Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya

The Rohingya are from western Burma. As a Muslim minority group, they face systematic discrimination by the military regime. An outbreak of severe violence in the western Burmese state of Rakhine has refocused international and regional attention on the issue of the area’s estimated 800,000 stateless Muslim Rohingya threatening to destabilize the country’s wider transition away from military rule. The government declared martial law in Rakhine recently after an escalation of violence involving local Buddhist and Muslim communities that resulted in an unknown number of deaths and the burning of hundreds of homes. The Burmese government, including the military, police and local security forces, has responded with violence including mass arrests and the reported use of torture against the Rohingya population.

Tensions in the region, which borders Bangladesh, have historically been fueled by Burma’s denial of citizenship to the Rohingya who are also not recognized as one of the country’s official ethnic nationalities. Greg Constantine, a grantee of the Open Society Foundations, has spent the past several years documenting the plight of the Rohingya and believes their story is one of the most forgotten, neglected and worst cases of human rights abuse in Asia today. I had a chance to talk with him about his new book, Exiled to Nowhere: Burma's Rohingya.

Q: Congratulations on your new book.  Why did you decide to write a book about the Rohingya?

For the past six and a half years I've been working on a long-term project called Nowhere People.  The project documents ethnic groups around the world who have had their citizenship stripped or denied from them and they are now stateless.  As a result, they belong to no country, are denied most rights, and are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. 

One of the most extreme cases of statelessness in the world involves the Rohingya from Burma.  I've spent the most time photographing them over the past six years primarily because I truly believe their story is one of the most forgotten, neglected, and worst cases of human rights abuse in Asia today.  My project and the book it resulted in, Exiled To Nowhere: Burma's Rohingya, aim not only to show the neglect and exploitation the Rohingya face as both recognized and unrecognized refugees in Bangladesh, but it also to demonstrate the abuses they endure in Burma.

From my first trip in 2006 to my most recent trip in early 2012, Rohingya have shared amazing stories with me that, when woven together, create this narrative that I've always felt people need to see and understand. A handful of photos published here or there just doesn't do the Rohingya's story justice.  I've always envisioned my work and their testimonies in book form as the most effective way to tell their collective story.

Q: Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have lived in the Arakan (or Rakhine) State of western Burma for generations. While Burma and Rakhine are predominantly Buddhist, the Rohingya have been the minority in Rakhine and their connection to Burma has been challenged and manipulated by successive Burmese governments.  It's estimated that some 800,000 Rohingya live in the townships of North Rakhine, which is an area that is totally off limits to journalists and most other people. 

The legacy of persecution against the Rohingya in Burma dates back decades and there have been waves of Rohingya fleeing Burma. Currently, there are up to 300,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh—most are not recognized as refugees—and tens of thousands living in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and several other countries in the region. 

In Burma, Rohingya people are subjected to forced labor, land seizures, religious persecution, arbitrary taxes, and constant harassment from the Burmese security force NaSaKa. For years they have been denied the freedom to travel and have faced serious restrictions on the right to get married.  They have also been denied Burmese citizenship.

Q: When did the Rohingya become stateless and why?

Though some historians say the Rohingya have lived in Burma for hundreds of years, others challenge the fact that they legitimately belong there. This is a result of politics, perceived notions of national identity, and blatant discrimination and intolerance. 

It’s true that there was some migration of people into Burma under British rule, but a large Rohingya community had lived in western Burma well before then. 

Most of the problems for the Rohingya started when Ne Win, a military strongman and leader of Burma, seized power in 1962. His policies toward the Rohingya dramatically impacted the community for the next 30 years. The Burmese government consequently enacted the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law. The law provides “full” citizenship to those from Burma's 135 recognized “national races.”  The Rohingya are not listed as one of these “national races” and as a result some 800,000 Rohingya have become stateless.

Q: Have they benefited from the recent reforms in Burma?

I don't think the Rohingya in Rakhine State have benefited at all from the new reforms, certainly not the Rohingya who live in North Rakhine State. But then again, in these times of euphoria over Burma, we have yet to see who will actually benefit from the reforms.  Yangon is one thing, but it’s different for the millions of people who live in Burma's countryside or border regions. 

