The 2015 Southeast Asian boat crisis made Myanmar’s Rohingya more visible to the world, but the problems they face have persisted for decades. Now that the annual sailing season is under way, we dig into the roots of the crisis and find out what life looks like for those who made it to shore.
( Esquire Malaysia, December 2015 )
The last wave of boats was pushing southwards before the coming of the monsoon. Thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims, fleeing from ethnic and religious persecution in Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority Rakhine State or untenable living conditions in Bangladesh's refugee camps, were making their way across the Andaman Sea on rickety wooden boats in the hope of safe refuge in Malaysia.
Among them this sailing season was Muhammadul Hasson, 17 years old and still just a boy despite the life experiences that had conspired to make him less so, who had left his home and his family behind at the Nayapara refugee camp in Chittagong, Bangladesh, just across the border with Myanmar. Before Hasson was born, his family had fled Rakhine State along with approximately 250,000 other Rohingyas in the 1991–92 exodus. Now, more than two decades later, Hasson was running too — to what he hoped would be a better life, the kind of life where wanting to be a doctor when you grow up isn’t just a silly pipe dream.
It was early May, and Hasson had been at sea for almost two months, longer than he’d bargained for. He had not said goodbye to his family when he left Bangladesh, but by now, they would have realised where he had gone. He had sought out a “broker” — as he called one of the many men who serve as cogs in the smuggling chain spanning Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia — and boarded a small fishing boat on the Naf River. He found himself among Bangladeshi economic migrants and Rohingyas like himself who had lived for decades in Chittagong’s refugee camps or clandestinely among the local community, as well as those who had been picked up across the border from Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Like a number of other boats making the same journey, Hasson's boat then drifted along the coastal rivers and into the Bay of Bengal before coughing up its passengers into a larger trawler that would, it was hoped, carry them on to Malaysia.
That’s how this journey usually begins, and when things go according to plan, the voyage can take just several days. But the Malaysian, Indonesian and Thai maritime authorities had been keeping a watchful eye on irregular movements this season, and the smugglers had stalled the boats to avoid detection. Hasson had been transferred onto a grey vessel, which held more than 800 men, women and children, and for many weeks, they sat pressed up against each other like sardines, with no room to stretch their limbs. Most of them had to huddle below deck in the vessel’s humid underbelly, which soon reeked of sweat and urine, while those above deck were burned by constant exposure to the sun. Their hair grew out, their beards grew thick. They grew dehydrated, malnourished and sick. If they are lucky, barring a storm, the journey may not get worse than this. However, stories of travellers being physically or sexually abused by boat crews are not uncommon. Sometimes, too, death follows. According to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report, more than 1,000 people have died along this sea route since 2014.
Many of these travellers had begun the voyage without paying upfront fees. In previous seasons, the smugglers would usually disembark the vessels in Thailand and hold their passengers hostage in jungle prison camps along the border with Malaysia, where many reportedly suffered starvation, beatings or sexual abuse, until their families or communities paid their debts. They would then be taken overland into Malaysia and released. If there was no one to pay on their behalf, they might be beaten or sold into forced labour on fishing boats and plantations, with the smugglers pocketing their wages as compensation. Since late 2014, however, smugglers have reportedly preferred to hold passengers at sea while waiting to collect payment. Hasson had called his mother from the boat using a smuggler’s mobile phone, since his own and other meagre belongings — his UNHCR refugee card (his only proof of identity), 1,000 Bangladeshi taka (a little more than RM50) and a memory card containing digital photographs of his family — had been, like everyone else’s belongings, confiscated on board. It was the first time his mother had heard from him since he had run away from home, but she understood. She agreed to take the money to the broker in Bangladesh, and took comfort from the fact that once it was paid, her son would be ferried safely to Malaysia’s shores.
