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Story Publication logo July 3, 2012

Inescapable Oppression for the Rohingya

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From the slums of Nairobi to the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic to the far reaches of...

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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.

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