The Rohingya people are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group who predominantly follow Islam [i] They come from the Rakhine State in Myanmar (previously known as Burma). In 2017, an estimated 1.4 million Rohingya lived in Myanmar and over 740,000 fled to Bangladesh due to persecution and genocide. Under the 1982 Myanmar legislation the Rohingya are denied citizenship.[ii] Restrictions were also were put on freedom of movement, including access to state education and civil service jobs. The legal conditions faced by the Rohingya in Myanmar have been compared to apartheid[iii] The most recent mass displacement of Rohingya in 2017 led the International Criminal Court investigating crimes against humanity, and led to the International Court of Justice investigating genocide.[iv]
The modern term Rohingya emerged from colonial and pre-colonial terms Rooinga and Rwangya. The usage of the term Rohingya has been historically documented prior to the British Raj and the Rohingya were long regarded as one of the native groups of the Arakan. The Rohingya were also called Chittagonians during the British colonial rule, and sometimes they were referred to as Bengalis. In the 1950s the Rohingya appeared to be a political movement living as autonomous Muslims in Arakan (or Rakhine). In the 2014 census, the Myanmar government forced the Rohingya to identify themselves as Bengali. This was seen as a loss of identity as well as a loss of citizenship and Human Rights.[v]
According to Burmese history the Rohingya have lived in Arakan since 3000 BCE. By the 4th century, Arakan became one of the earliest kingdoms in Southeast Asia to adopt an Indian culture. Sanskrit inscriptions in the region reveal that the founders of the first Arakanese states were culturally Indian. The Burmese did not settle in the region until much later.[vi]
Arakan is located on the Bay of Bengal in a strategic geographical position for maritime trade. Records show that the Arab merchants had been crossing the Bay of Bengal to reach the Rohingya since the ninth century. The Rohingya trace their history to this period. It is believed to be Arab traders who converted the Buddhist population of Arakan to Islam so they could marry Arakan women. Due to marriage and conversion the Muslim population grew. When and how the Rohingya became Muslim is highly contested by Buddhist factions who do not recognise the Rohingya’s claim to their lands and ancestry.
The British census of 1872 reported 58,255 Muslims in Akyab District. By 1911, the Muslim population had increased to 178,647. The waves of migration were primarily due to the requirement of cheap labour from British India to work in the paddy fields. Immigrants from Bengal, mainly from the Chittagong region, “moved en-masse into western townships of Arakan”. Albeit, Indian immigration to Burma was a nationwide phenomenon, not just restricted to Arakan.[vii] For these reasons historians believed that most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries with some tracing their ancestry much earlier.[viii]
At the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of no less than a quarter million per year. The numbers rose steadily until the peak year of 1927, immigration reached 480,000 people, with Rangoon exceeding New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. This was out of a total population of only 13 million; it was equivalent to the United Kingdom today taking 2 million people a year. By then, in most of the largest cities in Burma, Rangoon, Akyab, Bassein and Moulmein, had Indian immigrants. [ix] All of Burma was officially a Province within the British Indian Empire (‘the Raj’) from November 1885 until 1937, when Burma became a separate Crown colony within the British Empire. The impact of immigration was felt mostly in Arakan and the Arakanese bitterly resented the colonials. According to historian Clive J. Christie, “The issue became a focus for grass-roots Burmese nationalism, and in the years 1930–31 there were serious anti-Indian disturbances in Lower Burma, while 1938 saw riots specifically directed against the Indian Muslim community”. [x]As Burmese nationalism increasingly asserted itself before the Second World War, the ‘alien’ Indian presence inevitably came under attack, along with the religion that the Indian Muslims imported. The Muslims of northern Arakan were to be caught in the middle of the conflict.[xi]
In the 1931 census, the Muslim population of Burma was 584,839, 4% of the total population of 14,647,470 at the time. 396,504 were Indian Muslims and 1,474 Chinese Muslims, while 186,861 were Burmese Muslims. The census found a growth in the number of Indian Muslims born in Burma, primarily due to their permanent settlement in Akyab. 41% of Muslims of Burma lived in Arakan at that time. Due to the terrain of the Arakan Mountains. The Arakan region was mountainous and mostly accessible by sea. In the British Arakan Division, a ferry in the port of Akyab provided services for trade alongside the ports of Rangoon, Chittagong, Narayanganj, Dacca and Calcutta. Akyab was one of the leading rice ports in the world trading with Europe and China. Many Indians settled in Akyab and dominated its seaport and hinterland. The 1931 census found 500,000 Indians living in Akyab. [xii]
