NEW DELHI: Hands clasped behind his back, Nazeer Ahmad stands stiff. He’s in a lungi, kurta and skullcap at the edge of a huddle of men speaking to a reporter in the shade of a barely-there tin sheet propped up on bamboo stilts. Listless as he stands on a dusty, barren plot at southeast Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar, he doesn’t join the group. Only when the reporter moves away, he steps up.
“The UN has wronged us,” he says. “The UN has given refugee status to all other Burmese refugees but for us. It says India doesn’t allow it. Why?” His eyes redden in frustration and shoulders droop as he pulls an 8- or 9-year-old girl to stand in front of him. “Why can’t I send her to school? Are my children different from others?” Ahmad is a Rohingya Muslim, one of an estimated 4,000 now in India’s cities. The Rohingyas are from Myanmar’s Arakan region, a strip of land the size of Kerala. It has India (Manipur) to its north, Bangladesh to its northwest across the river Naf, a range of difficult hills cut it off from the rest of Myanmar on the west and the Bay of Bengal to its south.
Activists say Rohingya Muslims are among the world’s most persecuted people. Bias against this ethnic Muslim group is racial and religious, say Rohingya scholars, and is rooted in history. Their ‘Indian’ – read non-Burmese – looks and their religion have been held against them ever since the 18th century when Buddhists conquered the Muslim-ruled Arakan. The hill tracts separating them from the rest of Myanmar added to their woes. They remained “outsiders”. The attempt to depopulate the area and push Arakanese Muslims out has been a sustained campaign, says Tun Khin, London-based leader-activist of the UK’s Burmese Rohingya Organization.
Things turned ugly when the military junta came to power in 1972 and in two years, Rohingya Muslims were stripped of their nationality. Killings, confiscation of property, destruction of mosques and sexual attacks forced more than 200,000 out of the country. In 1982, a citizenship law declared the Rohingyas as “non-national” or “foreign residents”. The Burmese authorities call them “naikanzha” (non-resident without right to land, law or rights) and the region’s Buddhists “thairansa” (residents), says Ahmad, flashing his non-resident Burmese ID card. Arakan’s people are Buddhist and Muslim, and the region was renamed Rakhine in 1989 when Burma was renamed Myanmar.
Their madrassas are padlocked, they have to pay heavy fines if they want to marry, which means most cannot, says 26-year-old Omer Hamza. They can’t send their children to school and they can’t stay over in other villages. The last is the reason most of them make the transit to India via Bangladesh, not directly through Manipur. Reaching the Indian border requires them to pass through villages in Myanmar, which is disallowed so the risk of being jailed is high.
Chased out, they live in the largest numbers in Bangladesh. About 600,000 live in camps in Saudi Arabia, 200,000 in Pakistan. Arakan has about 1.2 million Muslims, says Khin and the 900,000 who remain in Arakan form Myanmar’s largest minority group.
Ahmad fled with his children, wife and mother. The 50-year-old registered himself and his family at the UN’s human rights office in 2009. They issued him a letter recording his registration and a UNHCR card was issued to him in 2011.
Ahmad’s story repeats itself, with changes in details, in each of the approximately 50 tents under the banner of Darul Hijrat of Zakat Foundation, which are now home to about 300 Rohingya Muslims. They were sheltered here by the charity after they were chased out of their Vasant Kunj camp earlier in May.
Inside a tent, Rashida carelessly cradles a weeping three-year-old boy. Both she and the child are running fever; Rashida’s eyes are drawn and she sits tight. The 37-year-old finds it difficult to hold a full bladder all day.
Ever since they were brought here on May 15, the empty plot became ‘home’, but since the bathroom is an adjoining empty plot, the women wait till night to relieve themselves and bathe. “Where to go in these barren fields? It’s all in the open. It’s scary,” says the mother of two daughters and five sons, hastily adding that she is not complaining. It’s not a matter they can discuss with the men, so Fatima simply sits tight.
