“The Burmese government considers us as illegal migrants and inflicts all kinds of violations and torture on us: forced labor, land confiscation, forced relocation, and tightly restricted movement are some examples of our daily life”.

I am Mohammed Ibrahim*, a Rohingya refugee from Rakhine state (Arakan) in Western Burma. I arrived in Cambodia in January 2010 and was granted refugee status in August 2013. This is my story:

Our situation in Rakhine State

According to the UN, the Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted people on earth and at risk of statelessness. The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority group living in Rakhine state. We are a population of around 800,000 Rohingya, living together with the Arakanese population. In our village we have no relationship with the Arakanese population, as they live behind the mountains in a different village in the hills.

In the 1960s, the Rohingya were recognised as a legal ethnic group and our people had full citizenship rights. We were even involved in Government positions. Since 1982, the Burmese government started denying us citizenship when the Citizenship law was passed by the former dictator, General Ne Win. This Citizenship law did not include our ethnic group as part of the population of Myanmar.

The Rohingya have no basic rights in Myanmar such as health care – it is very risky for us to go to a government hospital, many people get the wrong treatment –, access to labor market or freedom of movement.

I would like to share my experience as a child regarding education. Rohingya parents are afraid to send their children to Burmese schools in Rakhine community. When I went to school, we Rohingya had to sit at the back of the classroom while Rakhine people sat in front, so my parents sent me to study to the Madrasa – the Islamic school. When they published the result, they published those of the Rakhine students, but in order to get our results published we needed to give the principal or the teachers money or animals. In Rakhine State very few people are able to study higher education or go to college. We were allowed to access some universities but not others. So, for example, if you were good in certain subjects and wanted to be a doctor, you could end up studying law because you did not have the right to go to that university.

The Burmese government considers us as illegal migrants and inflicts all kinds of violations and torture on us: forced labor, land confiscation, forced relocation, and tightly restricted movement are some examples of our daily life.

Nowadays, the Rohingyas in Arakan state are dying of starvation because they are not allowed to do their daily work to generate income. We cannot go fishing in the sea and cannot do our farming work properly.

Various news sources report that on 11 July 2012, the Burmese President Thein Sein declared to a UNHCR delegation that he would not recognise the Rohingya as citizens of Burma and that the Rohingya are considered as illegal Bengali who were brought into Burma to work the farmlands by the English colonialists before the independence in 1948. However, the fact is that we have been living in Arakan State for centuries. I understand that before 1994 there were armed groups amongst the Rohingya, like RSO, but nowadays there is no armed group in Rakhine, we are not armed.

Thein Sein also said that he would take responsibility for the ethnic minorities in Burma but that it was not possible to recognise as Burmese the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas who are not an ethnic group in Burma. As a last resort, the president said the government would be prepared to hand over the Rohingyas to UNHCR and would set up refugee camps for the group before they were eventually settled in any third country “who would be willing to take them”.

Since June 2012, President Thein Sein and his government are supporting a Rohingya cleansing plan, implemented by the Nasaka – police border force – in some areas, like mine; in other areas it is the police, driving out the Rohingya from their homes, burning their houses, with the help of Rakhine extremist Buddhists, such as Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who is leading the Rakhine people against the Rohingya and who heads the 969 group .

Very recently the government has withdrawn the Nasaka, but another police force, Luntin, has taken its place.

What difficulties did you face in Rakhine state?

I was a farmer, my father had paddy fields, and we sold rice or kept it for our consumption.

My family had a lake with a prawn project, which was confiscated in 1993. I had no prospect of going to university, I wanted to be a farmer. This is our culture. But if I had stayed I would have been killed. In the course of forced labor activities, I was threatened by the Burmese military government and fled the country.

My village was under sector number 5 forced labor camp. Each village was asked regularly to send seven or ten people to the camp. All families had to send someone every month. Sometimes we could pay money instead of sending someone to work.

They would take us to work in the camp. The forced labor we were asked to do was to repair prawn projects during the rainy season. We used to sleep in huts during those weeks. We worked from 5am to 4pm according to the authorities in the sector, sometimes until late at night. When I was a child I also worked in a security camp, with check points in bridges. I worked carrying water, cleaning or cutting the grass.