During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) invaded British-controlled Burma. The British forces retreated and inter-communal violence erupted between Arakanese and Muslim villagers. The British armed Muslims in northern Arakan created a buffer zone that would protect the region from a Japanese invasion when they retreated. The period also witnessed violence between groups loyal to the British and the Burmese nationalists. The Arakan massacres in 1942 involved communal violence between British-armed V Force Rohingya recruits and pro-Japanese Rakhines, polarising the region along ethnic lines. [xiii]Tensions were strong in Arakan before the war erupted, during the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia, Arakan became the frontline in the conflict.[xiv] Failure of a British counter-offensive, attempted from December 1942 to April 1943, resulted in the abandonment of even more of the Muslim population as well as an increase in inter-communal violence.[xv] Hostility developed between the Muslims and the Buddhists who had brought about a similar hostility in other parts of Burma. This tension increased with the retreat of the British. With the approach of the Japanese into Arakan, the Buddhists instigated cruel measures against the Muslims. Thousands of Muslims were persecuted and killed, the exact number is unknown. Many Muslims fled from the Buddhist-majority regions to eastern Bengal and northern Arakan with many more dying of starvation. The Muslims in response conducted retaliatory raids from British-controlled areas. As a consequence of acquiring arms from the British during World War II, the Rohingyas tried to destroy the Arakanese villages.[xvi] Hundreds of Muslims fled to northern Arakan. In March 1942, Rohingyas from northern Arakan killed around 20,000 Arakanese. In return, around 5,000 Muslims in the Minbya and Mrauk-U Townships were killed by Rakhines and Red Karens. During this period, some 22,000 Muslims in Arakan were believed to have crossed the border into Bengal, then part of British India, to escape the violence. The exodus was not restricted to Muslims in Arakan. Thousands of Burmese Indians, Anglo-Burmese and British who settled during the colonial period emigrated to India.
The Rohingyas who were displaced by World War II and began to return to Arakan after the independence of Burma were rendered as illegal immigrants. Many were not allowed to return. Added to this, there were some 17,000 refugees from the Bangladesh liberation war who did return home. Following Burmese independence. On the 25 September 1954, the name Rohingya came into common usage when the then Prime Minister U Nu in his radio address to the nation talked about Rohingya Muslims’. This use of the term ‘Rohingya’ is important because Myanmar denies the acceptance this name and calls the Rohingya ‘Bengali’. During the same time a separate administrative zone, May Yu was established comprising most of the present North Rakhine State, housing mostly the Rohingya. As is the case with all borderland communities, there are Muslims on both sides of the borders. Those who are on Pakistan’s side are known as Pakistani while the Muslims on our Burmese side of the borders are referred to as ‘Rohingya’[xvii] took control of the country in 1962, the Rohingya have been systematically deprived of their political rights. [xviii] In 1962 military dictator General Ne Win, took over the government and started implementing a Nationalist agenda, which had its roots in racial division. In 1978 military government launched operation, “Nagamin” to separate nationals from non-nationals. This was the first concerted large scale violent attack on Rohingya. National Registration Cards (NRC) were taken away by state actors never to be replaced. Violence that followed forced 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Bangladesh denied Rohingya admission into her territory and blocked food rations leading to death of 12,000 refugees. After bilateral negotiations Rohingya were eventually repatriated. [xix]
In the prelude to independence, two Rohingyas were participants in the administration of government. During the 1951 Burmese general election, five Rohingyas were elected to the Parliament of Burma, including one of the country’s first two female MPs, Zura Begum. Six MPs were elected during the 1956 Burmese general election and subsequent by-elections. Sultan Mahmud, a former politician in British India, became Minister of Health in the cabinet of Prime Minister of Burma U Nu. In 1960, Mahmud suggested that either Rohingya-majority northern Arakan remain under the central government or be made a separate province. However, during the 1960 Burmese general election, Prime Minister U Nu’s pledges included making all of Arakan into one province. The 1962 Burmese coup d’état ended the country’s Westminster-style political system. The 1982 Burmese citizenship law stripped most of the Rohingyas of their citizenship.
