From the killing fields to exile without hope

How Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya minority is
struggling for the right to return home

A Rohingya refugee camp near Cox's Bazar.

A Rohingya refugee camp near Cox's Bazar. (Campbell MacDiarmid / The National)

The 2017 exodus of Rohingya from western Myanmar was historically unprecedented in terms of volume and speed.

In a three-month period beginning on August 25, more than 700,000 predominantly Muslim Rohingya fled from a campaign of violence in Rakhine State in western Myanmar.

It was only the latest in a decades old policy of persecution by the Myanmar government, which treats the Rohingya – a predominantly Muslim ethnic group which has lived in the country for hundreds of years – as foreign invaders. The scope of crimes committed against the Rohingya is broad. Early accusations against the Myanmar government and military included crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. But the UN’s Human Rights Council is now confident that acts of genocide occurred.

Despite this, little progress has been made on either justice or repatriation. The Rohingya wish to return home but the conditions are not safe for them to do so.

In exile the Rohingya have proven resilient. Despite intense overcrowding and unsuitable locations, the camps have been vastly improved with the help of NGOs and donor funding. Rohingya have made the most of limited civic rights and freedoms to organise and find a voice. But isolated in southeastern Bangladesh, and excluded from discussions about their future, they wonder whether anyone is listening.

Many are despondent, their trauma remains raw. There is a fear that if their grievances are not addressed, and their situation unimproved, angry young men will be attracted to militancy and the tragedy of the Rohingya will be exploited by militants. Many fear the Rohingya crisis is becoming intractable.

Watch: The Rohingya living in exile - trapped in the forests of Bangladesh

'I saw them with our women, doing whatever they wanted'

A Rohingya woman carries wood in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

A Rohingya woman carries wood in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Campbell MacDiarmid / The National)

It was once called the Village of Bitter Gourds for the vegetables that residents grow in Chut Pyin. As well as the gourds, the lush fields around their homes in northern Rakhine State produced a profusion of rice, pumpkins and okra.

But last year, the rice paddies of Chut Pyin became killing fields, as Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist extremists carried out a brutal massacre of the Rohingya villagers. On August 26, nearly 400 of them were killed and the village razed, while those who survived fled on foot across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh. The bitter gourds of Chut Pyin were supplanted by bitter memories for the more than 1,000 odd people to whom that bountiful home is just a memory.

Instead, 12 months on, the villagers live in a tight cluster of tarpaulin and bamboo huts atop a small hillock in the Kutupalong-Balukhali Refugee Camp.

"You won't find anyone around here who didn't lose at least one family member," says Mohammed Sadiq, a grey-haired farmer in a white skull cap, whose granddaughter and daughter-in-law were both killed.

Of the 1,400 Rohingya who lived in Chut Pyin, 358 were killed and another 94 were wounded, according to Ahammed Hossain, who was once the village foreman.

According to Mr Hossain, a boyish 25-year-old who wears a T shirt emblazoned with the white sign of the Hollywood hills, a further 59 men were detained by Myanmar soldiers and have not been released. At least 19 women were savagely raped. He recounted how he found his own sister dying in the bushes after being raped and shot.

"I couldn't save her," he says flatly. His father and brother were also killed, he added, the numbness of loss palpable in his voice.

The massacre at Chut Pyin – which has been documented and corroborated by various international rights groups – became the most notorious example of the Myanmar government's campaign to expel the ethnic minority Rohingya from its lands, and precipitate a mass exodus of refugees into Bangladesh.

Today, as Bangladesh and Myanmar discuss the return of refugees, the villagers of Chut Pyin hold up their experience as evidence of why greater international involvement is needed to protect the rights of Rohingya Muslims.

An investigation by Physicians for Human Rights, a Boston-based non-profit, published last month concluded that "the savagery inflicted on the people of Chut Pyin is a typical example of the widespread and systematic campaign that Myanmar authorities have waged against the Rohingya – acts that should be investigated as crimes against humanity".