But monsoon or no monsoon, there is never a good time for a journey like this, and this sailing season was especially fraught. On May 1, 2015, following the discovery of mass graves near abandoned smugglers’ camps in southern Thailand, the Thai authorities cracked down on illicit human trafficking networks, forcing the smugglers to abandon their human cargo. By mid-May, at least eight vessels and as many as 8,000 people were thought to be stranded on boats left adrift at sea.
Hasson’s mother had paid RM6,000 for his safe passage, but in the end, the service promised in exchange was not fully rendered. Hasson and his fellow travellers never made it to Malaysia.
I met Hasson in July at the temporary refugee shelter that had sprung up along the mangrove swamps at the Indonesian port of Langsa, Aceh, about a five-hour bus ride away from the traffic-choked metropolis of Medan in northeast Sumatra. One afternoon, I was walking around the Rohingya refugees’ newly built living quarters — wooden huts painted bright green for the women and red for the men — asking for someone who could speak English. A girl who looked far more mature than her 15 years yelled out cheerfully at a teenage boy walking past, who backtracked to the camp’s makeshift mosque, where he had been praying, to retrieve his friend Hasson. It was the holy month of Ramadan, and here in Aceh, the only Indonesian province allowed to enforce Sharia law by the central government in a concession of partial autonomy, the Rohingyas could practise their religious customs freely — unlike in Rakhine State, where they are discouraged from worshipping publicly and mosques have been shut down.
Later, I sat with Hasson in an open communal hut furnished simply with wooden tables and benches, soon crowded by groups of Rohingya men in longyis and donated T-shirts. He and several others told me that when the smugglers abandoned his boat, food and water rations were already running out. Desperate men clung to the side of the vessel and soaked their shirts in the sea, wringing the water out into their mouths. Once, when the rain came, everyone cheered, ignoring any concerns about how the boat might cope with a storm, and held their mouths open to the sky. They spoke of the kindness of passing fishermen who tossed them food and water and attempted to help them find their way to Malaysia. But on May 11, they ended up in Indonesia, whose authorities provided them with sustenance and fuel before towing them back out towards Malaysia, only to be similarly “helped along” by Malaysian authorities. Other boats — including a green vessel that featured heavily in news coverage — also received the same treatment, and this was soon described as “human ping-pong” by human rights organisations. In any case, any reprieve was short-lived. On May 14, more than a week after the smugglers had abandoned Hasson’s ship, a fight broke out on board between the Rohingyas and the Bangladeshis.
“It started at about three in the afternoon. There were some Bangladesh people and some Myanmar people who controlled our ship. They decided to give water to the women and children first, but some Bangladesh people thought Myanmar people were giving only to the Myanmar men,” Hasson said. The perception of injustice, I imagined, was helped along by the fact that the Bangladeshis on board were all economic migrants, and so exclusively men, while the Rohingyas included many women and children who were hoping to join their husbands or relatives already in Malaysia. In retaliation, Hasson said, a few Bangladeshis tore a hole in the boat’s underbelly. “Then they beat and killed the Myanmar people and threw them in the sea,” he said, while some, like himself, had jumped to save themselves. A young Bangladeshi I later spoke to, who had also been on the grey vessel, didn’t dispute what Hasson said. In fact, he volunteered to having played a part in puncturing the boat using a “shovel”, but insisted that it was because the Rohingyas had not distributed the rations fairly and had started attacking the Bangladeshis first. “The Rohingya people were killing the Bangladeshi people. So we thought: if we die, they have to die with us,” he said.
When night came, the ship had started to sink. A light from a fishing boat came into view in the distance, and some men swam towards it to call for help. As we now know, a band of Acehnese fishermen rescued the boat passengers in defiance of the Indonesian government’s instructions not to do so. They sailed through the night and arrived in Kuala Langsa early the next morning, on May 15. One of the Acehnese fishermen, when interviewed about their valiant act by the UNHCR, said, “As humans, we felt that we must help these people because they are in need, especially because we know how it feels. In the past, we were helped by others during the tsunami in Aceh.”