Rohingya community leaders were supportive of the 8888 uprising for democracy. During the 1990 Burmese general election, the Rohingya-led National Democratic Party for Human Rights won four seats in the Burmese parliament. The four Rohingya MPs included Shamsul Anwarul Huq, Chit Lwin Ebrahim, Fazal Ahmed and Nur Ahmed. The election was won by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest and not permitted to become prime minister. The Burmese military junta banned the National Democratic Party and Rohingya politicians have been jailed and tortured. After the 2005 Rohingya were barred from elections.[xx] By 2017 the Rohingya had lost all rights.
Burmese military junta began persecuting the political opposition following Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory in the 1990 election. In the earlier 1988 Uprising, military operations targeted Muslims who strongly favoured the pro-democracy movement which began in Arakan State. The Rohingya-led NDPHR political party was banned and its leaders were jailed. Suu Kyi herself was placed under house arrest by the junta led by General Than Shwe. As the Burmese military increased its operations across the country, the Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships in northern Arakan became centres of persecution. The 23rd and 24th regiments of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) were responsible for promoting forced labour, rape, the confiscation of houses, land and farm animals as well as the destruction of mosques. There was a ban on religious activities and the harassment of the religious priests.[xxi] An estimated 250,000 refugees crossed over into Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, the refugee influx was a challenge for the newly elected government of the country’s first female prime minister Khaleda Zia (who headed the first parliamentary government since 1975). Both Bangladesh and Burma mobilised thousands of troops along the border during a very tense crisis.[xxii]
After diplomatic negotiations, a repatriation agreement was put in place to allow the return of refugees to Burma under a UNHCR-supervised process. In 1989, the junta officially changed the name of Burma to Myanmar. In the 1990s, the junta changed the name of the province of Arakan to Rakhine State.[xxiii] The Rohingya were regarded as illegal immigrants”. [xxiv]
The military junta that ruled Myanmar for half a century relied heavily on mixing Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism to bolster its rule. Successive Burmese governments have been accused of provoking riots led by Buddhist monks against ethnic minorities like the Rohingyas. In the 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh. In the early 2000s, all but 20,000 of them were repatriated to Myanmar, some against their will. Under the 2008 constitution, the Myanmar military still control much of the country’s government, including the ministries of home, defence and border affairs, 25% of seats in parliament and one vice-president.
The 2012 Rakhine State riots were a series of conflicts between Rohingya Muslims who form the majority in the northern Rakhine and ethnic Rakhines who form the majority in the south. There is evidence that the pogroms in 2012 were incited by the government asking the Rakhine men to defend their ‘race and religion’.[xxv] The Economist argued that since the transition to democracy in Burma in 2011, the military has been seeking to retain its privileged position, forming the motivation for it to encourage the riots in 2012 and allowing it to pose as the defender of Buddhism against Muslim Rohingya.[xxvi] In 2015, to escape violence and persecution, thousands of Rohingyas migrated from Myanmar and Bangladesh, collectively dubbed as ‘boat people’ by international media. They went to Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in unseaworthy vessels across the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. An estimated 3,000 refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh were rescued or swam to shore and several thousand more were believed to have been trapped on boats at sea with little food or water.[xxvii]
Starting in early August 2017, the Myanmar security forces began moving against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state. Rohingya militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked against several security forces’ outposts and the confrontation dramatically escalated killing thousands of Rohingya. Hundreds of thousands were driven out of Myanmar and into neighbouring Bangladesh. The military claimed they were defending themselves in response to the ARSA attack. However, subsequent reports from various international organisations claim that the military carried out widespread and indiscriminate attacks on the Rohingya population that already taking place before the ARSA attacks. It was claimed that the aim was to ethnically cleanse the northern Rakhine state of Rohingya.[xxviii] It is August 2018, study estimated that more than 24,000+ Rohingya people were killed by the Myanmar military and the local Buddhists during and since the ethnic cleansing began on started on 25 August 2017. The study also estimated that 18,000+ the Rohingya Muslim women and girls were raped, 116,000 Rohingya were beaten, 36,000 Rohingya were thrown into fires. [xxix]
Rakhine state faced food shortages, and, starting in mid-August, the government cut off all food supply to the area. On 10 August, the military flew in another battalion of the military despite warnings from the resident United Nations Human Rights representative to Myanmar, who urged Myanmar authorities to show restraint. themselves.
