Burma's Forgotten Rohingya
They have been called one of the world's most persecuted people. Some argue that they are also one of the most forgotten. The Rohingya people of western Burma's Arakan State are forbidden from marrying or travelling without permission and have no legal right to own land or property.
Not only that but even though groups of them have been living in Burma for hundreds of years, they are also denied citizenship by the country's military government. For decades this Muslim group of ethnic-Indo origins have been considered the lowest of the low in this mainly Buddhist country.
In addition to their almost total lack of legal rights many have been regularly beaten by police, forced to do slave labour and jailed for little or no reason. In 1992, 250,000 Rohingyas, which is a third of their population, fled over Burma's border into Bangladesh to escape the persecution. Fourteen years later more than 20,000 of them are still in the same refugee camps and around 100,000 more are living illegally in the surrounding area.
In one camp I visited, Kutupalong, near the town of Cox's Bazaar, up to 16 refugees live in a room that is little more than three metres square. One young mother described conditions there: "It's very painful to stay in a tiny place like this. The food given to me is not enough for my family. The local villagers are not friendly to us. We don't dare go out of the camp in case the villagers beat us."
Another women rushed up to me in floods of tears. She showed me a bullet mark just above her waist. "They shot me 17 months ago, it was the police that did it. And they tortured me," she said. The woman, who dressed from head to toe in black and looked like she was in her mid-30s, went on to explain that it happened when refugees in the camp protested about efforts by the Bangladesh government to send them back to Burma.
Rohingya people said that when they fled here back in1992 they believed they were coming to a fellow Muslim nation that would welcome them. But, one man insisted, they were not wanted in Burma and they were not wanted by Bangladesh either. "This country is like Burma. We are persecuted here just like we were persecuted there. We are like a football being kicked from one to the other."
Bangladesh's government insists that it has no desire to persecute the Rohingyas. The country's Deputy Foreign Minister, AH Muniruzzaman, argued that it is simply that being a poor country it is struggling to come to terms with the strain of so many on its soil.
Muniruzzaman said, however, that 8,000 Rohingyas were cleared to go home and another 12,000 should follow soon after that. When I asked him if these same people had been asked whether they wanted to go back he said he was not sure about that. Christopher Lee, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in Bangladesh, is not impressed.
"The government of Bangladesh knows the reason why most Rohingyas are not going back. And even if they don't we have been telling them," he said. Finding out what is happening to Rohingya people now in Burma is particularly difficult.
Troops on both sides of the Burmese border are on high alert and I was told that it would be almost impossible for me to slip into Arakan State unnoticed. To get around this I arranged for two Rohingya men to come out of the country and meet me in Bangladesh, neither of whom were prepared to be identified. The older man confirmed that little had changed over the years for his people in Burma.
"We have nothing in Burma. We are disabled people, like slaves. We cannot work because our hands and feet are cut off. If we don't get permission to travel we are sent to jail.
We are really like slaves there," he said. But why, I asked his younger friend, does the Burmese government persecute your people like this? He replied: "The main reason is to finish us. They can't kill us or the international community would see it. So this is the way to banish us from the land."
So why were these two men, who had now escaped Burma to come and talk to me, so determined to go back to a nation that made their lives hell? "If I stay in Bangladesh, what will I do?" the younger man asked. "Even if I build a house here people will treat me as Burmese... this is a hated word. I have a ray of hope in my heart that one day there will be peace in Burma and my people will get back all their lives." The world can only hope that he is right.
This article was first published in bbcnews.com.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005