Many Rohingya also make roads as forced labour. They also work as porters from one security camp to another. Before we used to carry the belongings of the commanders while walking, it was very hard.

Five years ago, I was forced to work in the new prawn project. But at that time I was very weak and sick. One night I told the Nasaka commander that I was weak, and I was beaten. A friend of mine tried to explain my situation and they also beat him. The police were very drunk, so we were able to escape. We ran away, I was taken by a group of three friends. They tried to shoot at us but we were far away. I returned to my house. My family was very scared and told me I had to escape. They told me to leave our home and to move to another village. There were four of us and we escaped to a farm with buffalos, where my father had a hut, away from my village.

The Nasaka came to the village at night with torches. In Maungdaw area, where I lived, the army is not present, there are no army camps, they have no power. The power is with the Nasaka, the police security force. When the Rohingya see those torches, they flee because they know that the Nasaka are entering the village, so all the males escape and hide in the huts. The Nasaka entered my house, broke everything, and interrogated my family. The father and brother of one of my friends were arrested. My two brothers were arrested, and they were released after paying money.

How did you flee your country?

My uncle thought about my future and organised everything for me to leave. Many people went to Thailand by boat. He organized paying money for this. I left alone, my friends stayed because they could not afford the trip.

This was five years ago. I arrived in Ranong, Thailand by boat. I was arrested by the Thai authorities in Ranong because I had no documentation, like the others who were with me in my boat.
[I know many of my friends were bought for 20,000 Thai Baht to work for six months. The Thai navy sold them to a smuggler. I know this is the system, but when I arrived there, lots of media said that the Thai navy sold the Rohingya, so the smuggler tortured them.]

After staying two or three days in Ranong, I was taken to an Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok, where I stayed almost six months. I was then taken to Mae Sot for one day and then the following morning, at 11am, I was sent back to Myanmar by boat. I was pushed by the Thailand authorities in a little boat with 40 other people, the boat had no engine, and arrived in Myawdi, Myanmar on the other side of the river.

There are many people who end up in jail when going back to Myanmar, in particular those taking the road towards Yangon, where there are many check-points. They can stay 15 or 20 years in prison. So I tried my best to go back to Thailand.

There are many smugglers in Myawdi who ask for 500 Thai Baht to go back to Mae Sot. A Rohingya smuggler helped me to go back to Mae Sot, where I went to the Mosque. There he introduced me to the Rohingya community, who helped me pay back the 500 Thai Baht to the smuggler. Each person gave him around 20 or 50 Thai Baht because they understood it was very harmful for me to go back to Myanmar.

I found a little job with a man from Moon state who was also Muslim. I stayed two or three months in Mae Sot. At the end of 2009 I tried to get an ID migrant card. The price was 3,500 Thai Baht. My shop owner advanced some money to pay for this card. I went to the office but the Thai authorities told me that there was an agreement with the Burmese government that Rohingya were not entitled to have this card. I was very upset.

I tried to work in Bangkok, because in Mae Sot it was very risky and people were arrested and sent back to Myanmar frequently. In Bangkok it was very difficult, I started selling ruti (bread) in the street. I had to pay 500 Thai Baht to the police in order to keep running the ruti business. The migration police car could take us to the Immigration Detention Centre at any time, so when we saw the car we had to run away. They frequently took our ruti carts, asking us to pay a bribe of 3,000 Thai Baht to get it back, otherwise they destroyed our food business.

One day I went to the Bangrak Mosque where there are many Rohingya. It is a place where we celebrate Friday and where some Rohingya work. I met a Muslim English man who advised me to go to UNHCR. I knew nothing about refugee status or UNHCR.

A UNCHR official told me that all Burmese, including Rohingyas, should go to the Thai-Burma border camps and that they did not accept refugee applications.

The man in the Mosque advised me to go to Cambodia. I tried to find a way to go to Cambodia. One Rohingya agreed to bring me to the Aranyapratet border. I asked how I could cross. He said there were Cambodians working in the factories in Thailand so I crossed together with border trade people. No one asked for my documents.

How is your life in Cambodia?