The attacks on the Rohingya have been described as “clearance operations” (which, UN investigators and BBC reporters later determined, had actually begun much earlier with the burning of villages throughout northern Rakhine state. Within the first three weeks, the military reported over 400 dead (whom it described as mostly “militants” and “terrorists”) the U.N. estimated over 1,000 dead (mostly civilians), and other sources initially suggested as many as 3,000—in the first four weeks of the reprisals. However, in December 2017, following a detailed survey of Rohingya refugees, a humanitarian organisation serving refugees, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) calculated that at least 6,700 Rohingya men, women and children were killed in the first month of the major attacks, including at least 750 children (that number later revised to “over 1,000”). MSF estimated that 69% were killed by gunshots, 9% were burnt to death (including 15% of children killed), and 5% beaten to death. However, MSF cautioned, “The numbers of deaths are likely to be an underestimation, as we have not surveyed all refugee settlements in Bangladesh and because the surveys don’t account for the families who never made it out of Myanmar.”
Refugees reported numerous civilians—including women and children—being indiscriminately beaten, raped, tortured, shot, hacked to death or burned alive. and whole villages being burnt down by authorities and Buddhist mobs. Human Rights Watch released satellite photos showing the villages burning, but the Myanmar government insisted the fires were lit by Rohingya, themselves, or specifically Rohingya militants.
The United Nations initially reported in early September 2017 that more than 120,000 Rohingya people had fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, by the 15 September, that number had surpassed 400,000 . The situation was expected to exacerbate the current refugee crisis as more than 400,000 Rohingya without citizenship were trapped in overcrowded camps and in conflict regions in Western Myanmar[xxx]. By the end of September 2017, UN, Bangladesh and other entities were reporting that—in addition to 200,000-300,000 Rohingya refugees already in Bangladesh after fleeing prior attacks in Myanmar, the current conflict, since late August 2017, had driven 500,000 more Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh.[xxxi] In November 2017 Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding for the return home of Rohingya refugees. In April 2018 the first group of Rohingya refugees returned to Myanmar from Bangladesh.[xxxii] The Myanmar military were subsequently brought before the International Court on charges of Crimes Against Humanity including ethnic cleansing. [xxxiii]
Bringing an end to refugee detention.
Every year the UNHCR hold a day of celebration called World Refugee Day. Every celebration is given a title. In 2021 the celebration was titled, “Together we, heal, learn and shine.” To celebrate the day the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh had a visit from the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Mr. Tahsan Khan who was there to open an intensive care unit and diagnostic services at the Sadar District Hospital, which was created with UNHCR funds. These services are undoubtedly needed, but a problem arises when International AID is provided to counties in exchange for temporary refuge because there is no incentive towards refugee resettlement. Indeed, the arrangement makes refugees the collateral for any future material developments, i.e., progress. As a consequence, some refugees have been in captivity for more than 30 years and their collateral status has simply grown and become more valuable for building a nation’s infrastructure. The bigger the camp, the more need for outside services. The regime is tantamount to human trafficking and slavery. Slavery, because the refugees have to maintain their own infrastructure within the camp.
The theme of the 2021 World Refugee Day was “together we heal, learn and shine”, it was a huge ask in an environment where people have a day-by-day struggle to survive. The aim to “heal, learn and shine” is all well and good, but we need to ask whose interests are really being served? In order to maintain this arrangement, the camp has to grow, this means more refugees are needed. More refugees will always be needed in order to secure funds for more outside infrastructure… This is how it works! It is a trade-off that most people appear to be happy with, except for the fact that refugees are never going to escape this system. Refugees will dwindle out and more will replace them. Refugees will never be truly free to build their own lives under this system.
