Friday, November 07, 2014

The Plight Of The Rohingya - Travelers' Blindness In Myanmar

When I first started working with, and hearing the stories, of people who identify as Rohingyan, I naively and boldly talked about visiting Myanmar in a hope to work on rapport building and story sharing. I had been to Myanmar, and surely my travels could help me relate, right?

I'll admit, I knew nothing of the Rohingya people when I first started working with asylum seekers. They are a Muslim minority in Myanmar, and Bangladesh, Saudia Arabia and Malaysia (also in Pakistan and Thailand). They are some of the most extremely persecuted people in the world, and tell the most harrowing, trauma-filled stories of their experiences I have ever come across in all my time working in mental health, PTSD, trauma, and international development.

But as many of my clients pointed out, the Myanmar I saw when I traveled, and anyone on the fairly recently opened-to-the-world tourism circuit around this South-East Asian country, was very, very different to the one they know.

The Rakhine state, and Maungdaw is certainly not on the loop which includes Yangon and Bagan for the new wave of tourists.

The origins of the Rohingya people are even disputed in this politicised lawlessness against them, with some believing they are indigenous to the state of Rakhine, the government of Myanmar arguing that they are Bengali. They are a people from very basic villages, and primarily live off farming. They do not have a written language, and thus, one of the cultural groups around the world who rely on oral history.

They live in a state of Statelessness - meaning they are not recognised by the very country they were born in, and should have basic rights in. The right to have official identification papers, the right to having their education acknowledged formally, the right to having their marriages or land ownership documented. None of that.

Attacked by the radical Buddhist minority in Myanmar, with an increase in violence which has included the burning of villages since 2012. Rohingyans are prevented from attending school, and threatened when going to work. Men and boys are being arrested, held, without charge, and often without their families knowing of their whereabouts. The Rohingyans were asked to register as Bengali in the country of Myanmar by the government in March this year, disallowing them the opportunity to participate in the country's first census. Further restrictions are being placed on them even now, and the world just don't seem to know, or pay attention, about it all.

The buzz about Myanmar, and the hopes for democracy and change and the upcoming national election in 2015, with the golden hope of Aung San Suu Kyi becoming leader, will not help the Rohingya. She has a battle on her hands getting elected, and has seemed to think standing up for this minority too dangerous to her own plight.

The UN has just launched a Campaign to End Statelessness, perhaps another new angle of hope in this dire struggle for recognition, safety and a life without the fear of persecution.

I continue to learn so much from my clients, and this small window into their plight has been such an eye-opener - travel gave me none of this insight. As an Australian, it's hard to comprehend the experiences of Statelessness and ongoing and pervasive experiences of persecution.

*This post is part of a series joining my travels with the lessons and stories I have come across in my work. Much of my travel has helped me understand different issues faced by my client group, and then many of my client's stories and experiences now shape my understanding of the world as I move through it. I wanted to share some of these points, to help others start to get this insight. These points are by no means a comprehensive thesis about the issues for each cultural group discussed - merely a starting point of thought and hopefully an antecedent to further reading and research, to gain an understanding for readers.

These photos were taken on my trek through the hillside villages to Kalaw - maybe as rural and basic, albeit Buddhist, as a tourist usually sees when traveling to Myanmar.


  1. I heard about this community in Bangladesh but was not aware of their hardships. Thank you for a very informative article.

  2. Great article and way to bring attention to an issue that most people are unaware of. My friend in Malaysia is working on funding a school for the Rohingya people that have fled to Penang. Since Malaysia does not recognized the UN Refugee Convention, the Rohingya do not get social services like public schooling, healthcare or work visas. Currently, volunteers have acted as teachers, but they still need money to pay for rent and materials. I've gone to the school to help out, and it's heartbreaking.

    1. Thank you, Michelle. I feel like I have a unique and privileged opportunity at the moment to perhaps raise a little awareness, start some people's awareness.
      I have heard many stories of the difficulties in Malaysia for the Rohingya - your friend is doing important work.
      We need to get this message about their struggles out there to the world!

  3. Great article!


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