Before last year's bloodshed, communal hatred had been simmering for decades in Rakhine state, where ethnic Rohingya Muslims lived alongside Rakhine Buddhists.

Myanmar's Buddhists – who account for almost 90 per cent of the population – nevertheless feared that Muslims could usurp them. What resulted was a portrayal of the Rohingya as Bengali interlopers living illegally in the country. Some 120,000 Rohingya already lived in guarded displacement camps inside Myanmar, and another 400,000 in exile in Bangladesh.

The massacre at Chut Pyin came directly after a rag-tag Rohingya militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army carried out attacks on Myanmar border guards. Afterwards, the Myanmar government explained the deaths at Chut Pyin and elsewhere as the result of counter-terrorism operations.

Over the months that followed, some 700,000 Rohingya fled across the border, in what the then UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein described as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing" by the Myanmar government.

In such a densely populated, low-lying country as Bangladesh, the only land available for the Rohingya to shelter was a national forest, a southeastern landscape of low hills and meandering waterways abutting verdant paddies.

The camps sprung up haphazardly, with aid agencies struggling to install sanitation and drainage and warning of the risk of massive disease outbreaks. A year on though, what was jungle is now a conglomerated "mega camp", the world's largest refugee settlement.

A sprawling site that stretches for miles, the camp consists of tight rows of huts jostling for space along the contours of the hillsides. Paths are swept clean, huts kept trim, and tiny vegetable allotments planted on any level foot of bare ground. Informal markets have sprung up along the roads, where industrious men sell dried fish, vegetables and neat bundles of firewood, each stick cut to the same length. Amid their desperate situation children remain children, playing under the well pumps and toy cars crafted from discarded plastic and sticks.

But with every monsoon rain, the sandy soil of the hillsides slowly subsides, collapsing homes and destroying paths. Work crews dig continually to terrace and stabilise hillsides at risk of collapse. When cyclone winds blow, roofs fly off huts. Keeping the latrines sanitary and the water from pooling takes constant work.

Throughout its makeshift lanes, the villagers of Chut Pyin somehow stoically ward off despair, but as time passes their situation is becoming more desperate.

Outside the camp, the movement of refugees is restricted and they cannot work legally. Children are not allowed to be formally taught either the Myanmar or Bangladesh curriculum.

As such, life is on hold. A sense of alienation has grown out of them not having any acknowledged status.

While the Bangladesh government has welcomed the refugees, it remains acutely sensitive to the idea of Rohingya being given any permanent right to remain. The Myanmar government has thus far refused to recognise them as an ethnic group. As a result, in the camps they are identified neither as refugees nor Rohingya. United Nations issued ID cards identify them as "forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals".

In talks – which have not included the Rohingya themselves – the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have agreed that repatriation should be done in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner. But without guarantees of citizenship and some form of international protection, most Rohingya say they are unwilling to return.

"Our future depends now on the international community," says Mohammed Rafiq, a 23-year-old farmer left lame by a bullet wound. "I want citizenship rights and I want our security guaranteed, when we get this we will go home."

After all that they have been through, being left in limbo could be the cruellest blow.

Salim Ullah, 26, ran from his home when the soldiers came to the village. When they saw him flee they fired at him.

"After I was shot I hid from the soldiers in a cesspool. I saw them with our women, doing whatever they wanted.

"We lost everything then," he says. "But now we're losing hope too."

(Ramon Penas / The National)

(Ramon Penas / The National)

Why neither Myanmar or Bangladesh wants to deal with the Rohingya crisis

Rohingya women walk on a muddy path in a refugee camp on August 14, 2018.

(Campbell MacDiarmid / The National)

It was once labelled the world's fastest growing refugee crisis. A year on, the plight of the Rohingya is becoming intractable.