On May 20, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments agreed to offer the boat people temporary shelter, provided that their resettlement or repatriation was completed within a year with the help of the international community. For some, however, this announcement had come too late. It is hard to verify the specific details of what happened on the grey vessel, but what seems to be clear is that a fight did break out between the Rohingyas and the Bangladeshis, that it started to sink, and that lives were lost. The UNHCR reported that at least 14 on the grey vessel had died, while a BBC report quoted a higher figure of 100.
These numbers take on a more tangible form with the story of three-year-old Rezwana, which was told to me by several Rohingyas I met. Rezwana had lost her father, her mother and her sister during the boat journey. “She doesn’t understand that they are dead,” said a friend of the family now looking after Rezwana as her own. “When my husband calls from Malaysia, she thinks, ‘My father is calling me.’ And my husband tells her, ‘Your mother is sleeping. I am your father. I will bring you to Malaysia soon.’”
The Rohingya Dilemma
“Once upon a time, Myanmar was peaceful,” he said. “Once upon a time, there were rich Rohingyas,” he said.
These people could say: This is my land, and these, my cattle. They could say: I am free, I can go where I wish.
This was what Hasson told me. His English, learned in a primary school at the Nayapara refugee camp in Bangladesh, was often touched with a quaint formality, the way a head boy might speak in the presence of his elders. But Hasson has never seen Myanmar in his life. Like several other young Rohingyas who had washed up on the banks of Kuala Langsa during the unprecedented boat crisis in May, he was born in Nayapara and had never left, until now. However, Hasson’s parents had told him many stories, impossible stories, of what their homeland used to be, and no longer is. “When my mother and father told me these things about Myanmar, I was surprised. I don’t understand why a peaceful situation turned into a violent situation,” he said.
In May 2012, the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman by three Muslim men sparked long-simmering inter-communal tensions that soon spread throughout Rakhine State, incited, in part, by the anti-Muslim rhetoric of Rakhine Buddhist political parties and local monks’ associations. It was reported that both Buddhists and Muslims committed atrocities against each other, but that the Rohingyas, who form the largest Muslim minority in Myanmar and in Rakhine State, had borne the brunt of the violence. Mosques and entire Muslim villages were razed to the ground, and human rights agencies reported that state security forces, many of whom were Rakhine Buddhists themselves, either stood by or joined in the attacks against Rohingyas that left almost 200 dead and 140,000 displaced and segregated into internal camps in Rakhine State that have been denounced as a modern form of apartheid by human rights organisations. Many more have fled the country.
However, though the 2012 clashes marked an escalation in violence against the Rohingyas, there have, in fact, been periodic outbreaks of intercommunal violence since at least the Second World War, and Rohingyas have been fleeing Myanmar for decades. According to the 2014 International Crisis Group Report, the roots of the crisis trace their origins back to British colonial times when there was large-scale migration of Muslims from Chittagong — which was part of British India before independence, before becoming part of East Pakistan, and later, part of independent Bangladesh — to what was then Arakan State to work as coolies, which was resented by the majority-Buddhist population. And since Burma’s independence in 1948, the central government has tried to deny citizenship status to the Rohingyas — most notably in 1978 and 1991–92, when the military dictatorship launched violent campaigns to weed out what it saw as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, resulting in an exodus of Rohingyas from Rakhine State. However, Bangladesh did not accept the Rohingyas as Bangladeshis and most were eventually sent back to Burma, and Burma continued to treat them as illegal immigrants.