The lives of most Rohingya are still tightly monitored and controlled by the Burmese security force NaSaKa.  Rohingya in North Rakhine State still face severe restrictions on the right to get married—Rohingya wishing to get married must receive formal permission from NaSaKa first.

Many of the abuses the Rohingya are subjected to on a day-to-day basis are totally invisible to the international community.  They haven't come in the form of violence or killing. These brutal administrative tactics make life so miserable and untenable for the Rohingya that many find they have no choice but to leave Burma in order to live—with dignity and a “normal” life. Rohingya will tell you that all the tactics of the Burmese authorities are motivated by one thing: to force the Rohingya into Bangladesh.

Q: How are the Rohingya different from or similar to other stateless populations around the world?

I think that one of the biggest differences I've seen between the Rohingya and other stateless communities around the world is that many people feel very little hope—at least right now—that their situation will improve in the near future.  All the international players—Western governments, ASEAN nations, the United Nations and others—know how serious the situation is but have done little or nothing to improve it. 

Q: How were you able to capture the life experiences of so many Rohingya?

I started photographing the Rohingya community in Bangladesh in early 2006 and have made eight trips in total.  My last trip was in February 2012. Their situation is fluid, it changes nearly every year, and I've tried my best to chronicle this.

Each visit allowed me the opportunity to better understand their community and the complexities of their situation. Each visit provided some new piece to the puzzle and with each trip the network of people I met and situations they permitted me to photograph developed.  As I’ve learned more about the Rohnigya community, their situation and their history, I’ve also learned what I want to capture in my photographs and what questions I want to ask them. One of my main objectives has been to use their stories and my work to show the abuse the Rohingya face in Burma. 

Traveling to North Rakhine State is pretty much impossible for journalists—or anyone else for that matter. And even if I had managed to get there, getting access to Rohingya there and being able to talk honestly with them and take photographs would put their safety at great risk. Rohingya are constantly fleeing Burma to Bangladesh, bringing new and up-to-date stories. In Bangladesh, they can talk freely with me.

Finally, I think it’s important to point out that the treatment the Rohingya have received in Bangladesh—from denial of humanitarian assistance to exploitation and poverty—is another huge part of their story which also needs to be told. People need to know that while the root cause of their problems rests inside Burma, their plight has no borders.

17 Comments

Hi Mr Greg Constantine,

Do u know when those so called Rohingya peoples use
Rohingya as their name? Pls see the history carefully, donot give others troubles by ur incompetency. We have
enough troubles already given by ur western colonial rulers. See India, Pakistan, Bangledesh & Myanmar civil wars (which is still ongoing).
Our Myanmar Peoples very much afraid to lose our identity, the rohingya or Bengali peoples intentions is
swamped our countries by their populations. If u donot
believe, pls grant the citizenship of ur country to those
rohingya , I am sure the whole 140 millions fm Bangledesh wl claim themselves as Rohingyas to follow u.

Best Regards.

At first I thanks to Mr. Greg Constantine. @ Aung Zaw Naing , what you trying to attesting or evidencing to all peoples? Do u know why call us Rohingya? Rohingya is derived from word 'Raham' meaning sympathy in the 8th century CE. When u came in Arakan?