Over three months starting in August last year, almost 725,000 Rohingya arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar, leading the UN's International Organisation for Migration to describe the exodus as "unprecedented in terms of volume and speed".

Efforts since to repatriate the refugees have failed to gain traction. The Myanmar government is yet to welcome home a single refugee from Bangladesh.

And so far, the international community has been unwilling to apply significant pressure to compel its co-operation. Despite vigorous demands from the Bangladesh government that the Rohingya must return home, observers – and refugees themselves – increasingly fear their exile may be permanent.

The difficulties for those exiled is clearest on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh at Tombru checkpoint, about 45 kilometres from Cox's Bazar. Here, about 5,000 Rohingya refugees live in no man’s land between the Myanmar border fence and the muddy creek which delineates the international border. The refugees say they fear if they enter Bangladesh they will never be able to return home. Some can see their former lands from the shanties they now have to live in.

"The world knows that we’ve been here for a year now"

Arif, Rohingya refugee

But the Myanmar government does not want them here. Hilltop military outposts sit a stone's throw from the camp.

As recently as a month ago, its soldiers fired into the camp in an attempt to drive them off the land. At times loudspeakers have broadcast warnings that anyone who left Myanmar illegally – by crossing the border – will be prosecuted if they attempt to return.

"The world knows that we’ve been here for a year now," said Arif, a 42-year-old Rohingya who goes by one name only.

"When will we be allowed to return to our motherland?" he asked in the presence of a sympathetic Bangladeshi border guard.

The Rohingya are adamant of their desire to return to home. But say they won’t do so without guarantees. They want citizenship rights, recognition of Rohingya as an official ethnic group of Myanmar, and some kind of international protection.

Some of those demands may have to wait.

"We think both sides will have to compromise," one high-level Bangladeshi government official said, on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

"People are making comparisons to the Palestinians"

Liam Mahony, expert in civil protection

Already struggling in an election year to govern the world's most densely populated country, the Bangladesh cabinet says it cannot bear the burden of hosting the Rohingya community long-term.

"We would like them to go home as soon as possible," the official added.

In November last year, Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar that repatriation should be voluntary, dignified and safe. But the agreement lays out no timeline, and so far, no refugees have gone home.

The problem, Bangladeshi officials suggest privately, is Myanmar's intransigence.

The first step before repatriation, according to the document that was signed, would be verification of the identities of the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.

In February, Bangladesh provided the first tranche of 8,000 names to Myanmar. Six months on, Myanmar has only verified a little more than 2,000 of those names. The numbers are a drop in the ocean.

The UN's refugee agency has counted 891,233 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

"You can imagine how long it would take," the official said, his voice filled with resignation.

Without leverage and keen to maintain good relations, Bangladesh says it is up to the international community to encourage Myanmar to accept the return of Rohingya. Global pressure is the only thing Myanmar responds to, suggested another Bangladesh government official.

But it is not an issue that has uniform agreement. China and Russia have opposed UN resolutions on Myanmar.

In contrast, the US announced targeted sanctions against Myanmar military leaders it said were responsible for "violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights abuses".

Sigal Mandelker, under secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the US Treasury, said: "There must be justice for the victims and those who work to uncover these atrocities, with those responsible held to account for these abhorrent crimes. The US government is committed to ensuring that Burmese military units and leaders reckon with and put a stop to these brutal acts."

In the coming weeks, the International Criminal Court is expected to decide if its jurisdiction in Bangladesh is sufficient to hear cases involving forced deportation. A UN fact finding mission and the US State Department are also both expected to publish reports on the violence in Rakhine state.

But there is little sign so far that the threat of sanctions or promises of development aid, such as a recently proposed $100 million World Bank loan to benefit Rakhine, will soften Myanmar’s position towards the Rohingya.

The Myanmar government has ostensibly committed to the repatriation of Rohingya refugees by signing memorandums with Bangladesh and the UN. But after carrying out what the UN described as a "text book case of ethnic cleansing", many doubt the government's sincerity.

