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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?
“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.