The 1982 Citizenship Law further eroded their rights, conferring citizenship by birth only to those belonging to one of the 135 officially recognised “national races”, which does not include the Rohingyas. “This is the problem in Myanmar. If you don’t have a recognised ethnicity, you can’t have equal rights,” Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project, a small NGO advocating for the Rohingyas, told me via Skype from Bangkok. There are other provisions in the Citizenship Law that could entitle the Rohingyas to citizenship, albeit a lesser category with fewer rights, but many Rohingyas are unable to meet the requirements, due in part to the arbitrary handling of formal identity documents by the Burmese government when it comes to the Rohingyas. The problem also stems from the fact that Burma’s ministry of immigration was only created in 1957, nine years after its independence, according to Jacques Leider, an Arakan history expert and former senior consultant to the UN Resident Coordinator in Yangon. “So for almost 10 years there was no administration to clarify the issue of a foreigner’s status. The people themselves would have to help themselves and go to the authorities and say, ‘Please give us papers.’ It was a messy situation. You could say this was the failure of the state to regulate, to clearly say who was in and who was out,” he said. As a result, most Rohingyas today are effectively rendered stateless.
What makes this crisis particularly intractable is the three-way balance of power. “You have to understand the situation in Rakhine State through a triangular relationship of players: the central government, the Rakhines and the Rohingyas. And the government has always, in the past, played the Rakhines and the Rohingyas against each other,” Chris Lewa said. Moreover, Jacques Leider points out that like the Rohingya Muslims, the Rakhine Buddhists are also a minority group and so share the same grievances as other minorities vis-à-vis the Burmese government, which has tended to see ethnic diversity as a threat. “In the elections, the Rakhine don’t expect too much good from the Burmese government, not at all. The Rakhine Buddhists feel like they are under pressure from the Burmese government and also the Muslim world,” he said. This resentment continues today, fuelled by fears — valid or not — that the demographic balance is shifting and that the indigenous Rakhines could soon become a minority in their own state, where they presently make up 60 percent of the total 3.2 million population to the Muslims’ 30 percent.
Hasson’s friends from school saw him, one day, when he was coming out of the Nayapara refugee camp. They were shocked. They’d thought he was one of them.
Hasson had been studying clandestinely at a local secondary school for more than three years by pretending to be Bangladeshi. But now, his secret was out. “Some Bangladeshis gave people information about me in our school. They said, ‘You are Rohingya. Why do you come to our country?’ I was so afraid. I was so shy. My father and mother want me to be a doctor, but I told my mother, ‘Mam, they know I am Rohingya.’ My mother told me, ‘I am sorry, son. What can we do? This is not my country. This is not your country.’” That was when Hasson decided he would go to Malaysia in hopes of being resettled in the US, and that he wouldn’t tell his parents of his plan. “If they had known, they would not have let me go,” he said simply.
The pretence had been necessary because Nayapara refugee camp provides only primary education for children. It was a believable guise, at least in Chittagong. The Rohingyas and Bangladeshis look similar, share the same religion and similar cultural traditions. The Rohingya language is also similar to the Chittagong dialect, which Professor Imtiaz Ahmed from Dhaka University has described as not a separate language but with separate words; and since Hasson was born in Bangladesh, he spoke it with a Chittagonian accent, a Chittagonian NGO worker, who was visiting the camp at the same time, observed to me.
The very reason this pretence is possible is also the very same reasoning successive Burmese governments have employed to justify their treatment of the Rohingyas: they are simply “illegal Bengali immigrants” from Bangladesh, and there is no such thing as a “Rohingya” ethnicity. Moreover, according to historian Martin Smith, the view of the Rakhine Buddhists is that “while they accept the historic existence of a certain number of Burmese-speaking Muslims in Arakan, the people who today describe themselves as Rohingyas are simply Bengalis, most of whom crossed in under British rule or have used the periodic upheavals of the last 50 years to illegally enter Burma.” The Burmese government has even gone so far as to condemn the mere use of the word “Rohingya”, though it is a term that is widely used by the international community today to refer to the majority of Muslims in Rakhine State with the growing visibility of the humanitarian crisis. The Rohingyas, on the other hand, maintain that they have existed in Rakhine State for many generations as a distinct ethnic group.