Myanmar's army recently published a 117-page book outlining its narrative for the Rakhine violence. Authored by the army’s "directorate of public relations and psychological warfare", the report denied genocide and rape by the nation's forces, and argued that Bengali invaders had attempted to form an independent "Arkistan" in Rakhine. "Despite living among peacocks, crows cannot become peacocks," the report concluded.

Such an outlook adds to pessimism.

"People are making comparisons to the Palestinians,” said Liam Mahony, an expert in civil protection who has authored UN reports on the Rohingya, adding that they "might be refugees for generations".

Already, NGOs and the UN anticipate and are planning for a long response to the crisis, though in deference to the Bangladesh government's hope that the Rohingya will be repatriated soon, most are cautious in talking about the specifics.

"They struggle with that language of medium-term," said Frank Kennedy, the operations manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Bangladesh, referring to the government's reluctance to approve the construction of permanent structures in the camps.

"But certainly we can discuss safer shelter, all social facilities can be longer term… but for the individual houses, the government is still reluctant."

In another sign of how long the refuges could be in Bangladesh, zoologists from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature are concerned enough about the long-term survival of Bangladesh’s endangered Asian elephants that they are lobbying for the construction of animal migration corridors through the camp.

Increasingly, the Rohingya themselves fear the camp will be their home, interminably.

"My grandfather sought peace in Myanmar but he didn’t find it before he died. My father too," said Mohammed Serus, a 33-year-old block leader in the camp. "Now we are here seeking a peaceful place to live. I think we will all die looking for peace."

Rohingya find their voice in exile but not an audience

Rohingya men discuss their desire for justice on August 14 2018.

(Campbell MacDiarmid / The National)

In a bamboo hut in the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp in south-eastern Bangladesh, an animated discussion is taking place about the future of the Rohingya people. Men from the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights are debating how best to present their demands to a visiting journalist.

The men chew betel nut but have adopted the language of human rights lawyers. They have 14 demands, which include citizenship and full rights for the Rohingya in Myanmar, as well as guarantees of their safety if they return home. But foremost among their demands, the men emphasise, is that the ethnic group be included in any discussions about their future.

This has not been happened yet. A tarpaulin-roofed hut may be a humble venue for planning the destiny of a people but the men here say it is the only place where the Rohingya can lead the discussion.

In exile in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees have found a voice that was denied them in their home country of Myanmar. But after a year of repeating their demands to visiting dignitaries, delegations, ministers, ambassadors, special envoys, visiting journalists and fact-finding missions, they are not sure if anyone is listening.

Last August, some 700,000 Rohingya fled a campaign of persecution in Myanmar to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, bringing with them stories of atrocities at the hands of the Myanmar military.

It was the culmination of a long-standing policy against the Rohingya by the Myanmar government, which does not believe the predominantly Muslim group has a right to live in Buddhist-majority country. The US decried the campaign as ethnic cleansing, and rights groups went further, making a case for crimes against humanity and even genocide. The International Criminal Court is considering whether it could extend jurisdiction to hear a case for forced displacement. But so far little concrete action has been taken against Myanmar.

As the newly arrived refugees began building huts, community leaders began building an organisation to ensure that such persecution would never happen again.

“We are the first Rohingya civic society organisation formed in the camp,” says Masood, the secretary of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, who like many Rohingya goes by a single name.

Mr Masood sits at a table at the head of the hut, flanked by two other committee members. On the walls are posters articulating the demands of Rohingya who wish to return to their homeland. The hut is also filled with men who interject often to offer additional commentary on their spokesman’s statements.

The last time the Rohingya were able to organise freely like this in Myanmar was 1988, Mr Masood says. The junta that seized power in that year gradually imposed a series of escalating restrictions. In recent years, Rohingya were prevented from voting or running in elections, then from leaving their villages. Mosques were closed and the Rohingya were forbidden from assembling in groups.

