutupalong Camp in Bangladesh. Unwanted in the country of his birth and stigmatized in the country of his exile, Kabir feels that has no choice but to flee yet again to find work and relative freedom in a distant country -- another stateless casualty of Burma’s brutal regime.

 

Source: April 14, 2004, Burma Net News