The truth, according to Jacques Leider, probably lies somewhere in between, though no one yet has the last word on this subject due to the contested history. “There are things that we still simply do not know, frankly,” he said. However, despite the Rohingyas’ aversion to identifying with the word “Bengali”, Chris Lewa said, “They belong anthropologically to the Bengali family. The problem is that the Burmese government uses this term basically to mean Bangladeshi, a nationality rather than an ethnicity,” an unfortunate corollary of the minefield of name politics.
Another difficulty is the view that the Rohingya movement had originally materialised as a political identity. According to Leider, although the word “Rohingya” appears once in a pre-colonial English text, the term really only gained traction in the 1950s as the appellation of the rebellion that sought an autonomous Muslim region in the north of Arakan. Leider has argued that there has never been any other way to define power sharing within Myanmar, but by using ethnic classifications, and as such, “The Rohingya movement could sustain its political ambitions only by gaining recognition as an ethnic group. Religion alone was not sufficient.” This became even more pertinent after the 1982 Citizenship Law came into effect, which linked one’s ethnicity with one’s rights and liberties in what has been described by NGOs as a discriminatory manner. Leider has also pointed out that ethnicity is not a fixed category but a fluid one, and that as the humanitarian crisis grows, more and more Muslims are identifying as Rohingya. “Before the 2012 violence, many Muslims from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, they would say, ‘Oh, we are not Rohingyas.’ They tended to see themselves separately from Muslims further north,” Leider said. “Now, especially after 2012, there has been a huge pressure on them to identify openly as Rohingya.”
Life in Malaysia
On some days, the Rohingya Society in Malaysia’s (RSM) Kuala Lumpur office in Ampang, on the second floor of a shoplot, is fairly quiet. New arrivals to the country might come in to seek temporary documents of their status as asylum seekers. The documents don’t offer much by way of formal protection, but are at least something to explain their irregular presence in the country until they receive their UNHCR refugee cards, which would, in theory at least, prevent them from being deported if stopped by the police.
On other days, though, RSM can get pretty crowded. One evening, I walked in and came upon Muhammad Rayas, a 28-year-old RSM committee member who holds a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from Sittwe University, addressing a group of teenage boys and a grandmother and her two grandchildren, whose parents had died. They had just been released from an immigration detention centre, where they had been held for months, after the UNHCR had negotiated with the Malaysian authorities for their release, and then sent them over to RSM. Before detention, they had also served out sentences in prison for illegal entry into the country, as they had been caught without UNHCR refugee cards by the authorities. Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, has no legal framework for the recognition of refugees or asylum seekers, and so treats them, formally anyway, as illegal immigrants.
Rayas was making and receiving calls on their behalf on a mobile phone provided by RSM. Every boy took turns reciting the digits for Rayas to dial: their lifeline to a distant relative or friend hoping for a new start here in Malaysia. The lucky ones would go to a home soon; the not-so-lucky ones would have to stay the night, or for a few days, at the RSM office until someone could come for them, or until they decide on their next plan of action. There’s a bathroom and kitchen for communal use; and to sleep, they simply lay down on the floor. Rashidah Wahadali and her grandchildren would stay the night. She knew she had relatives in Malaysia, she said, but she didn’t know where they were and had no way of contacting them.
Rayas was my guide around the neighbourhood: a mishmash of commerce — restaurants, sundry shops, mechanics workshops — surrounding a shopping centre. I saw Rohingyas where I didn’t expect them, like in the badly lit backroom of a mini-market where a group of Rohingya men sat sullenly on plastic chairs. One of them sat before a small wooden table laid out with betel nut ingredients, ready for when customers come calling. If you look hard enough, you’ll see several of these little stations around the neighbourhood as a means to a basic livelihood.
The social locus for Rohingya men seems to be the hawker enclave in the area. It is dominated by Chinese food stalls, but in the back, there is a row of shops manned by Rohingyas — a restaurant, sundry shops, tailoring services, more betel nut stations — tacked off, incongruently at the end, by a Chinese disco that starts thumping when it gets dark. There are empty tables and chairs between the two flanks of shops, which tend to fill up in the evenings. It gets lively then. Everybody seems to know everybody.
