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.”
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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?”