She rushes to say she is grateful to the NGO for giving them ground under their feet, a cover over their heads, firewood for cooking and rice. The local MLA has promised to provide a water tanker every day.
Toilet inconveniences and health issues that the women face are, after all, no issue at all, they say, compared with the grave matter of their place in the world. Rashida says she simply can’t figure out why they aren’t granted refugee status, which would ensure “a taleem” (education) for her children – five boys and two girls.
But nations are cagey about Rashida and her fellow Rohingyas, uncertain where to fit them in a terror-wary and energy-hungry world.
Who is their leader? Are they a security risk?
About 620 Rohingya families hit the headlines in Delhi in April when they landed up unannounced in tony Vasant Vihar’s UNHCR office to demand refugee status. They first camped in Vasant Vihar, were evicted, squatted in Vasant Kunj, were thrown out, and then many dispersed while 50 families were given shelter by the charity which took pity on them. “It’s a humanitarian effort. We don’t know how long we can keep them. Let’s see,” says the NGO.
As far as organizing protests go, it was a puny affair, their fight reduced to being a “nuisance factor” in new-age Delhi, the city that’s known to make space for refugees. Yet, the coming together of a poor people, rudderless and on the face of it leaderless, raised an alarm. Who is behind them?
The Rohingya leadership is elusive. Some of the more articulate are being pushed to speak up, following the media coverage of their protest outside the UNHCR office. A file of their papers includes appeals filed by a group named Myanmar Rohingya Refugee Committee, led apparently by Delhi-based Shomshul Alam, who lives in Khajuri Khas, Jammu-based Abul Hossin and a Mohammed Salim, who is also from Delhi, says Hamza.
In their Madanpur Khadar group, Nazeer Ahmad and Zia-ur-Rahman are engaging with outsiders. A couple of ‘leaders’ are studying in Deoband too. These are faceless people. It looks more like a desperate poor community cobbling together a representation of sorts.
Tun Khin says he doesn’t know of any organized group of the Rohingya Muslims in India. “The poorer ones with very little provisions are in India.”
But many suspect a “hand” behind them. Their synchronized appearance, apparently out of thin air from across the country, led to a question in the Rajya Sabha with BJP’s Balbir Punj objecting to their remaining in the country and demanding a probe to identify the “organizer”. After a monthlong standoff from April between the Indian government, UNHCR and the protesters, they were given permission to stay in the country till 2015 pending a series of verifications by sundry agencies.
Alongside, a strident letter to the PM and all-who-matter from VHP leader Praveen Togadia has demanded the Rohingyas be thrown out as they were a “security risk”. Togadia, whose letter and a series of attachments are available online refers to a 2005 paper by security analyst B Raman. The paper says the Bangladesh wing of HUJI recruited a “number of Rohingya Muslims” and took them “to Afghanistan to fight Soviet and Afghan troops” in the 1980s. The VHP’s note on Raman’s paper names “24 Bangladeshi/ Rohingya mujahideen” who died during the Afghanistan jihad.
Raman also mentions that a Rohingya group is “projecting itself as HUJI Myanmar”.
The Burmese regimes accuse them of being Bangladeshi infiltrators. One of the main attacks is to red-flag the bogey of Islamization of Myanmar via these ‘Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators’. In Bangladesh, where lakhs have taken shelter, they are called Burmese. “Where do I go?” asks Khin.
In India, the call to throw out the Rohingyas is also based on reports of a number of such Muslims joining terror outfits. How much is the security risk from shelterless people mired in misery? B Raman says, “We don’t know their background. We don’t know who they were in contact with. One has to be cautious.” One of the reasons, says Raman, that Aung San Suu Kyi is not supporting the Rohingyas is because of certain Rohingya groups’ actions against the Burmese army. “While she is talking about some ethnic groupings, she has stayed quiet on the Rohingya,” says Raman, adding that they should simply be repatriated.