When international delegations visited Rakhine state, the Rohingya were unable to speak freely. “Nobody dared to speak out,” says Dil Mohammed, a 51-year-old community leader. “They had to share the message given to them by the Myanmar government, they couldn’t share their own feelings.”

In contrast, life in the camp may be crowded, uncomfortable and deeply miserable, but at least the Rohingya enjoy some civic freedom, says Ahammed Huseein, 25. “We are happy to at least be able to say our prayers, to speak freely, and to sleep peacefully through the night. We have a voice here.”

Rohingya leaders have become well-versed in conveying their community’s desires to visitors to the camp. “Every delegation that visits, we appeal to the UN to put more pressure on the Myanmar government to allow our safe return to our motherland,” says Mr Mohammed.

Both the Bangladesh government and the United Nations have signed agreements with the Myanmar government on the repatriation of the Rohingya. But at the request of the Myanmar government, the Rohingya themselves have not been party to these talks.

“We must be involved in these discussions,” says Mr Mohammed. “Nobody knows our suffering like we do.”

The UN, sensitive of its need to preserve neutrality, says it consults with the Rohingya informally.

“There’s always been communication with them,” says the UN refugee agency’s spokesman in Bangladesh, Firas Al Khateeb. “Their voice is heard. We have a specific department just for communicating with the communities inside. Sometimes they are surveyed and they are asked for their opinions on certain matters.”

International NGOs working in Bangladesh note that the challenge of refugees struggling to have their voices heard is not unique to the Rohingya. “The question of agency in asylum-seeking communities is always difficult,” says Frank Kennedy, the operations manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Bangladesh.

But the way in which the Rohingya have organised themselves to present their views to visiting delegations, including one last month led by the UN secretary general, is striking, he says. “That was a remarkable move for people who have been on such a journey.”

The Bangladeshi government has found itself in an unsought role as mediator and is sensitive of the need to maintain good relations with Myanmar if a solution is to be found. “We are only involved because they are in our country,” said a high-ranking Bangladeshi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When we speak to the Myanmar government we convey their [the Rohingya’s] demands but we think there should be direct interaction between the Myanmar government and the people involved.”

The Myanmar government, for its part, has so far shown little inclination to enter talks with the Rohingya. Privately, Bangladesh officials and international NGO workers say that without international pressure, Myanmar is unlikely to seriously commit to negotiations.

Back in the refugee camp, this impasse, along with the Rohingya’s exclusion from any other discussions and their lengthening limbo in exile, is taking its toll on a deeply traumatised community.

“What I will say, for my people, I have no hope for the future,” says Ali Shameem, a Rohingya activist. “But if we don’t raise our voice, how can we get justice?”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres visits the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in July. (AFP)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres visits the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in July. (AFP)

A Rohingya refugee and his child.

A Rohingya refugee and his child.

The Rohingya refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.

Exiled Rohingya and endangered elephants share an uncertain fate

Two members of the Elephant Response Team with a model elephant.

(Campbell MacDiarmid / The National)

When an ethnic cleansing campaign drove 700,000 Rohingya from their homes in Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh last year, the only land available to host them was a national forest. But the hilly, waterlogged jungle where the refugees hacked out a camp was already home to another threatened population: Bangladesh’s last surviving elephants.

After escaping massacres at home, an arduous journey on foot and by boat, and the rigours of refugee camp life, the Rohingya soon found themselves in conflict with Asia’s largest land animal. The Chittagong Hill Tracts on which the sprawling Kutupalong-Balukhali Refugee Camp is built are one of the few remaining habitats for the elephants.

Now, a spate of incidents in which elephants have killed members of the Rohingya community has led to the creation of a system of watchmen here. They are tasked with keeping the refugees safe from elephant incursions.

But a longer-term problem remains. With the camp straddling a major migration corridor, the future of the elephant population is at risk, further underscoring the unsustainable nature of the Rohingya’s exile.