One evening, I followed Rayas and joined them. They invited me to a cup of tea and a Burmese dish of beans topped with deep-fried breadcrumbs. At some point, Rayas started skyping on his phone with his family back in Myanmar, and when he tilted the phone towards me, I waved hello to the blurry faces of his siblings. I was the only female around — “The women tend to stay at home. They’ll usually only leave the house to buy groceries,” one man said. A few Chinese men sat outside the disco, drinking and smoking, looking over occasionally at the Rohingya tables. The two communities seem to coexist easily, but stop short of going out of their way to be friendly. That same day, the group of 17-year-olds had been released from detention, and two of them had also come along. They joined another table of men, their elders — some of whom, like Abdul Ghani, the deputy president of RSM, had been in Malaysia for 24 years. The boys were soon caught up in conversation, listening intently. It would be their initiation into life in Malaysia.
According to UNHCR, there are 50,860 registered Rohingya refugees throughout Malaysia, while the number of unregistered are unknown. According to a 2014 Equal Rights Trust report, the Malaysian government mostly turns a blind eye towards the presence of refugees in the country, on the condition that the international community, specifically UNHCR, assumes responsibility for their protection and assistance pending resettlement to a third country. As Richard Towle, the UNHCR representative in Malaysia, told me, “Under Malaysian law, all refugees are considered as illegal migrants. Having said that, there is quite a flexible area where refugees are better off in some ways if they are registered with us because the UNHCR identity card gives them some — not complete — immunity from being arrested, there are some discounts at the hospital, and they are able to get private health insurance and private education.” This grudging tolerance also allows many Rohingyas to work informally, often even in well-known establishments. And while Rohingya children don’t have access to government schools, they can study informally in NGO- or community-based schools, some of which are supported by UNHCR. The same cannot be said for unregistered refugees, though they may be allowed to stay on in the country to apply for asylum. However, none of these policies are codified in law or made publicly available, which means they are sometimes not consistently applied throughout the country, and can also be reversed by the government. The Rohingyas’ presence in Malaysia, then, is still a precarious one, and, whether registered or not, they are vulnerable to extortion by people with power over them.
I asked a few men I met about what their lives in Malaysia have been like. “At least, we are Muslim and Malaysia is also an Islamic country. So it is better here, but it is not easy either. You are dependent on people’s sympathy,” said Muhammad Yahya, a 47-year-old who has lived in Malaysia for 13 years. He works informally as a gardener for a living, “whenever and wherever I can get a job, going from house to house.” Things like renting a place to live or driving a vehicle can also be tricky without proper documents, and he lamented how wages have stayed the same while the standard of living has increased.
But for him, and several other men I spoke to, the hardest thing is the uncertainty of the Rohingyas’ existence here. “I’ve been caught by the authorities twice, in 2002 and 2006. The first time, I didn’t have the UNHCR refugee card. The second time I did, but I still kena,” Yahya said. “I was deported over the Malaysia-Thailand border and released into the jungle.” This is what has been called “soft deportations”, since Rohingyas cannot be repatriated to Myanmar because the Burmese government has refused to take them back. “After that, I had to pay smugglers again to bring me back into Malaysia,” Yahya said. Like him, another veteran Rohingya in Malaysia, the 45-year-old Hafzu Rahman, had been deported similarly three times in the 24 years he has been here. It is not an uncommon tale.
When asked what he ultimately hopes for, Yahya said, “I don’t want to remain here. I want to be resettled in the US.” Hafzu Rahman and Mohammad Ayub, a 30-year-old tailor who has been here for three years, agrees. For some like Rayas, however, they would prefer to stay in Malaysia so long as it remains possible to do so; otherwise, the US would be the next best option.
