1950s: Nur Alam
The first time Nur Alam fled Myanmar, he was around the same age as his grandson Mamoon. 10. He fled to a place called Pakistan, though the names he recalled of the places his family camped in made it clear it was in modern-day Bangladesh. That means he found refuge in the places that now make up the world’s largest refugee camp, which some mistake for being only two years old, before the country won its own independence. It also means he fled long before what is considered the first Rohingya escape from Myanmar, in 1978. He ran because the Burmese army came and told him to. He remembers little other than gripping his parents’ hands as they guided him across the border, where they stayed for two weeks until the Pakistani army also told them to leave.
“After 15 days the Pakistani military beat us and said go home,” he said.
Based on what he told us about his age, this probably happened in the 1950s and it’s a reminder of how long the Rohingya have faced problems in what is today known as Myanmar. Essentially since Burma’s independence, they have struggled to exist but that struggle has become more difficult over time, as the whims of military officers became guided by state policy and law.
Nur Alam has fled to Bangladesh four times in his life.
1960s and 70s: Ershad Hossain
Ershad Hossain is a well-known character in the Bangladeshi refugee camps. Thought to be 108, he remembers a time when Rohingya had at least some representation in public life, when even state radio allocated two hours of air time to Rohingya-language broadcasting. Most of that was dedicated to news but a section of that slot was given for Qur’an recitation — that was Hossain’s duty.
But after 1962, when the military ruler Ne Win took power, that broadcasting was scrapped. Over time, Rohingya were erased from public life, dismissed from the military and political roles and subjected to increasing restrictions on their movement. Hossain continued living in then-capital Yangon until 1978, when Operation Dragon King was launched against the Rohingya. It was called a census but it was really a way of rounding up Rohingya, many of whom did not have the paperwork that proved their ties to the country, or simply couldn’t explain it to Burmese officials, and were spooked into running to Bangladesh.
When the operation started, Hossain received a telegram in Yangon: Do not return to Rakhine.
Those refugees returned in the same year, though around 10,000 died of hunger in the refugee camps as Bangladesh reduced food supplies to force them home.
By 1982, Myanmar had passed a citizenship law that stripped the Rohingya of their right to be in the country. It based citizenship on a list of native ethnic groups, which the Rohingya were excluded from, and invalidated papers many of them had. Over the years, restrictions increased even more and so did the military presence.
1991: Shob Mehraj
As a child, Shob Mehraj doesn’t even remember there being a government. It wasn’t there when her mother died during her childhood. It wasn’t there when the cyclones came. But over time, the military did come. And by the 1990s, it was everywhere. The military took her husband for forced labour and when he returned, he was determined to leave rural Rakhine. They went first to state capital Sittwe and then to Bangladesh. By 1992, Bangladesh was again trying to repatriate the Rohingya. It reduced rations, imprisoned community leaders and demanded Rohingya sign forms they did not understand. Sometimes soldiers simply came with a truck and told them to leave. Sometimes they did it at gunpoint. But some Rohingya held on and managed to stay, insistent that Myanmar could not be safe for them. So Shob Mehraj stayed in Bangladesh and her children were born there, in a refugee camp the government didn’t want existing, in an environment where they were not allowed to work and her children not allowed to study.
Conditions did not improve in Myanmar, they got worse. And so the Rohingya kept coming, though Bangladesh stopped registering them as refugees, forcing them to live in makeshift camps. Communal riots in 2012 meant that, once again, many of them felt unsafe in Myanmar and so they turned to Bangladesh. But the conditions there were so poor, in unregulated refugee camps run by slumlords, that they had to start looking elsewhere. Malaysia was the most obvious option. In 2015, I met Suliman and other men in a team room in the Kutupalong refugee camp. None of them knew where their sons were. They had agreed with brokers to go by boat to Malaysia. But the brokers weren’t honest. The young Rohingya were trafficked to Thailand instead and held in the jungle until their families could pay ransoms for their release.
I caught up with Suliman in 2018. His son died on the boat.
2017: Mohammed Noor
Like Shob Mehraj’s husband, Mohammed Noor returned from forced labour in 1991 convinced that he could not be conscripted again. He decided to leave for Bangladesh. But Bangladesh did not want him either and after less than a year, he was pushed onto a bus and shipped across the River Naf.
By 2017, he was back. His village Tula Toli saw maybe the worst of that year’s violence. He escaped because when the military rounded up men on the river bank, he was able to swim across the river and watch from the other side. He built rafts to ferry the young to safety and pulled bodies from the water but eventually, he realised there was nothing more he could do. Once they’d finished their job, they would come for him.