“I have never heard the name Rohingya” –Xenophobia or racism!
Surprisingly some Burmese people, who are lived with the Rohingya people in Arakan Myanmar all their lives are of the claim that they have never heard of the name “Rohingya”. It is as if saying “I have never met my brother, I have never seen my sister or even saying I have never seen my neighbor;” It sounds strange me but not funny. Such assertion about an ethnic group aimed at intentionally ignoring them because you dislike them is called xenophobia, fear of stranger. When Rohingyas as Burmese are made into strangers by Rakhine gentlemen like Aye Kyaw, Aye Chan and the monk Ashin Nayaka, it is more than xenophobia; it is racism. It is a matter of extreme intolerance: an idea that also goes against even Buddhism.
The largest ethnic group in Bangladesh is Bengali mostly concentrated in the west part of Bangladesh towards Calcutta of India and it is very far from Burmese border. Again Bengali language is neither intelligent to Rohingya people in Burma even not five percent similarity. So, Rohingya is in no way Bengali people and is completely different ethnic group. The word Rohingya consists of two words Rohang and Ya where Rohang is the old kingdom name of Arakan and Ya means inhabitant of the land. So, Rohingya means the inhabitants of the Old Arakan Kingdom and where many Muslim kings dominated in Arakan for many centuries. It’s very funny drama to say Rohingya Bengali despite to say Rakhine Bengali. Rohingyas have been in Arakan Burma since 7th century, but Rakhine have been in Arakan from 11th century and formed from India and Nepal.
Machete Massacre in Arakan: The Hidden Face of Burma Exposed.
From the military leadership down to NASAKA, the Rakhine police, in the civilian front RNDP and even some leaders closely working with Aung San Suu Kui, the problem with the Rohingya people have been seen as a case of dealing with"illegal immigration" of Bengali people to Arakan. Fortunately, contemporary research on Rakhine-Rohingya relations shows it is not about illegal’s in Arakan, Burma, it is about intolerance to a people, who are racially, culturally and religiously different from the mainstream racially mongoloid Rakhine-Burmese people.
Unfortunate though, even Burma's new military backed government, the wolf in ship's skin continues to call Rohingyas as the noncitizens of Burma. It has been done in compliance with the 1982 Ne Win's Constitution Act that denied Rohingya Citizenship. Following this definition to the government, Burma is not actually doing anything wrong; it is only fighting against "intruders" into Burma who according to the authority came to Burma after 1824. Fortunately, history proves over and again that Rohingyas didn't migrate to Arakan from Bengal, they were already there as the indigenous people and others settled by the sea.

Where did the decedents soldiers of Wali khan had 30,000 thousands soldiers and Shandhi Khan had 40,000 thousands soldiers who married local women before the 15th century and helped Arakani king to settle in the Kaladan valley? Before 1937, India and Burma including Arakan were under the one British Empire and, the British categorized all the Burmese Muslims including the indigenous Rohingyas of Arakan as the Indian Muslims. However, in 1937 Burma was separated from India and the Arakani Muslims were seen as “foreigners,” and their fate was allotted with the Burmese Buddhist majority.
The name Rohingya was heard by Francis Buchanan in 1798 in Burma, recorded in Francis Buchanan, in south east Bengal who was journeyed to Chittagong, it hill tracts, Comilla, Noakhali, Dhaka university press in 1992/82. Jacque leider calls Arakan a frontier culture. Surprisingly, it is some opportunist Arakanese Rakhine gentlemen pumped up prejudice, posing as the devoted democracy movement leaders in everywhere and do everything to block Rohingyas participation in ethnic and asserting the statement that “I have never heard of the name Rohingya.”

Since 1942 Arakani Muslim genocide most of the Arakani Muslims began to retreat to the north of Arakan called the Mayu frontier area and the rakhines feeling unsafe began to settle in the north settled in the north.
The …exodus is a deep, sustained trickle of low visibility. The Rohingyas progressively leave Burma in small groups, families or individuals… little by little; the population is being forced to leave Arakan because of a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing.
Chakmas are racially similar with rakhines but sharply different. Because of chakmas speak Chittagonan but, Rohingyas and Chakmas are relative darker complexion and intermixture but Rakhines speak an archaic version of Burmese because rakhines are late comers to Arakan.

Just because you wrote a long comment, it doesn't mean you have facts. Rakhine people (Buddhist) are racially more similar to the Bengalis than your description.

Hi Mr Greg Constantine,
Firstly I would like to congratulate you on the release of your book and I would like to thank you for looking out for the Rohingya people and letting the world know about the kind of difficult situations that they are going through. Only last month June, the coordinated attacks from the Burmese regime and Buddhist majority on the Rohingyas have resulted in more than 5000 deaths. They are being neglected and discriminated by the Burmese Government and Buddhist minority and being treated like animals. They are not getting the help and attention they need and are suffering just because they are Muslim. I've lost my father and father-in-law in 1995 because of the brutality of Burmese regime, but luckily I was one of the people to arrive to Australia as a refugee and I am very grateful that I am able to live life peacefully, so thats why I am very worried for the Rohingya people in Burma because they are getting killed everyday and they have to live in fear from the butcher government. So I hope you can let the world know to help save the Rohingya lives.