However, Richard Towle cautions the misconception that there exists a “queue” for the resettlement of Rohingya refugees to third countries. “For most refugees in Malaysia, there is no prospect of being resettled,” he said. Other resettlement countries are unable to take those kinds of numbers given the acute needs globally. It is simply a fact of life. The sooner we can start working on a different set of options as to how we manage them, the better, including advocating for the legal right to remain and the right to work. These people are here in the community anyway, and we do not want to condemn them to an inter-generational life of illegality and exploitation.”
But if only a minority of the refugee population can be resettled to third countries, how then does UNHCR decide whose applications should be submitted? “We’re trying to get away from the idea that selection for resettlement is based on education skills and qualifications, because it’s not. That might be attractive under a migrant scheme, but it shouldn’t be part of a refugee protection scheme. What we’re trying to do is say that people who can’t go home should have a better opportunity to live more successfully and more stably in the country of asylum. For a limited number of people who can’t live safely here because of their particular vulnerability should be considered for resettlement. That’s kind of the paradigm under which resettlement operates globally,” Richard Towle said.
Some, however, find their own way abroad. Muhammad Saifullah, 30, is studying International Communications at a private university in Malaysia — one of several that offer short and usually vocational courses to refugees. Like Hasson, he had lived at the Nayapara refugee camp in Bangladesh, having fled across the border with his family during the 1991–92 exodus when he was six years old. Also like Hasson, he similarly had to leave the camp to further his studies clandestinely at a Bangladeshi secondary school. However, he managed to get through it and completed his first year of university before going to Thailand on a scholarship to study at a university under a programme for refugees, where he undertook a diploma in political science. Due to his experiences, and the fact that he has been in Malaysia for 10 years, his English is almost completely fluent. When I met him, he couldn’t speak fast enough, and started peppering me with questions immediately upon our meeting. Like Yahya and other Rohingyas, he has had to work informally: first at a construction site, then for a packing company, before moving on to assist in teaching refugee children in community schools. He had also been stopped and arrested by the police on three occasions during his stay here, though he was never deported. Otherwise, in a sea of often-tragic stories, Saifullah seems to be something of an outlier.
I told him as much, and he said, “In any one community, like the Rohingya community also, there are good people and bad people, rich and poor, happy and sad, educated and uneducated. In Malaysia, the main thing I was nervous about was travelling around, because you could get stopped by the police. But I have been quite happy here in Malaysia.” He is also excited about his future plans. In a few months, he will be leaving Malaysia with his new wife, also Rohingya, who is Canadian. It’s a marriage arranged by their families, who are very close. “We have known each other since our childhood. We studied together in Bangladesh. When I left for Thailand in 2006, they left for Canada,” he said. As for what’s next in Canada, he said, “My future plan is a bit… it’s not like other people’s. People think, ‘In the future, when I have a good chance, I will earn more money,’ or something. My intention is to study more, and then work for the community through the media sector.”
Today, the Rohingyas in Rakhine State live with many restrictions on their basic rights and freedoms, which have been in place for decades. They include the shutting down of mosques and Muslim schools, forced labour, and the confiscation of their land, property and cattle. Yahya recalled that since the 1990s the Nasaka, a now-disbanded border security force unique to Rakhine State comprising immigration, police, intelligence and customs officials, would do whatever they wanted. “When they wanted chicken, we had to give them chicken, even if they didn’t pay us. If we didn’t, we would be arrested. Also, they would force us to work without pay, maybe planting trees or building fences for their stations,” he said. The Rohingyas are also required to seek official permission to marry, which can take up to several years to obtain, and were, at some point, prohibited from having more than two children. For RSM Kuala Lumpur president Sultan Ahmed, the severe restrictions on their movement are the most problematic. Until today, Rohingyas are not allowed to go beyond northern Rakhine State nor between townships without official permission, which greatly limits their ability to make a living and their access to education and medical services, as well as the simple pleasures of recreation. After 2012, the situation has worsened further. “Before 2012, I remember sometimes when we had no work, during the weekend, we organised excursions to the mountains, valleys and riverside where we could make happy, no problem. Now it is very hard to do that,” he said.
