It was a rainy afternoon in southern Bangladesh in December 2010. Monzur and three other men were sitting on the dirt floor of Monzur’s hut. The structure was held up by thin bamboo sticks and made of dirty plastic sheets. Almost two years had passed since Monzur and others from his town had fled their small village in western Burma. In Bangladesh they are unrecognized as refugees and forced to scratch away a hand-to-mouth existence. But it is the nearest place where they can live with relative security and sleep at night free from the fear they’ve lived with for decades.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have lived in the Rakhine State (historically known as Arakan) in Western Burma for generations. Today most Rohingya primarily live in the isolated townships of North Rakhine, which borders neighboring Bangladesh.
Over the past 40 years, specifically since General Ne Win came to power in Burma in 1962, successive Burmese governments have claimed that the Rohingya are not from Burma, but are Bengalis who illegally migrated to Burma during British colonial times. While migration from the Indian-subcontinent was quite common prior to Burma’s independence in 1948, the Rohingya trace back their roots in Arakan for centuries. In the years between independence and the military coup of Ne Win, the Rohingya were considered and recognized by many of Burma’s political leaders (including Burma’s first and second Prime Ministers U Nu and U Ba Swe) as being a people and race belonging to the larger fabric of Burma.
But this all changed after 1962. The Burmese authorities have done just about all they can to exclude the Rohingya community from belonging to Burma. Violent, large-scale crackdowns targeted toward the Rohingya—like Operation Naga Min or Operation Dragon King in 1978, and Operation Pyi Thaya or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation in 1991—forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee Burma into Bangladesh. Further, in the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, the Rohingya were not listed as one of the country’s 135 “national races” entitled to Burmese citizenship, effectively making some 800,000 Rohingya in Burma stateless—even after living for generations in Arakan.
With the creation of the border security/military force Nay-Sat Kut-kwey Ye or NaSaKa in 1992—a force to be found only in North Rakhine, where they are the main perpetrators of human rights abuse against the Rohingya—the day-to-day lives of the Rohingya took a dramatic turn for the worse, and they have since been deprived of many fundamental rights. They face severe restrictions on the right to marry, are subjected to forced labor and arbitrary land seizure and forced displacement, endure excessive taxes and extortion, and are denied the right to travel freely. As reported by most Rohingya I’ve met, almost all aspects of their lives in North Rakhine are controlled or exploited by NaSaKa.
Some 300,000 Rohingya, like Monzur, have left Burma and now live in southern Bangladesh, where they are exploited, unrecognized, denied almost all humanitarian assistance, and in recent years, have faced a growing intolerance toward them by their Bangladeshi hosts.
Monzur says, “Rohingya people who are living in Myanmar don’t have rights. Even a bird has rights. A bird can build a nest, give birth, bring food to their children and raise them until they are ready to fly. We don’t have basic rights like this.”