Your article is one sided and it intentionally paints Myanmar negatively.It is amazing that you have done research for the past six and a half years and you do not know that Rohinjas are economic exiles from Bangladesh and not natives of Myanmar.
Every country has immigration laws protecting itself from being flooded by less fortunate populations from another country.
The united States has erected a fence along it's border with Mexico to prevent illegal Mexicans entering the country.Illegal Mexican immigrants are not granted automatic American citizenship.
Is this situation any different from that of Myanmar?
Don't try and bully us with fancy words such as "Nowhere People' and "Human Rights".
This issue is a matter of national interest and security for Myanmar.We will not accept anyone from bullying us to accept the population of another country as our citizens,not you,not ASEAN,not UNHCR or the Open Society.
And for your record,our country is called "Myanmar" and not BURMA as you loved to paint it.

Aung Zaw Naing and Zaw Win Kyi even if it is right that they are ethnic Bengalis, they are living Myanmar for a long time. Those who were born and brought up in Myanmar have every right to citizenship. And even if they are not citizens and not sons of soil, no one has any right to resort to ethnic cleansing, mass murder and state terrorism. Those who are committing such crimes criminals

Human migration is a continuous process. Some migrated earlier, some are still migrating. As for example Aryans from central Asia to India, Canadians, Australians & white Americans from UK, black Americans from Africa, Japanese from China, Tamils in Malaysia, Singapore & Srilanka from India. Even in Bangladesh, the Chakma tribes came from Myanmar 3-4 hundreds years ago. In ancient time there were two commercial routes, one is spice route- stretched from Middle East to East Asia & the other is silk route- stretched from China to Rome. Through these two routes ideas & cultures exchanged among the countries peoples of different race. No countries except Myanmar don't refuse to multiculturalism & driven out the people of other race or religion. Only Bosnia suffered & for that international war crime tribunal is working. If Myanmar behaves with the Rohingyas like this due to their race or religion, the day may come that the ruler of Myanmar & their supporter will be tried, for these atrocities.

Firstly, I would like to compliment Mr Greg Constantine. You recently released your book and I would like to thank you for looking out for the Rohingya people and letting the world know about plight situations that they are going through. We Rohingya families had lived in Burma for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, when Ne Win, started a military strongman and leader of Burma power in 1962. Ordained in 1982 Burmese authority pick our Identity or Citizenship and delete Rohingya list from the “national races”. Now, I request to all leaders around the world to solve our problem. Best Regards.

Every where records are vital to lean. Myanmar was under British colony for almost 100 years before Myanmar got independence. We could say British records are to some extent for every one to refer if you like it or not.Is there any records of the ethnic name " Rohingya" in the records? Up till now we do not find British has written a word " Rohingya" in their Burma British empire history. Rohingyas are not ethnic Myanmars but we could say them as new migrants muslims. So, think seriously!!!

Dear Mr Greg,
Your tireless effort to bring out such a worthy book which exhibits the plight of the depressed Rohingya is really great, appreciable and admirable. People generally seek fame and popularity but you are a person of a worthy living!!!!!!.

Muhammad Ramzan as you can say, those who were born and brought up in Myanmar have every right to citizenship? To tell you the truth there are many Bengalis and Rohingya who became Myanmar citizens for many many years, and there are many rich Bengalis and Rohingyas all over Myanmar but it is impossible for us to give citizenship to every one who illegally came to Myanmar every year, and do you even know the population rate in that community? Each family is around 40 people and some even 85 people for just one family. How can you handle this? Please, don't just use fancy words and how much you care for these people. I care for them as a human, I feel sad for the children and understand for the women who live like that but at the same time, this is nothing about human rights issues anymore, this is national security. I know there are good Rohingya who want to live peacefully but there are also many Rohingya who are part of the world famous terrorist groups and doing many crimes in the area and they have many hidden plans.

