(Adrija is an intern at Mahanirban Calcutta research Group and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
“When will I go home?”* With a look of half uncertain hope and half despair, fourteen year old Safi Akhter just wanted me to answer this question. I had gone to meet her to document her personal narrative – the journey from her homeland Myanmar, where she was born, to the land where her parents currently live in, India. She has been living in India for a year now, although if given a chance, she would go home. (I interviewed her as a part of my ongoing research project on the Rohingyas, which aims to adopt a gendered lens on the Rohingya international crisis. Safi is the sole Rohingya girl in West Bengal at this moment, and thus, her narrative will add a first-hand dimension to my research undertaking.)
Safi belongs to the Rohingya community, a minority Muslim community who call the now Rakhine state of Myanmar their homeland. According to the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO), “Muslim Arakanese or Rohingya are indigenous to Arakan. Having genealogical linkup with the people of Wesali or Vesali kingdom of Arakan, the Rohingya of today are a perfect example of its ancient inhabitants.” The golden age of the Muslim Arakanese culture came during the 15th century, under the Mrauk-U dynasty (1430-1784). The royal court patronized Arakanese literature, Muslim titles were adopted by the Mrauk-U kings, coins were minted in which was inscribed an Islamic declaration of faith, and also took inspiration from the dressing sense of the Persian rulers.
The Rakhines entered the Arakan kingdom around 10th century, although tensions between the Rakhines and Rohingyas emerged only after the British conquest of Arakan in 1825. Thousands of Bengalis, especially from Chittagong, migrated to Arakan to work in the British colonial plantations which boosted the imperial economy. The Rakhines bitterly resented this influx of “illegal Bengalis” taking away their jobs, and thus, in post-colonial Burma, the Rohingyas were discriminated against. Ethnically and culturally distinct than the Burmese, the latter viewed the Rohingyas as a remnant of their oppressive, exploitative, and colonial past. Therefore, the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law recognized 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, excluding the Rohingyas, rendering them stateless. Against such a historical-cultural-political backdrop, Safi experiences reality.
Safi has grown up in a village which she calls Harifara, in Myanmar, with her maternal grandmother (nani), a maternal uncle, and his daughter Zayida. Her parents moved to India when she was 4-5 years old, and listening to her childhood experiences it seemed that she hardly has any memories with her parents. There was but one trip that she had made to India with her parents, of which she couldn’t recount any particulars. She remembers playing with Zayida in their home in Myanmar, and spoke of her cousin with a smile. “Why did you leave Myanmar?” I asked her. “Because my parents are in India.” Her countenance, almost within a fraction of a second, became grave and thoughtful.
(Photo courtesy Soye Zeya Tun/ Reuters)
Unlike the other reports one generally comes across regarding the Rohingyas and their near fatalistic journeys coupled with harassment from every quarter, Safi narrated her journey to India in a rather matter of fact manner. I had to ask her after each stop “And then?” for her to complete the sequence. Her nani, along with her and Zayida, braved the boat expedition across to Bangladesh. Safi mentions that the boat was medium sized, and she did not feel uncomfortable in it. Her co-passengers were all women and Zayida and she were the only two young girls. The boatman charged 8000 Burmese kyat for each person. From the shores of Bangladesh, they proceeded towards what Safi said was her aunt’s home. Her father met her there. After four days at her aunt’s place, Safi’s father took Safi and left for Dhaka, on a bus which left from Cox’s bazaar. In Dhaka, Safi says her father met a dalal (middleman) who helped them to cross over to India from Benapole. The father and daughter were joined by two other men who the dalal was helping cross the border, and Safi wasn’t aware if any monetary transaction took place between the dalal and her father.
They entered India, West Bengal, early in the morning, around 5 am. She didn’t speak the common tongue. Immediately they were caught by the border police who asked them a lot of questions. They seemed a little aggressive according to her, but she states that no physical harm was done. They were taken to the police station, where her father was placed behind bars and she was put in another room, with another elderly woman who too had crossed the border, along with many women police officers for that night. They sent her to Sanlaap from the Juvenile Justice Board, and it is here that she has been living for the past one year. Initially, every seven days she had to appear in court, now, once a fortnight suffices. She was asked questions such as why did she leave Myanmar, does she have siblings, where is her mother, and where is her home.