Myanmar held their elections on November 8, 2015, though it mattered little for the approximately one million Rohingya Muslims left in Myanmar. “This is the worst time in Rohingya history,” U Shwe Maung, a former Rohingya member of parliament, told me on Skype from the US, where he was attending a conference. “Although this whole problem started with Rakhine State, it is now spreading to the whole country,” due to the sharp increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric from a “small group”, he emphasises, of Buddhist nationalists and extremist monks — like the 969 movement and the Ma Bha Tha, which enjoys popular national appeal. The extremist monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been called the “Burmese bin Laden”, is the face of the anti-Muslim movement Myanmar-wide. As such, Shwe Maung said, “The gap between how Muslims are treated inside Rakhine State and outside is narrowing. What’s happening now is that people become hopeless, totally hopeless.” They have been denied the vote; and where before, there were five Rohingya MPs in USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party), the former ruling party, now there are none. After becoming disillusioned with what he could achieve for his people within the USDP, Shwe Maung resigned in August to run in the 2015 elections as an independent candidate, but was disqualified.
“My application was denied based on a false issue, that accused my parents of not being citizens when I was born. This is bogus because I already went through this process in the 2010 elections and I was eligible,” he said. If he, Shwe Maung, an elected MP, could be subjected to arbitrary discrimination, then what hope did other Rohingyas have? I asked him what he foresaw for the future of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, and he said, “Well, since there are a lot of inconsistencies happening in my country, who knows? I cannot say exactly what will happen. In my country, nobody is following the rule of law. Nothing is guaranteed here. I worry that the worse is yet to come.”
When I spoke to them before Myanmar’s elections, however, Rayas and a few other Rohingya men hadn’t completely lost hope for their relatives back home. “If Aung San Suu Kyi and her party wins, I think the situation for Rohingyas will become better. She’s not saying anything for us now because she wants to win the election, but if she comes to power, I believe it will be better for the Rohingyas,” Rayas said. Now that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has won the elections, it remains to be seen whether their optimism will pan out.
For a few of them, too, home is still where the heart is. “If the Burmese government tak kacau, it would be a good life back in Rakhine State,” Yahya said. “There, life is not hard. If we want to eat fish, we can go to sea and catch them. If we want to eat vegetables or rice, we can plant them. If we want to eat meat, we can breed chickens, or goats, or cows. We don’t lack anything there. I don’t want to run away anywhere. I want to live there. It is my birthplace, and I can’t forget it. If Myanmar were peaceful, I would go back. Compared to home, the US isn’t anything.”
When I think of the future of the Rohingyas, I can’t help going back to Hasson. His optimism, even after his ordeal at sea, had made an impression on me.
“I am happy here,” he had told me, when I met him at the Langsa refugee shelter in Indonesia. “I am here with my friends and we are happy.” They were five boys: Hasson and Muhammad Rafique, 17 years old; Hafiz Hammad, 20 years old; and Iman Hussein and Muhammad Hussan, just 12 years old, who had become each other’s family in a world where they’d been set adrift on their own. Some of them had known each other in the Nayapara refugee camp in Bangladesh, and some became fast friends after two months on the boat.
It’s not clear if Hasson will eventually fulfil his parents’ ambition for him to become a doctor, but in Langsa, at least, when I met him in July, he was making himself useful. Due to his English proficiency, he had become the go-to translator at the local hospital between Rohingyas and the Indonesian medical staff. They’d provided him with a mobile phone so they could call him whenever they needed him. He seemed to fill his days well, playing badminton and teaching informal English classes to the children at the camp who wanted to learn.
When I asked him, thoughtlessly, if he took advantage of living by the sea to swim, he laughed. “No, I was in the water for four hours before the fishermen rescued us. I don’t want to swim again.”