Throughout Bangladesh, there are just 268 surviving elephants, according to International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates. Around 90 per cent of the critically endangered animals live in the jungles of southeastern Bangladesh.

Across the border in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who have long faced persecution from the Buddhist majority government, which considers them illegal Bengali migrants. In August last year, most of Rakhine’s remaining Rohingya population fled a coordinated government campaign of arrests, killings, rapes and arson.

Arriving in Bangladesh and consigned to the jungle, the Rohingya soon fell foul of the local wildlife. Incidents followed a typical pattern. When the Rohingya entered the jungle to collect firewood, or roaming elephants approached the camp, any interaction between man and beast would attract a gaggle of curious onlookers. Often the elephants would become alarmed and stampede. Between August 2017 – when the refugee influx began – and March this year, 13 Rohingya were killed in elephant attacks.

When Dr Haseeb Irfanullah, a Bangladesh programme coordinator at the IUCN, visited the camp in January, he was immediately introduced to the danger.

“I can remember around 2 a.m. an elephant got into the camp silently,” he says. “People tried to scare the elephant away and it got scared and began trampling shelters. It killed an old guy”.

Without action, camp residents would continue to be killed. “Our main goal is saving the community from elephant attacks,” says Dr Irfanullah.

‘We call them uncle’

At sunset every night, blue-uniformed men scale bamboo watchtowers erected around the margins of the camp. These watchmen survey the surrounding jungle for elephants until sunrise.

Formed in March, the Elephant Response Teams are a partnership between the IUCN, the United Nations Refugee Agency and Rohingya volunteers, who are charged with protecting the camp and keeping the elephants safe.

The 360 volunteers take it in turns to man the 60 towers overlooking the jungle in pairs, earning a modest stipend for their efforts. They are trained to gently direct elephants away from the camps and to keep away crowds.

“People love to watch the elephant,” says Roshon Ali, one of the Elephant Response Team members. “They have such an enchanting figure, you can never tire of looking at them”.

A slender 45-year-old with spectacles, Mr Ali says the Rohingya often get so excited to see an elephant that they approach too close and crowd around. “We call them uncle” he says. “People say they are a bit like a saint”.

Despite being one of the few Rohingya to attend university in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, Mr Ali said he has always worked as a farmer because of a prohibition against his ethnic group’s employment in the country's public service. On the rare occasions he saw wild elephants in Myanmar, Mr Ali was always careful not to harm them. “Our elders taught us never to throw anything at an elephant,” he says.

"They say if the elephant survives in the forest, the forest will remain healthy and everything will grow well. And if the forest survives, so will we"

Roshon Ali, Elephant Response Team member

Rohingya lore tells that elephants have excellent hearing and can even understand humans. “When we go in the jungle we call out to them that we are there to protect the forest and we aren’t there to harm them,” Mr Ali says.

Since the Elephant Response Teams were formed, there have been no further injuries to camp residents from elephant attacks, according to Dr Irfanullah. The teams have thwarted eight elephant incursions on the camp boundaries in total, he says.

But, like the presence of the elephants threatens camp residents, the reverse is also true: the camp’s creation now jeopardises the very animals that roam these parts. The Kutupalong-Balukhali Refugee Camp is so big (as a conglomeration of smaller camps it has become the world’s largest refugee camp) that it has isolated nearly a quarter of Bangladesh’s elephants from the wider population.

“The whole area was elephant habitat,” says Dr M A Aziz, professor of zoology at Jahanginar University. “The camps have interrupted their migration corridor”.

These corridors once allowed Bangladesh’s elephants to intermingle and wander freely into Myanmar. If they are not restored, Dr Aziz fears for the future of the herd.

“Twenty four per cent of the national population is entrapped by the camps, so if we lose them it’s huge,” he says. “They can’t mate with the larger population and in the long run will lose genetic diversity and may not survive”.