In 2022, once again, another Refugee Day took place. This time the public are asked to engage with Refugee Day and its new aspirations. We are asked to remember what has been achieved. What has been achieved? We can reflect of the fact that nothing has changed, refugees are still imprisoned in outrageous conditions. The controls in camps have tightened and the environment has become ever-more dangerous. The mental health of residents has deteriorated. Many health services are not free and most are not afordable. What has changed? No one can leave the camp without a pass. Close associations are watched by guards. Residents have to rely on charities for books and learning. The guards in their posts have nice bright uniforms and up-to-date weaponry while people are dying of treatable diseases and children risk injury from a lack of basic checks for health and safety. In 2022 a four-year-old child was buried alive under a landslide. Just a few weeks later two more children were buried alive during flooding. Remarkably, some people do “shine” because they still have faith in humanity and they are able to develop an extraordinary power of will. However, no one should have to live like this, it is systemic torture and against International Law. Free refugees!
Refugee camps are a system of segregation, This is apartheid. No one in a refugee camp is permitted to move beyond the barbed wire fencing. Residents are faced with a life of entrapment as is revealed in the images contained in this book. There are smiles and tears in the images of residents, but none can fully appreciate the day-by-day hardship that can easily fall to despair. As a consequence, the camp has given rise to a host of very good photographers. The camera captures the life inside because it is the only way daily life can be revealed to the outside world. What is shown will shock those who care about people and in particular those who care about Human Rights. The pictures of children are often painful. Yet, at the same time, they will hopefully heighten the sensitivities to the needs of these prisoners. No one can fail to be moved by the pictures of people clinging to the wire fences. We are reminded of animals caged in zoos or perhaps a mass social experiment that has gone horribly wrong.
Some of the images show people trying to hurry passed guards for fear of being interrogated. Some are assaulted, beaten. The fear is written of the faces on innocent bystanders who can neither do or say anything to stop the brutality of their friends. The outcome is one of misery, uncertainty and an inevitable high rate of mental health issues and suicides.
The Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar is mostly inhabited by Rohingya refugees who fled from ethnic cleansing, genocide and religious persecution in Myanmar. Two years ago, more than 730,000, mainly Muslim Rohingya escaped into neighbouring Bangladesh to avoid persecution in Myanmar. They arrived in Kutupalong where they joined 250,000 Rohingya who were already resident in the camp. In 2019 Myanmar agreed to allow 3,450 refugees to return to their homeland, but many refugees feared the ongoing violence and refused to go back. Today, refugees at Kutupalong are in constant fear of being sent back to their homeland to face more violence, but at the same time, they want to go back and are demanding that the international community protect them. The fact remains, these residents should have been resettled in countries where they could start a proper life and expect a good future. Instead, within the camp, conditions are also becoming more violent. Refugees are facing an ever-more authoritarian regime and difficulties in meeting basic needs. This is resulting in serious mental health problems in some cases it is resulting in suicides.
Suicide and associated behaviours have a profound impact on individuals, families and communities. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 800,000 individuals die by suicide each year – the equivalent to one person every 40 seconds. Globally, the death by suicide rate is estimated to be approximately 11.05 deaths per 100,000 people. It is the second leading cause of death worldwide for young people aged 15‐29. . (Reuters Foundation Wednesday, 21 August 2019).
There are a limited number of studies that have examined suicide and related behaviours among displaced populations. A review of suicide in refugee populations found suicide rates to range from 3.4% to 34% of recorded deaths. Studies done with refugee populations resettled in high income countries have shown increased risk of suicidal behaviours likely due to a combination of socioeconomic disadvantage, exposure to potentially traumatic events, the burden of mental disorders and lack of appropriate care. The disparity between rich and poor increases the likelihood of suicides.
Untreated health problems get transferred to wherever the sufferer goes. Those refugees who are fortunate enough to be resettled abroad incur ongoing mental difficulties. Affluent countries have an average suicide rate of 14.12 per 100,000, while the rate for low‐ and middle‐Income countries have an average suicide rate of 11.09 per 100,000 people. It is harder for refugees who come from poorer countries to assimilate in fast capitalist societies.
As the vast majority of the world’s population live in low -middle incomes countries, suicides in these countries represent 75% of suicide deaths worldwide. The number of refugees and others forcibly displaced worldwide is growing with a record high of 84.4 million people and many suffering mental health problems. With these figures the suicide rate is bound to rise inside and outside the walls of refugee camps.