One-way ticket out of Myanmar
They look hunted at the idea of a return to Myanmar. Hamza says the very thought of repatriation terrifies; refugee is the only status they can aspire to. “Whatever happens, we can’t return. They’ve taken our houses, our land.”
“We can’t return to Myanmar and we aren’t allowed to be refugees. Where do we go?” says a shaking Ahmad, father of four sons and three daughters. “It will be double ‘zulum’. It’s not an option,” chorus the refugees.
The trip from Arakan to Delhi took him just a week, says Hamza, now the maulana among the Madanpur Khadar group. He had a tiny farm in Arakan. Hamza escaped to India in 2009 in ‘jamadil awal’ or winter. The last straw was when the Burmese army picked him up in an extortion bid. Hamza’s brother, a petty shopkeeper, paid a hefty sum for his release. “We knew that now that they had got the money, they would target me again,” he says.
The exit plan didn’t take long. “The route and arrangements are in place because people have been leaving for a long time now,” says Hamza. From his Arakan village, it was a kishti (canoe) to Chittagong. He bussed it from Chittagong to Dhaka, which ferried “only Burmese”, then a private vehicle from Dhaka to Kolkata and by train to Delhi. It took a week and cash changed hands at every checkpost from his village onwards, ranging from Rs 200 to Rs 3,000 at each point. “When a group moves, many get caught and are dumped in prisons. I was lucky,” he says.
Being cautious over security reasons is one thing, hawkish another. The UN’s denying them refugee status and being satisfied with the Indian government’s extension of their stay is a big dampener for them. “We came to India because it is the land of ‘raham-karam’ (mercy and fate/ providence),” says Hamza.
The UNHCR card that they flash will “only ensure that the police don’t harass us. But we can’t send our children to school,” says Fatima. This concern about the children is not a parrot-like drone; it seems born of watching the very many half-clothed kids running around in the dirt. “My life is finished, but I must think of the children’s future,” says Hamza, aged 26.
Fatima (27), mother of three kids, reached India several years ago, got married here and has lived in several cities for stretches of six to seven months, returning to a given town after a gap. Jalalabad, Jammu, Muzaffarnagar, “some place in Haryana”, and now in Delhi, she racks her memory. She says with a quiet smile: “We have no place to go. ‘Jaane ka koi rasta nahin’. (There are no roads leading anywhere). Wherever we go, we are chased away.”
The Rohingyas live across India from Jammu to Hyderabad, from Uttarkhand’s Bagwari to Jaipur, in pockets in Jalalabad, Baghpat and Muzaffarnagar. These are the main places from where the 620 families came to Delhi, says Hamza, each city having its own loose network of “Burmese refugees”. “We reach the country but have no fixed schedule. We move from a city when we are thrown out,” he says matter-of-factly.
World salivates over energy-rich Arakan
The Rohingya Muslims need help in two ways: with a refugee status to those who have fled the country and putting pressure on the Burmese government to restore land rights to those who remain in the country. Rehabilitation of this ethnic group seems all the more important especially because of the terror links that have surfaced. But nations seem more likely to look the other way.
It’s not as if the world hasn’t heard of Arakan in resource-rich Myanmar, the country abundant in oil, natural gas, coal, zinc, copper, precious stones, timber and hydropower with uranium deposits thrown in too.
Arakan is Myanmar’s richest oil-producing region. Arakanese locals claim they have been extracting oil for over 300 years using makeshift pulleys. Whatever the actual history, Myanmar is certainly one of the world’s oldest oil producers, its first barrel exported in the 1850s. As per CIA figures, Myanmar could have 50 million barrels of oil and 283 cubic metres of natural gas. According to experts, gas will be the main focus of the much-needed foreign investment over the coming years, though there is little data on the extent of reserves.
With the military junta giving way to a civilian government that came to power in February last, the world is eyeing Myanmar hungrily. Strategic affairs analyst Robert Kaplan wrote in Stratfor, “Geographically, Myanmar … is where the spheres of influence of China and India overlap. Think of Myanmar as another Afghanistan in terms of its potential to change a region: a key, geostrategic puzzle piece ravaged by war and ineffective government that, if only normalized, would unroll trade routes in all directions.”