Once in Cambodia, I had interviews with the Refugee Office. This started three years ago. I finally got refugee status in August 2013. During those years I was always worried about my case, as were my other Rohingya fellows who escaped the country like me. Since I arrived, I have received full support from JRS, including a small loan to start a small business. The majority of the Rohingya asylum seekers and refugees sell ruti in the street for their survival. This is my activity and the way I earn my living.

Are there any hopes for peace? Any monk who is willing to do peace for the Rohingya? Or someone in the Government who is sympathetic for your cause?

Outside Myanmar Wakar Uddin, speaks for us, he is a Rohingya teaching in Pennsylvania University and heading the Arakan Rohingya Union, an umbrella organisation. I am in touch with him, although he is very busy. Otherwise there is the European-Rohingya Council, in Norway.

Inside Burma, there is an MP who is a Rohingya, U Shwe Maung, who speaks for us. I think he is a good leader. Another Rohingya leader is U Kyaw Min, alias Shamsul Anowarul Hoque.

How is your family doing in Rakhine?

They are in terrible conditions because in June 2012 my village had many problems. Near my village, in Al Le Than Kyaw, there were many killings. My uncle and my 17-year-old cousin were arrested on 9 June 2012 during a mass arrest and are still in prison. A UN delegate visited my uncle’s house in Al Le Than Kyaw. He wanted to visit the jail in Buthidaung but the authorities moved them to another prison before he came because they knew he was visiting the prison. Lots of Rohingya were killed in that jail.

How do you keep in touch with your relatives?

They can get the Bangladeshi network, this was very risky before, and it still is, but it is possible. So I talk to them every week. They are fine but are worried about their lives there. They want to live freely. My father passed away and my mother has to manage the land, so she does not know what to do, because it is the only thing we have and she does not want to lose it.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

For myself, I wish I could go to Canada to study, in order to join a human rights group working for the Rohingya and speaking out for them. This is my dream and what I would like to do.

Regarding hopes for my community, I can say that nowadays the Rohingya are stateless in their own country although they have been living in Burma for centuries. Because of statelessness, they are suffering all kinds of persecution, discrimination and isolation. To avoid this, restoration of citizenship for them must be done immediately. Citizenship is the most important right for the Rohingya community in Myanmar. The right to citizenship could stop the current ongoing genocide and human rights violations in Arakan state and could also stop religious tensions. Both the Rakhine and the Burmese Government call the Rohingya Bengali Kala which means Bengali foreigner. This is a derogatory term used for people who are not citizens. Until and unless our citizenship is restored unconditionally, the Rohingya community will not feel safe from fear and human rights violations will persist. Citizenship restoration must be accompanied by ensuring all other types of fundamental human rights are upheld for the Rohingyas as citizens of Myanmar.

Meanwhile, we also urge the countries where Rohingyas seek international protection to grant them refugee status within the shortest possible time in order to avoid the risks I went through: detention, actual refoulement and fear of being refouled back to Myanmar.

As stateless Rohingya in Burma face containment in IDP camps and within their homes and communities in what is an effective segregation, their human rights are on the whole being ignored by countries keen either to support reforms in Burma or to return refugees who have fled to their shores.

I would like to urge the international community to come forward to save the Rohingyas from the ongoing human rights violations and segregation.

Mohammed Ibrahim*  Not his real name. Villages have been also changed for security reasons.

Notes: 

We acknowledge the immense complexity in Myanmar, often oversimplified in interpretations by the international community, media and campaign groups. This interview does not aim to analyze the situation of the Rohingya but to understand:

  • the plight of the Rohingya through the causes of flight of a refugee
  • the journey of a Rohingya seeking protection outside his country
  • smuggling in the Thai-Burma border of Ranong and risks faced by refugees, namely:
  • detention in Thailand
  • refoulement to Myanmar from Mae Sot of a person in need of international protection
  • difficulties for Rohingyas accessing protection in Thailand
  • lack of clarity regarding UNHCR’s protection policy towards Rohingyas in Thailand
  • smuggling into Cambodia

We also acknowledge that what began as violence against the Rohingya has more recently spread, posing grave danger to Muslim communities throughout the country.


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