Through a lens: The Rohingya, and the scourge of statelessness
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Through a lens: The Rohingya, and the scourge of statelessness

The UN reports that sectarian violence over the past fortnight in western Burma has displaced 90,000 people. The figure is higher than the total for Kachin state in Burma’s north, which for more than a year has played host to armed conflict. Bangladesh continues to block entry to those fleeing the unrest, the vast majority of whom are from the ethnic Rohingya group – one disturbing report released yesterday quotes a refugee as saying that helicopters fired on boats carrying victims of the violence.

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Blind in one eye after being beaten in the head during forced labour, this man fled from Burma in the mid 1990's and is one of an estimated 300,000 undocumented Rohingya now living in the southern part of neighbouring Bangladesh. Pic: Greg Constantine.

If there is any silver lining to this deeply problematic crisis, it is that a rare light has been shed on the situation faced by the Rohingya in Arakan state, described by some as Asia’s most persecuted minority. The New York Times last week noted the irony with which numbers of Burmese have embraced a new era of media freedom, with censor-free internet forums quickly becoming a medium through which hateful comments towards the Rohingya are aired.

“The lid of authoritarianism has come off, and people finally have the freedom to express themselves,” it quoted political analyst Aung Naing Oo as saying. “All these grievances have come out,” and “the voices of reason are on the sidelines for now.”

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Beatings, extortion and the seizure of their homes in Burma forced these women and 120 families from their village to flee Burma in early 2009. Pic: Greg Constantine.

The UN says the Rohingya are “virtually friendless” in Burma – indeed prior to the riots, which have largely pitted Arakanese Buddhists against Muslim Rohingya, much of the world will have been oblivious to their plight.

Bangkok-based photographer Greg Constantine, who will next week release “Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya”, a powerful collection of images of the stateless Rohingya taken in Bangladesh, says however that for years the international community has called for change, but avoided any substantial action. “No one has really stepped up to the plate and taken a lead role in seeing that this change takes place, which has led to no one seeing it as their responsibility.”

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In 2008, unregistered Rohingya began to create a new makeshift camp just south of Cox's Bazar. The camp is now home to over 20,000 refugees. Most in the camp live in primitive huts made of leaves, twigs and scraps of plastic. Pic: Greg Constantine.

His book, which alongside the photos contains detailed context of the situation, is another attempt at lifting the lid on the crisis. Successive Burmese governments, including the current one, “have played a huge role” in manufacturing animosity towards the minority, he says.

“People talk about how this recent violence ‘threatens to derail democratic reforms’.  But in reality, how can anyone find ‘democratic reform’ legitimate when over 800,000 people from the Rohingya community, who have lived in Burma for generations, are completely excluded from the process.”

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A group of 12 Rohingya men (mostly between the ages of 19 and 28) were pulled off of a bus at a BDR highway check post the morning of Feb. 19th, 2012. The men had crossed into Bangladesh from Burma earlier that morning. They came to Bangladesh to get on a boat that would take them to Malaysia. Bangladesh authorities would push the entire group back to Burma the same night. Pic: Greg Constantine.

Greg’s wider project, ‘Nowhere People’, looks at stateless communities across the globe – in Laos, Kenya, Ukraine, and so on.

“Stateless people find themselves in this no man’s land, where so many aspects of their lives are exploited by forces beyond their control; where so many obstacles and borders have been constructed that moving forward with life seems impossible.

“There are many psychological problems that accompany statelessness: depression, frustration, anger, but I think for many it is this ever-present sense of hopelessness that things will change. When will this end?

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In Burma, authorities closely monitor Rohingya families. Most Rohingya are not permitted to travel beyond their village. Family household registers are updated regularly so the authorities know who and how many Rohingya are in each house. Any discrepancies to these records are punishable by fines and arrest. The entire family eventually fled to Bangladesh in 2009. Pic: Greg Constantine.

“Many stateless people want to live with a sense of belonging to their homeland and acceptance from others around them.  But the condition of statelessness, especially protracted statelessness that has been inherited from one generation to the next, like with the Rohingya, ends up marginalizing communities to the point where even if they were extended citizenship, it will take years for these communities to feel like they belong, for the stigmas and stereotypes to disappear and for them to actually be on equal footing as others around them.”

An e-book of Greg’s work is also due for release. See here for more details.