Inescapable Oppression for the Rohingya

Stripped of citizenship and basic human rights, a group of 12 Rohingya men (mostly between the ages of 19 and 28) were headed to Malaysia via Bangladesh when they were pulled off a bus at a Bangladesh Rifles highway checkpoint in February and sent back to Myanmar. Image by Greg Constantine. Bangladesh, 2012.

In late 2009/early 2010 local authorities and Anti-Rohingya groups in southern Bangladesh carried out a massive crackdown against the Rohingya community. Thousands of Rohingya were arrested, put in jail and forcibly pushed back to Burma. Groups like the Anti-Rohingya Committee in Teknaf see the Rohingya as a threat to Bangladesh interests and national identity and want to see all Rohingya in the area pushed back to Burma. Image by Greg Constantine. Bangladesh, 2012.

Exhausted from their journey out of Burma, a group of twenty Rohingya is detained by Bangladesh Border Guards (BDR) right after their boat had crossed the Naf River from Burma and landed in the Shapuridip area of southern Bangladesh. BDR would push the entire group back to Burma the same night. Many in the group would return to Bangladesh the next day. Image by Greg Constantine. Bangladesh, 2012.

Blind in one eye after being beaten in the head during forced labor, the man fled from Burma in the mid 1990's and is one of an estimated 300,000 undocumented Rohingya now living in the southern part of neighboring Bangladesh. Image by Greg Constantine. Bangladesh, 2006.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from the Rakhine State in western Burma. Recognized as one of the most oppressed people in the world, they are a stateless people unwanted in Burma and unwelcome everywhere else. In Burma, authorities closely monitor Rohingya families with family registers and family photographs, like this photograph. Any discrepancies to these records are punishable by fines and arrest. The entire family fled to Bangladesh in 2009. Image by Greg Constantine. Bangladesh.

It is estimated that up to 30% of Kutupalong makeshift camp's population are children under the age of ten. Image by Greg Constantine. Bangladesh.

These photographs taken by Pulitzer Center grantee Greg Constantine were recently featured as a photo essay by the Southeast Asia Globe in print and online. The photo essay was accompanied by an article written by Constantine, featured below.

By 2006, on a thin stretch of swampy marshland on the banks of the Naf River in southern Bangladesh, some 10,000 stateless Rohingya had already spent two years living in what could only be described as a muddy sewer. For anyone visiting, one question was inescapable: “What could force anyone to live day-to-day in this place and tolerate it?”

Ask any of the Rohingya men or women and in one variation or another, their answers are all the same: the torturous and humiliating life they were subjected to at the hands of the Burmese authorities in North Rakhine – their homeland and a place where the Rohingya had lived for generations – was much worse. Any place was better.

Considered one of the most oppressed people in the world, the Rohingya from Myanmar are unwanted and unwelcome just about anywhere they set their feet. In the isolated, off-limits area of North Rakhine, where the majority of Rohingya live in Myanmar, they are denied almost every fundamental right, including citizenship. As unrecognised refugees in Bangladesh and beyond, they are exploited, denied most humanitarian assistance and protection and eke out an existence in the darkest margins of society.

What happens to individuals, families and an entire community when they are denied basic rights for decades? What impact does the denial of the right to exist have on a community? How does a community like the Rohingya sustain the sheer courage to survive from one day to the next? Exploring these questions has been the driving force behind my work on the Rohingya for the past six years. Exposing their stories with the aim of opening up a window into the abuse they endure in Myanmar has been another.

There is no doubt that Myanmar is an incredibly hot topic right now. Sanctions are being eased. High-level diplomatic missions are taking place. Aung San Suu Kyi is sitting as a member of parliament and travelling internationally for the first time in over a decade. The first census in 31 years has been announced. Yet, with all of the euphoria swirling around about Myanmar, the legacy of human rights abuse against the Rohingya there, as well as the utter neglect they receive as refugees, has received very little attention and, unfortunately, continues to linger at the bottom of everyone’s priority list.