FOCUS Why does one flee one's country? How does it feel to be State-less? The Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, now camping in Delhi seeking UNHCR's help, share with SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY the trauma that led to their exit
Tayeba entered India from Bangladesh two years ago, went to live in Jammu because some people from her village were already there. She makes a living out of rag picking.
Some days ago, she and other refugees living in Jammu travelled to Delhi on hearing the news that Rohingya Muslims who have fled from western Myanmar to India, are going to camp in front of the UNHCR office, seeking refugee rank instead of the present asylum seekers' status. That means an identity and regular money. A slightly better status than what it was back home.
“We have been living in Myanmar for generations but have only temporary citizenship. This blocks us from every facility. Forget visiting Yangon, we can't even travel from one town to another without permission.” Tayeba says, the Burmese Government brought about a law some years ago for people like them under which they can study only till class 10th. “Even if we do well in exams, we have to pay a hefty sum to the Education Department to pursue a course after 10th. They know well we are poor, so we can't afford it. We are forced to remain only agricultural labourers.”
The persecution doesn't stop there. Thirty five-year-old Sayeda couldn't marry because her father didn't have the money to pay the military government. Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have to apply to the authorities expressing willingness to marry. “We have to pay, say around Rs 2-2.5 lakh, along with the application. Many have done that and are still waiting permission from the government to marry.” The cruel law is there because the Rohingyas are considered a community which believes in having lots of children. “Now, we are blocked from getting married and having children. We are issued a family list and every few months, we are checked.”
A young, disabled man Salim pushes himself to the front of the crowd around me saying, “We are still referred to as ‘Kala Indian'.” Though there are different theories about how Rohingyas ended up in Burma, “The local belief is that we were brought only as agricultural labourers by the British. The British left long ago and we are still in a limbo.” Salim says, “The Government is gradually taking over our land and forcing us to work as agricultural labourers without any wages. I am disabled, even I was not spared.” A class 8th pass, 28-year-old Salim ran away from Arakan two years ago.
Stories like that of Salim, Tayeba and Sayeda are common among this 4,000-strong throng of refugees now camping at the Sultan Garhi dargah in South Delhi. Under a blazing sun, some are seen roaming about, lost; some others lining up to collect food and water distributed by local NGOs and good Samaritans, some sitting under sheds made with bedcovers.
So how did Salim escape Myanmar? “You need money for it. I had a small shop in my village. I sold that to my uncle to organise cash,” he says. Tayeba sold her wedding jewellery to flee home; Nazir Ahmed sold his two years of rice production for it. Even then it's not easy. “You first approach the village head for permission to visit a nearby town for 4-5 days. He gives you a receipt which you have to deposit at the police station along with a fee.”
There are 16 towns in his State but entry is allowed only in two towns. “Earlier, our entry to other towns was allowed and that is why people could flee to Northeast India. Now they have blocked those routes. So you are forced to flee to only Bangladesh.” Salim too fled to Bangladesh and reached the border town of Teknaf and then took a bus to Dhaka. All the time living in fear of being caught and put in a Burmese jail for an eight-year term or being sent to a Bangladeshi jail like so many others. Within days, he arrived at the Bangladesh-India border in Satkhira. To slip through to India, he had to grease a few palms.
“We have come to India hearing about its democracy, it feeds even its pigeons. Many Rohingyas have taken the sea route to Thailand and have died in their boats, hungry,” he says.
“Though the Chin community are considered Burmese citizens they have undergone persecution too and fled to India. The UNHCR gives them refugee status, so why not us?” asks Nazir. He is hopeful that Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom will lead to theirs too.
Salim wants to return home but only when the Rohingyas get some rights.
(Representatives of the Rohingya refugees are slated to meet UNHCR officials to press for a refugee status on May 15.)
People from Arakan or Rakhine State of Burma speak Rohingya language. It sounds similar to the dialect spoken in the neighbouring Chittagong district of Bangladesh. The language is said to be 300 years old. Over the centuries, the Rohingyas have used Arabic, Urdu, Burmese, Hanifi and English scripts to write their language.
Since 2000, there has been an effort to preserve the language by using the Latin script. The Rohingya Language Foundation is behind it and has named the version Rohingyalish. According to its website, it is to make it usable in the computer age. Since Latin alphabets are readily available in all personal computers, only a few guidelines are required to write the Rohingya language.
The website says, as many as 10,000 Rohingya words have been made available using the alphabets.