Dr Aziz and the IUCN are now lobbying for the restoration of elephant corridors right through the camps. It’s a plan that faces several major obstacles.

The sheer density of the camp makes it difficult to find the space for 300 metre wide paths, which would need electric fencing and planting with vegetation suitable for elephant consumption. Beyond the logistical challenge, the IUCN must convince the Bangladesh government of the task’s necessity.

Despite its hospitality in welcoming the refugees, the government of Bangladesh is reluctant to commit to longer term planning in the camp, fearing it would amount to acceptance that the Rohingya may never return home. There is consequently little appetite from Bangladeshi leaders for the camp, and its massive population, to become a permanent fixture in an already overcrowded country.

But for Mr Ali, the Elephant Response Team member, the survival of the country’s last Asian elephants is of paramount importance not only for the endangered animals, but for those exiled into the jungle here.

“They say if the elephant survives in the forest, the forest will remain healthy and everything will grow well,” he says, “and if the forest survives, so will we”.

Rohingya anger stops short of militancy... for now at least

Jahid Hussein, 33, cries as he recounts how eight members of his immediate family were killed by the Myanmar military.

Jahid Hussein, 33. (Campbell MacDiarmid / The National)

Rahamat Ullah tears at the air when he describes how his two children, parents and a brother were killed by the Myanmar military a year ago.

In the time since, the 45-year-old has grieved. But his anger, unaddressed, boils.

"We're not strong enough to fight the Myanmar government, we have no weapons," he said, gesticulating violently in the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp for Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh, where he now lives.

"But if any country wanted to give us weapons, we would fight and we would die. They’ve already killed our families, burned our homes and taken our lands. We've already lost everything."

A year after around 700,000 ethnic Rohingya were driven from their homes into Bangladesh, untreated trauma and the limbo of exile is creating a potentially fertile ground for militant views to take hold. Although the Bangladesh government has cited its concerns, for now at least it appears that the frustration of Mr Ullah and others is unlikely to translate into action. The reason is that the outside material support he speaks of is not forthcoming.

The massive camp, near Cox's Bazar, is filled with stories similar to those of Mr Ullah.

Rohingya tell of persecution at the hands of the Myanmar government, arbitrary detention, rape, arson and murder by the military.

The most recent influx of refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar began arriving in Bangladesh at the end of August 2017, ahead of an orchestrated military campaign in which entire villages were burned and an estimated 6,700 people killed.

The Myanmar government said the operation was counter-terrorism, in reprisal for an August 25 attack on its border guards by a group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

Little is known about the group. In a 2016 report, the International Crisis Group, a war and conflict monitor, said ARSA's predecessor, Harakah Al Yaqin was "led by a committee of Rohingya emigres in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics".

ARSA's leader is said to be a Pakistan-born Rohingya who was raised in Saudi Arabia, who goes by the name Ata Ullah. The group says it has no links with Al Qaeda, ISIS, "or any other trans-national terrorist group".

In a statement published last month, ARSA said its "defensive attacks have only been directed against our legitimate target," meaning the Myanmar government.

"ARSA has never carried out and will not carry out any military activity against any [other] state or armed group," it added.

Nor does the group court media attention. Alleged ARSA members contacted in the Cox's Bazar area declined to be interviewed, citing orders from their superiors.

Its supporters in the camp suggest that the group is attempting to enter talks with Myanmar's government and has ordered its members not to talk to the media to avoid jeopardising their chances.

But the Myanmar government remains worried about potential attacks in Rakhine state, with the few remaining Rohingya communities there recently reporting increased persecution while the military carries out sweeping counter-insurgency operations.

Bangladeshi security sources downplay the risk posed by ARSA, with one senior official suggesting the group was simply a useful pretext for the Myanmar government to carry out ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. Bangladesh had proposed forming a joint search operation with Myanmar to hunt for militants along the border, the official said, but the offer was never accepted.