He goes on to talk about the immense potential of the region. “At Ramree Island off the Arakan coast, the Chinese are constructing pipelines to take oil and natural gas from Africa, the Persian Gulf and Bay of Bengal across the heart of Myanmar to Kunming. There will also be a high-speed rail line roughly along this route by 2015.
“India too is constructing an energy terminal at Sittwe [Arakan] that will potentially carry offshore natural gas northwest through Bangladesh to West Bengal. The Indian pipeline would split into two directions, with another proposed route going to the north around Bangladesh. Commercial goods will follow along new highways to be built to India. Kolkata, Chittagong and Yangon, rather than being cities in three separate countries, will finally be part of one Indian Ocean world.”
If that weren’t euphoric enough, “The salient fact here is that by liberating Myanmar, India’s hitherto landlocked northeast, lying on the far side of Bangladesh, will also be opened up to the outside. Northeast India has suffered from bad geography and underdevelopment, and as a consequence it has experienced about a dozen insurgencies in recent decades … Myanmar’s political opening and economic development changes this geopolitical fact, because both India’s northeast and Bangladesh will benefit from Myanmar’s political and economic renewal.
“With poverty reduced somewhat in all these areas, the pressure on Kolkata and West Bengal to absorb economic refugees will be alleviated.” He signs off on an impossibly positive note, “If Myanmar can build pan-ethnic institutions … it could come close to being a midlevel power in its own right…”
The operative words being “if” and “pan-ethnic”. A look at the state of the Rohingya Muslims, one can only wonder.
The road ahead
Rohingyas saw a ray of hope when the civilian government promised to talk with the many dispossessed ethnic groups in Myanmar including the insurgent groups. But once the government announced the groups it would be talking to, their name was conspicuously missing. “While the government has engaged in talks with several other ethnic groups, not even a whisper in the wind of talking about Rohingyas,” says Khin.
Discrimination is growing, says Nurul Islam, president of the London-based Arakan Rohingya National Organization. In a March 29 interview, he said, “There is no change of attitude of the new civilian government of U Thein Sein towards Rohingya people; there is no sign of change in the human rights situation of Rohingya people. Persecution against them is actually greater than before.”
For the world, their predicament has remained a blind spot. There’s little coverage on their plight.
The UNHCR, which takes care of ‘Arakanese Muslims’ in the region, does not mention the term Rohingya in its online literature on Myanmar, choosing to refer to them as Arakanese Muslims. “The UNHCR works in Arakan with an understanding with the regime. It is on a contract. Though Rohingya is established in international community, UNHCR avoids using the term,” says Khin. Can lopping off their core identity help assimilate or mainstream this ethnic group?
The UNHCR says it supports the 800,000 Muslim residents in the northern part of the region that was renamed Rakhine state (NRS), who do not have citizenship.” Its website says, “There has been no improvement in the legal status or living conditions of the Muslim residents of NRS. With the government’s response to the proposals being a reiteration of current policies, UNHCR foresees a continuing need for programmes to assist residents without citizenship in NRS.”
Fears are strong that the coming 2014 census that the Burmese government has promised may bypass the existence of the Rohingya Muslims altogether. NGOs are stepping up their agitation in the run-up to the census, says Khin.
These fears were given credence by recent reports that senior government officials have said that there are no ‘stateless people in Myanmar’ while the immigration minister reiterated the allegation that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
At Madanpur Khadar, they have no place to go. And they are praying they will not outstay their welcome. The charity has taken no decision, but has provisioned for about a month, says Dr Najaf, its secretary.
Does India have reason to fear Rashida? If you look at the plight of this young population, not today. But if we don’t take care of her and her children, who knows what these kids will be doing a few years from now? They’re sitting ducks, easy prey.