Thinzin Win,
Lear how to use logic to know that the only people who would benefit from entering Burma under the authoritarian rule was the Buddhist from Bangladesh like AyeMaung's parents, not Muslims. Aye Maung, born in Bangldesh, is now a high military officer in Burma because he's not a Rohingya. So stop being delusional, OK?

First of all if you interview only people living in Bangladesh, the story of Rohingya will be as you mentioned in the book, one sided. Can you also listen to the people who live there for centuries. I do not want to denied muslim living in Burma in 7th century, but majority migrated from Bangladesh during last 80 years and they are brainwashed to tell the make up stories. The problem is not with the earlier settlers, but the later migrants. There are many historical facts to support it if you want to look from the other side. Look at the pattern in India and even in Bangladesh. It is the 21st century's biggest lie the whole world is being forced to believe. I am sorry, the wrong story will be read by many as facts.

To.
Mr .Mark Farmaner,Burma Campaign UK, I have read your idea about Rohingyas’ human rights but that has resulted in back fire. Its means that your idea was based on very shallow knowledge of Rohingya and was biased towards them. But I don’t want to blame you for that . As you are being tricked or in lure of Chittagongnian Bengalis,you have been partialized towards them. If you are really interested in studying their attitude better read Akyab gazetteer written by Mr. R.B Smart, English commissioner or some other gazetteers like Chittgong gazetteer and British Burma gazetteer. In his article in Akyab gazetteer it has been observed that the British have faced difficulties in judicial courts because of many Bengalis used false arguments in front of the court.
So–called “Rohingya” are pure Chittagongnian Bengalis, in their appearance,dialect,religion,tradition, custom and culture. Chittagongnian Bengali laborers were crossing Bangladesh-Burma border line Naaf river to reach Maung Daw, border town of Burma. Issue to be considered deeply is that “Can just crossing of Naaf river create a new race “?? In history no Rohingya word before 1951. Deeply thinking over your ideas and opinion about the “Rohingyas”,I feel that you are being tricked intentionally to provide them your support. As you are one of the directors of BCUK,I feel that you can’t be a mad or foolish man.
Anyway,you are involved with them for the their human rights in campaigning and lobbying projects. I don’t want to interfere your human rights movements,but I can’t keep myself silent regarding your movements for “Rohingyas” in obtaining status of a Burmese ethnics. In history of Burma, India and as well as of Bangladesh, no where “Rohingya” has been mentioned. “Rohingya” is a fake and fanciful creation that was started in 1951,by a Chittagongnian Bengali named Ba Tha. It was already refuted at the same time by Rakhine educated Phaw Zan. This writings is very brief only. Anyhow, they immigrated from neighboring country Bangladesh, and are not the natives of Burma nor nationals of Burma. Even in 1811 “there were no Bengali Muslims in west bank of Maung Daw” as mentioned by Captain White, the field commander in west bank of Naaf river Tecknaf Bangladesh, it was written in his book, “Political History of the Extraordinary events which led to The Burmese War.,” by Captain W. White. Published by W. Sams., London 1827. Therefore in 1811 no Bengali Muslims in MaungDaw.
If you study Bangladesh government’s current policy,Bangladesh foreign minister Depumoni denied indigenous rights, of Chittagong hill-tracts, Chakma and others ethnics.This is also Bengali or Bangladeshi sentiments. The Bangladesh government have unofficially been pushing out Bengalis to neighboring country like Burma and India all the time. I understand that they want to create GREATER Bangladesh with spreading their population to neighboring countries. Bangladesh government must takes full responsibility for their native Chittagongnian Bengalis in Rakhine state, Burma. We understand that you are biased towards the so-called “Rohingyas” and words of your opinions are like a representative of Rohingya colleague Wai Hnin Pwint Thon’s . She has got some attachments with your ideas and the Rohingy mentality.It is very bad for her future life, it’s something like placing green goggle to a horse to attract it towards the dry hay.