A sceptical view is shared by some Rohingya.

"We don't like ARSA, it was created by the Myanmar government," said Dil Mohammed, a 51-year-old community leader in the camp.

He argued that even before the August 25 ARSA attack last year, the Myanmar government had preplanned the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

"They had already deployed many troops from other parts of the country to Rakhine. They shut down the roads and blocked all communications."

But Mr Mohammed also expressed concern that with so many young men having lived through such persecution, refugee life could foster militant sympathies.

"If we stay like this for a long time in this dire situation, maybe our young people will be vulnerable to extremism. It will be so easy for extremists to exploit us."

Outside observers, however, suggest that without major external backing from foreign powers, ARSA is unlikely to represent a serious threat to the Myanmar government.

"The conditions of frustration are all there, but the conditions of frustrations alone do not turn a person into a killer or a guerrilla," said Liam Mahony, an independent researcher who has authored UN reports on the Rohingya. "It's not very easy to build an armed group in Rakhine state, there’s not guns floating all over."

Bangladesh's experience with homegrown militants has taught it to remain vigilant though, and law enforcement is active throughout the refugee camps. The government is being extremely cautious, a Bangladeshi official said. Two non-governmental organisations have already been banned from the country for espousing extremist views, the official said, without giving further details.

But Jahid Hussein, a 33-year-old Rohingya imam in the camp, reflects a different view from those who talk of an uprising.

He described hiding in a cemetery while Myanmar forces surrounded his village last year. As he watched from afar, he says he saw his wife and two children slaughtered on a riverbank. Despite this experience, he insists violence is not the answer.

"I'm the only one in my immediate family to survive. When I see the kids playing in the camp I think of my own children and I think it would have been better if I'd died too," he said.

"But in Islam we teach, if you are not able to get justice in this life, you will get it in the next."

Rohingya children take shelter from the rain on August 13.

Rohingya children take shelter from the rain on August 13.

Salim Ullah, 26, shows the scars he says are from a bullet fired by a Myanmar soldier in August 2017.

Salim Ullah, 26, shows the scars he says are from a bullet fired by a Myanmar soldier in August 2017.

Mohammed Rafiq, 23, says he was shot in his home by Myanmar soldiers last August.

Mohammed Rafiq, 23, says he was shot in his home by Myanmar soldiers last August.

Myanmar military hilltop outposts on the border with Bangladesh overlook a Rohingya refugee camp located in no man's land between the two countries.

Myanmar military hilltop outposts on the border with Bangladesh overlook a Rohingya refugee camp located in no man's land between the two countries.

A year after the latest violence against the Rohingya, pressure against Myanmar is slowly mounting.

Last month, the UN Human Rights Council released its report, alleging genocide by the Myanmar military. The US State department is shortly expected to publish its own findings.

Facebook belatedly moved to close 18 accounts and 52 pages which promoted hate speech against the Rohingya – including the accounts of senior military leaders.

The ICC is also expected to decide whether jurisdiction in Bangladesh is sufficient to hear a case for forced migration.

Myanmar meanwhile has proved recalcitrant. While the government has been willing to entertain discussions with many parties except the Rohingya, they have been unwilling to allow neutral bodies unfettered access to Rakhine state. So far they have demonstrated little will to provide for the safe return of the Rohingya and are steadfastly opposed to the notion of accountability. A judge in Yangon has just sentenced two Reuters journalists who reported on the killing of Rohingya to seven years hard labour for possessing state secrets.

Justice and a return home for the Rohingya remain distant prospects.


Words: Campbell MacDiarmid 
Photographs: Campbell MacDiarmid / The National unless stated
Videography: Campbell MacDiarmid; Harshini Karunaratna
Graphics: Ramon Penas 
Editors: Arthur MacMillan; Ian Oxborrow; Russel Murray; Jack Moore 
Photo Editor: Jake Badger

Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2018