Photo-book gives powerful testimony to plight of Myanmar's Rohingya minority

Images put faces to Myanmar's stateless Muslim minority

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 10:34am

In documenting the plight of Myanmar's stateless Rohingya minority, roving photographer Greg Constantine has produced an important work at a crucial time: Exiled to Nowhere - Burma's Rohingya comes as the troubles of the ethnic Muslims are again seeping into the regional consciousness.

Three years ago, hundreds of Rohingya men perished amid a secret Thai army policy of towing arriving boatpeople back out into the ocean, with little food and water, and abandoning them to their fate. This time their ongoing persecution is exposing the disturbing underside of Myanmar's otherwise vaunted social and political reforms, with at least 88 people killed since June in fighting between Rohingya and Myanmese Buddhists in northern Rakhine state.

It has not been pretty. A suddenly unshackled press has given vent to deep-seated anti-Rohingya hatreds among the country's Buddhist majority. And not even freedom icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been so far willing to spend her considerable moral capital in demanding nationality status for Rohingya - a move which will anger many in her own party.

Some analysts fear the situation could threaten the pace of ongoing reforms amid questions over the long-feared military's role in the violence. President Thein Sein, a general in the former ruling junta, has called for the 800,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar - all in Rakhine - to be placed in UN camps or expelled, a move which could put regional stability at risk.

For too long, Rohingya Muslims have suffered in relative anonymity and isolation, eking out a troubled existence in northern Rakhine - formerly known as Arakan - and across the border in Bangladesh. The fact that so many, seeking a better life, flee to Bangladesh - itself one of the region's poorest countries - speaks volumes.

By portraying their hardships and telling their stories, Constantine brings their struggle to life, rendering their very identity.

Conservative Muslim traders (their daughters are kept at home until they are 14), the Rohingya inspire deep hatred across Myanmar's different ethnic groups and classes - including other Muslims. Scholars have traced their links to Arakan back centuries to migrations from ancient Persia, yet in Myanmar few accept their rights to ordinary nationality.

With judicious use of maps, a detailed timeline and family histories, Constantine neatly pieces together decades of mounting repression into a depressingly coherent whole.

"I was born in Buthidaung on February 22, 1978, the same month Naga Min started," a 34-year-old man named Jafar is quoted as saying. Operation Naga Min - or Dragon King - was hatched by the late military dictator Ne Win as an extensive crackdown on identity documentation to further purge his isolated nation of illegal foreigners.

Two decades earlier, the then-prime minister had declared them nationals. "Yet, nowhere in Burma was Naga Min executed with as much ferocity [as] in Rakhine," Constantine writes. "Teams of immigration officials swept through villages, going house to house demanding identification papers, questioning documentation and swiftly punishing and arresting those who didn't meet the arbitrary requirements of those in charge."

An estimated 250,000 Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh. Amid international pressure, many of those returned - only to be rendered officially stateless in Ne Win's Burma Citizen Law which outlined 135 "national races". Then in 1991 Naga Min was reprised as Operation Pyi Thaya - Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation. "Pyi Thaya unleashed another wave of widespread abuse, forced labour, harassment, rape, arbitrary land seizure and destruction of property across Rakhine," Constantine writes.

Jafar, then 13 years old, was on the move again through the swampy forests of the border. "I asked my father, 'Why can't we stay? We have cows. We have land. Why can't we stay and live on our land?' He told me, 'We have no rights in Burma so it is time for us to leave. We must leave now'."

During the next few months, another similar-sized exodus crossed into Bangladesh, forcing the UN refugee agency to create a monitored repatriation programme. But many, including Jafar and his family, would remain in Bangladesh. About 30,000 would linger in UN refugee camps while 10 times that number would eke out a living in southern Bangladesh, often falling heavily into debt at the hands of bonded labour racketeers, and subject to the whims of immigration crackdowns and disease outbreaks.

If their lives in Bangladesh were miserable, Constantine pins down the reason many Rohingya could not conceive of living again in a place they considered their home. Shortly after Pyi Thaya, its excesses became the norm as the regime created a special force for northern Rakhine, linking police, immigration and customs authorities with the feared military intelligence apparatus.

The Sat Kut-swey Ye, known as the NaSaKa, "continues to be the main perpetrator of human rights abuses against the Rohingya in Burma, denying Rohingya the right to travel freely, imposing strict restrictions on their right to get married, subjecting them financially with excessive taxes, bribes and extortion". The result is a systemic persecution that veteran UN refugee officials have described as being among the worst suffered by any ethnic group anywhere.

Exploiting the stark nature of traditional black-and-white photography, Constantine's bold use of light, shade and tone brings to life faces born out of prolonged struggle and anxiety. Some appear stoic despite the mud and squalor of their surroundings; others are more haunting. Wary eyes peer out of the pages; old eyes from the faces of children.

His lens, too, captures the surrounding detail in grim relief. To get an idea of the reality of a make-shift camp in Bangladesh, check out the image on page 50 - one of the few without a human subject. It shows a wet-season rivulet winding through a shanty of tents made of hessian sacks built on mud and scrub. One can almost smell the stench.

On page 20 is a man, once beaten about the head during forced labour in Myanmar, in late middle age. The tension behind his lined face and rheumy eyes is chilling, yet hard to turn from. When this photograph was hanging on the walls of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club during an earlier exhibition, some members would choose to sit elsewhere during lunch, unable to face tucking with gusto into the bar buffet beneath such a haunting image.

Part of an ongoing project to expose the plight of the stateless worldwide, Exiled to Nowhere does not pretend to be a work of scholarship or authority. By simply telling their stories with text and images, Constantine senses, correctly, that the stories of the Rohingya are already powerful enough and must be given space. Other authors can tackle other questions.

There is, tragically, no shortage of those. One vexing issue is why the Rohingya inspire such passionate hatred and why, in such an ethnically diverse country as Myanmar, the ruling elite cannot find a place for them, bureaucratically or philosophically, in the nation's heart.

One of Constantine's subjects, 70-year-old fisherman Jubair, tells of his boat being blown into Bangladeshi waters during a storm in 1992. Sentenced to two years' jail that year, he is still there, one more victim of bureaucratic inertia, on both sides, on an immense scale.

"God only know why I've been in here so long," he says. "Actually, I don't know how long I'll be in here. God only knows."

Exiled to Nowhere:Burma's Rohingya by Greg Constantine   Nowhere People  

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