The word “Human rights”originally is quite fair for every body, but if a Rohingya terrorist uses this words to cover his crimes it would be problematic.You can read in their internet pages, there were genocide to Rohingya muslims in Maung Daw and Buthidaung areas in 1942,this writing was totally fake story. During 1942 Bengalis became majority there, peace group of Bo Yan Naung of BIA force have been invited by Bengalis to discuss peace talks that was tricked and cheated then killed their group in discussion meeting in Maung Daw by Bengali Muslims. Bo Yan Naung was kidnapped alive and taken to British office camp in India-Burma border to get them prize. He was an officer from BIA (Burma Independent Army). Only one of his body guards escaped and came back to Buthidaung. When Bo Yan Aung (the force leader) force left Buthidaung, Bengali volunteer force started killing Rakhines. Unprotected Rakhines were caught by Bengalis and beheaded at the Buthidaung jetty.
In reality, in 1942 it were mostly the Rakhines who suffered the most and had fled to a safer place for their security, leaving behind their houses, farmland and their life–long earned properties. Now those farmlands and remaining properties have been occupied or taken over by the Bengalis. Hence,it is obvious that the native Rakhines were actually driven out of their own land not the Bengalis. The Bengalis were the invaders!
Now you should be aware that they have the right to apply for a citizenship according to current law. The problem is that they are making big noise for ethnic rights instead of applying citizenship. The 1982 citizen law of Myanmar was not only for a specific race. Myanmar is geographically located between population-blasting countries like China, India, and Bangladesh. Therefore, we have the right to defend our life styles and our ethnics rights.We have rights to defend our national spirit, culture, civil society, and our nationalism. Nobody can impose upon us such things that would destroy our national interests. We have rights to fight the VIRUS such as the alien extreamist Rohingya sentiments.
Stop creation of hatred from outside world. Stop hostile Rohingya movements, Some Peace-loving Bengalis in Rakhine State don’t want fake Rohingya movements. You may be aware of home grown terrorists attacks in your native land, England. In history so-called Rohingya were never loyal to native people of Burma. By the facts given in this brief article of mine would be enough to enlighten people about the Rohingya human rights and about our Burmese nationals sentiments. If your movements continues to side with them,it would result in more tougher attacks.Then you must change the name of your group to “Rohingya Campaign”UK (RCUK). Do you know the recent events of Bangladeshi intruders Bengalis attacked the native ethnics in Kokrajhar Assam of India on 23-7-12. It has resulted in 41 deaths including children and about 300000 people displaced from their native villages. You can see in history, Buddhists are living peacefully and have never been hostile on other religions and communities. You need to consider why Buddhist Rakhine and ethnics of Burma vey angry with so-called Rohingya. Now ,you might have the idea about who are the most aggressive and hostile in our world!
The Bengalis have a hidden agenda to infiltrate into others’ territory, settle there, multiply population to be come a majority and finally fight for an independent Muslim state.
Thus, the Bengali community is pushed to “do or die“ situation. They are pressurized to stay in Rakhine, multiply here, ask for a separate Muslim state and later on expend into the mainland of Burma. No one can deny that, if it continues like this, after a few decades Burma may become an “ Islamic Republic of Myanmar” as it has been in the case of Indonesia. That is why Myanmar needs to have a long term plan to protect its interest and safe guard itself and its people from the foreseen invasion.

Written by Mya Min
SiteTway, Rakhaing State, Myanmar.

Congratulations on the release of your book. Your attention to the reality and shedding light on it, helps all of us.

I am a First Nations man from Canada whose ancestors were hunted down and killed as "savages". The arrival of North American "settlers" did not happen in parts of Canada until the mid-1800s, only a couple of generations ago. I appreciate the passion with respect to identity which I read here. A little more compassion and understanding that we share this fragile planet together, would help solve this problem. Thanks for your work.

The Lord Buddha taught, "Just as a mother loves her only child until she would sacrifice her life, so we must cultivate boundless loving kindness for every living being in the cosmos".

That means the Lord Buddha wants Rakhine Buddhists and Burman Buddhists to start cultivating loving kindness to Rohingyas... or stop calling themselves Buddhists.

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

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