(Photo courtesy Mohamed Ponir Hossain/ Reuters)
For someone who doesn’t speak the local language, is just fourteen and has been away from her parents for the most part of her life, her sole wish is to go home. I asked her what she meant by “home”. She said Myanmar. Sutapa di, who works at Sanlaap and was a part of our conversation, commented, “This is the first time I have heard someone say they miss Myanmar. Even if they are caught by the police and lead irregular lives, they never think of returning.” However, Safi is known to be a bright girl in Sanlaap and has adjusted remarkably well over the past year. She has picked up Bengali, and is quite comfortable conversing in the language. Only sometimes she could not understand a word or two, or needed a sentence to be explained on more simple terms. She took guitar lessons at Sanlaap, and also helped in block printing. When I requested her to speak in her mother tongue, admitting I had never heard it before, she could little conceal her delight.
As fortunate as Safi is to have not encountered any tangible violation of self, or to have been an eye witness to any bodily harm done to her family, she is certainly living in a state of structural violence. In between my queries, I asked her more than once if she wanted to say something in particular, or share an anecdote, anything. “Bari jabo kobe? Ekhane ek bochor achi, bhalo lagche na?” (“When will I go home? I have been here for a year, I don’t like it anymore”). This sentiment was not only crystal clear throughout the duration of our interaction, but each time it was expressed vocally, it was deeply felt and helplessly craved for. When she was not answering or commenting on my queries, Safi candidly expressed her longing to belong. Moreover, these were the only times when her reserve of talking to a total stranger was slightly giving way to a true glimpse of her feelings. She also said, simultaneously, that she wishes to be reunited with her mother. Safi’s mother currently resides in the refugee settlement camp in Hyderabad. It was at this point that I asked her what she implies by home.
“Where do you mean by home?” I asked in Bengali.
“Myanmar”, she replied.
“Myanmar, with your mother?”
“No, if I can be with my mother, I can even stay in India.”
Prospects of her going to Hyderabad, or going back to Myanmar, seem bleak as of now. She hasn’t been released by the court yet.
Safi’s tone of helplessness sheds light on another angle of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, apart from the gruesome events of brutality in the name of Buddhist nationalism. This lack of a sense of belonging experienced by a fourteen year old, away from her parents and nani, has left her in a state of void. Although she was quick to pick up the common tongue, yet it seemed she couldn’t find the appropriate words in her Bengali vocabulary to express how deeply she felt after a certain incident, or the complexity of her thoughts which was evident by her expressions. Finally she managed to say, “I felt very depressed when they took my father away”, looking at the floor. Throughout most of the conversation, she dearly clung onto a doll she had stitched in between her hands. Her reserve broke a little when I reached out to her while saying goodbye and she didn’t want to let go of the embrace. Sutapa di and I both consoled her that this phase isn’t permanent; she will definitely reunite with her parents and feel at home once again.
(Photo courtesy Andalou agency)
However, none other than the Burmese government can provide political and legal redress to Safi’s queries, or the prevailing Rohingya question. On the frontline of this crisis there is the obvious manifest violence, with narratives of women and young girls being raped and killed. That is but just one level of violence experienced in the whole paradigm of oppression; the violence inflicted on the Rohingyas through the state apparatus manifests itself on multiple levels. Even after fleeing their ancestral homes in the Arakan region, they cannot live in peace. The psychological violence and emotional void experienced, marginal to the discourse on the use of brute force, is nevertheless a result of their disenfranchisement and depoliticisation. Although socio-cultural reconciliation between the Rakhines and Rohingyas may not occur instantaneously, citizenship must be extended to the Rohingyas. A briefing by the Burmese Rohingya Organisation U.K., presided by a Rohingya Human Rights Activist called Maung Tun Khin, proposes eight legal remedies to alleviate the predicament of the Rohingyas from marginalized invisibility to equal citizenship.
(A satellite image of the village of Wa Peik, Maungdaw district on 10 November, via Human Rights Watch)
(The same area pictured in a satellite image recorded on 18 November, via Human Rights Watch)
In addition to the state’s open apartheid operations, the international community uses the term “ethnic cleansing” while referring to Myanmar’s policies regarding the Rohingyas. Even after a lot of media attention given to this issue, the following human rights outcry and humanitarian concerns, there seems to be absent any mechanism through which the international community could put an end to the Rohingya genocide. Since, more often than not, state sovereignty has the last word in the international sphere, transcontinental cooperation could channelize their voices on the pressing need for humanitarian intervention in the Rakhine state – for instance, giving access to INGOs like Médicins Sans Frontières. Such immediate intervention must, nonetheless, be combined with a cessation of the state-sponsored violence on the Rohingyas. If such reforms are indeed undertaken, one can hope of a future where Safi, and many more like her, can consider going home with some assurance of safety.
- * This interview was conducted by the author of this article at the Narendrapur home of the NGO Sanlaap
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