All of that changed in early June this year when communal clashes involving the Rohingya and the Rakhine ethnic group erupted in western Burma in early June of this year. Both the Muslim Rohingya and the local Rakhine Buddhists suffered serious casualties, about 80 killed in total, by official count. Human rights groups say that the figure is likely to have been much higher. In late October, the violence erupted again, with at least 64 killed by official count and thousands of homes destroyed by fire.
Tensions and fears on both sides are still high, and another round of unrest could erupt at any time. Constantine’s book focuses on the nearly 300,000 Rohingyas who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, many of them leaving Burma after the junta led by General Ne Win launched a purge of “illegal foreigners” in 1978. In Rakhine, this resulted in widespread brutality, including mass arrests targeting the Rohingya population. Some 250,000 Rohingya refugees then flooded into Bangladesh. These refugees are now targeted by the Bangladesh government as unwanted and they have suffered from periodic attempts to shut down the crowded refugee camps in which they have sought shelter. Following the June violence, hundreds of Rohingyas attempted to flee to Bangladesh in boats across the narrow Naf River and by sea. Bangladesh border guards forced them back. A few escaped into hiding in Bangladesh.
Constantine introduces us first to a 34-year-old Rohingya man named Jafar, who has spent more than half his life in a refugee camp in Bangladesh “with no country to belong to.” Jafar was born in 1978, the year that General Ne Win launched his ethnic cleansing operation.
“Myanmar is my home and that is where I want to go back to,” Jafar says. “But none of us has citizenship, and without citizenship we are like a fish out of water….”
A female refugee, Fatima, describes the treatment of the Rohingya by NaSaKa, a security force established in 1992 that includes elements of police, immigration, customs, and military intelligence units. In 1994, the Burmese authorities issued an order that required Rohingyas wishing to marry to first receive permission from NaSaKa. The order was issued nowhere else in Burma. Those who disobey the order can still be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for up to 10 years. Couples must usually pay extortion money and often have to wait years for permission to be granted. They must also sign a statement saying they will have no more than two children.