Rohingyas in Malaysia

“We know you help Shan people Burma. Please help we. We Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.”

This was an email I received nearly two years ago. It was accompanied by heart-wrenching photos of people on the brink of starvation; children with distended bellies, covered in parasites. The “camp” seemed to be submerged in a foot and a half of filthy water.

From September of 2007 to February of 2008 I was embedded with the Shan State rebel army in Burma, documenting human rights abuses and genocide waged by the tyrannical Burmese Junta, lead by Than Shwe. The military government, which is completely in the hands of the Burman ethnic majority, has been slaughtering Burma’s many ethnic minorities for decades. Some are fighting back. Some, after forty years of waiting in vain for the US, UK, or UN to come help them, have just given up.

Rohingya refugees from Burma (AP)

Rohingya refugees from Burma (AP)

Most of the foreign volunteers, aid workers, and journalists who are working in Burma are working with ether the Karen or Shan ethnic groups, as well as smaller ones such as Karenni, Pa-O, Padaung, Lisu, Lahu, and Akha. But the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority, have the misfortune of living in Burma’s Arakan State (Rakhine), which is nearly unreachable from the outside.

The first cry for help that I heard from the Shan people was in 2004, when I was studying in a monastery with Shan refugees whose families had been murdered by the Burmese government. I never forgot the faces or the names of those young monks, and I vowed to help as much as I could. It took me three years to finally get inside of Burma and work with the Shan.

Today, sitting in Malaysia, writing an article about the Rohingya refugees here, I stumbled across this old email, and realized it has been three years, and I still haven’t done anything to help. A magazine asked me to write an article about the Rohingya to help educate the public. But I am going to hijack this article and also use it as a cry for help. I really want to launch a health mission into Arakan State, or at least to help the Rohingyas on the border of India or Chin State. If there is anyone out there who would like to help, please contact me.

Who are the Rohingyas?

Burma is home to countless ethnic minorities. The Rohingyas are the only significant group of Muslims in the largely Buddhist country. There are also Indian Muslims, but they are a much smaller group, and they lack a unique ethnic state. The Rohingya population is about three-quarters of a million. They live in their own ethnic state called Arakan State (Rakhine), which borders on Bangladesh.

Their spoken language is called Rohingyalish, which has never had a traditional writing system. The language has been written with Latin, Burmese, Hanifi, Urdu or modified Arabic script.

In Burma, the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), which is the repressive army of the Burmese Junta, has been waging a steady war against all of the minority peoples, who together comprise nearly 60% of the population. The crimes against the Rohingya have been similar to those against other ethnic groups, namely: forced labor, murder, imprisonment, torture, rape, denying them citizenship, freedom of movement, basic human rights, or even a national ID card.

Since 1978, when the government began launching major offensives against the Rohingyas, many have fled to Bangladesh where life in the refugee camps was not much better, and often worse than remaining in the Orwellian-Hell of Burma.

In 2005 the Bangladesh government began forcing Rohingyas to return to Burma. Many refugees believe that they will be jailed or killed if returned to Burma. But remaining in Bangladesh was also horrible because of the rape, torture, extortion and abuses perpetrated on them by the Bangladeshi government soldiers.

Although the Rohingyas always knew about themselves and their suffering, the world first heard about the Rohingyas in 2009 when CNN, Aljazeera, and other international news media reported that the Thai military had towed boatloads of Rohingyas out to sea and abandoned them. At least one boat was rescued by Indonesian authorities and all 190 passengers gave testimony of beatings by Thai military and of having been set adrift on the ocean.

In 2004, the government of Malaysia announced that it would extend refugee status to the Rohingyas. Since then, many have sought refuge in the Muslim majority, Southeast Asian nation.

The Rohingya market outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

“Back in Burma, if the police saw you with a Koran outside the house, they would beat you and take it from you and burn it,” said a Rohingya man who we will call Asyef. “So, we tried hiding Koran in the house, up in the roof.” He was telling us a long list of reasons why he had to flee Burma.

We were sitting in a small eatery in the Rohingya community, which I am told is home to 80,000 Rohingyas and another 30,000 people who the Rohingyas loosely refer to as Buddhist Burmese. My translator and guide is a Malay named Saya, who seems to know everyone and everything that is happening in his country.

When I asked him to help me get a story on the Rohingyas in Malaysia, he told me, “I can take you there. But it is very dangerous. You have to go easy. And maybe you can’t take any pictures.”

As sad as the Rohingyas’ story was, there was an even darker side. The Rohingya community is centered around a principle fruit, vegetable, meat, and fish market for the restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. The men told us it was very hard to get a job in there and that seemed to be the aspiration of most. My translator Saya told me that he had seen guns being shipped through the market and that everyone knew drugs were being smuggled there. The principle export product of Burma, apart from refugees, is opium. The whole complex was flanked by two lakes.

Saya told me. “At least one person gets killed here per day. Last month, the police had to drain the lakes because they were just too full of bodies.”

Trying to build rapport with the men, I mentioned my intense hatred of military junta leader Than Shwe.

The mere mention of his name evoked a flood of hatred and horrific stories from the men. They also knew about the boat loads of Rohingyas that had been set adrift in Thailand, and they were very upset.