DAVID GREENE, host:

Myanmar is a place of misery for many of its citizens, the oppressive, often brutal military rulers of that country see to that. Political dissent simply is not tolerated, and neither, it seems, is Muslim minority. Some of them, known as Rohingya, made news a few months back when they fled Myanmar by boat for Thailand, only to be towed back out to sea by the Thai navy and set adrift, unwelcome, it seems, not just in Myanmar.

NPRs Michael Sullivan has this look at their grim situation.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Ive got this friend who works at an international aid agency and hes pretty high up, and he showed me some pictures a few weeks back of a village he visited in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state.

The pictures werent pretty. Some of the children were covered in sores with the swollen bellies and stick legs that come with chronic malnutrition. My friend has spent more than 20 years in the aid business and seen places he says he doesnt want to remember, but none have bothered them as much as this.

He doesnt want to be named, and the voice isnt his, but the words are.

Unidentified Man: The Rohingya situation and their plight is very similar to a lot of refugee situations in Africa in the '80s and '90s. In the first four or five weeks, there's no water, there's cholera and other public health problems. Theres not enough food. But what's different here is that it's been going on for a very long time - systematic oppression that's been going on for years.

SULLIVAN: In some parts of northern Rakhine state, the acute malnutrition rate is 25 percent. The World Health Organization calls 15 percent an emergency. And yet many in Myanmars Buddhist community speak of the Rohingya problem in the same way the Nazis used to talk about the Jewish problem.

Mr. DAVID MATHIESON (Researcher, Human Rights Watch): I think it's fair to say that the military's approach to the Rohingya is probably shared pretty widely throughout Burmese society. Trying to actually find the foundation to this level of hatred is really difficult. You just dont know where it comes from.

SULLIVAN: David Mathieson is a Thailand-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Mr. MATHIESON: Other ethnic minorities get treated very, very badly as well, but not to the savage extent that you see against the Rohingya. Not to that, you know, being denied citizenship, being denied rights, being denied that they even exist. The government fully recognizes the Shah and the Quran and many others, but not this minority on the fringes.

SULLIVAN: The Buddhist majority say the Rohingya are really Bengalis and belong in neighboring Bangladesh. Its an idea encouraged by Myanmars military. Fanciful fears of being overrun by Muslim hoards is one reason; racism is another.

A few months ago, Myanmars consul general in Hong Kong wrote a letter to his fellow diplomats, insisting the Rohingya did not belong to his country. Their complexion is dark brown, he wrote, while the complexion of Myanmar people is fair, and soft, and good-looking. The Rohingya, he went on, are ugly as ogres.

(Soundbite of people talking)

SULLIVAN: Most of Myanmars million or so Rohingya live in northern Rakhine state on the Bay of Bengal, and here, most of them stay.

(Soundbite of people talking)

SULLIVAN: AT the crowded airport in the capital, Sittwe, there are no Rohingya faces among those waiting for planes, because the military doesnt allow Rohingya to leave Rakhine state. The rest of Myanmar is simply off-limits. My guide in Sittwe, a 29-year-old Buddhist, has no problem with this - as I learned on a visit with him in the Rakhine state Museum of Culture.

(Soundbite of banging)

SULLIVAN: Okay. So, here we are on the second floor and this section is nationalities of Rakhine

Unidentified Man #2 (Guide): Rakhine nationality and these are all the ethnic tribes who lives in Rakhine state a long time ago. (unintelligible), theres just more tribe. I guess they call it (unintelligible) tribe. (unintelligible) another race, another tribe.

SULLIVAN: But you say that 40 percent of the population is Muslim. How come Muslim is not here?

Unidentified Man #2: Muslim is not a tribe, not a ethnic group, not a member of our community.

SULLIVAN: But you say theyve been here for hundreds of years.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, but we dont think of them as a member of us.

SULLIVAN: Still, the Buddhist majority does find the Rohingya useful at times.

SULLIVAN: Sittwe harbor, just before midday, under a scorching south Asian sun, dozens of laborers unload 100-pound sacks of rice from water taxis, carrying them to shore on their backs. Its brutal work and all of the men doing it are Rohingya. Dark skinned and wiry, theyre paid about a dollar a day, and even my Buddhist guide admits theyre hard workers, and a good thing too, because most Buddhists, he says, dont like and wouldnt do this kind of work.

The Rohingyas say they dont like it either.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: We dont have a choice, the men say, its the only work we can get, and we cant go anywhere else. We have no registration cards and no citizenship.

Sounds like being in prison, I say.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Worse than prison, one man shoots back, because in prison at least you know youre going to eat.

The situation is worse about 60 miles to the north near the border with Bangladesh. Its an area closed to most foreigners, except a handful of aid workers. But some Rohingya who fled successfully were happy to speak from their refuge in Malaysia.

Mr. DIL MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Thirty-two-year old Dil Mohammad comes from a village near the border town of Bongdau(ph). His litany of complaints is long and bitter. They put my wife in jail for traveling to another village without permission, he says, and she died in custody. Another time, a tiger killed one of my cows, he says, and when I reported it, they accused me of poisoning the cow and said I had to pay a fine of 30,000 kyat, about $30, or go to jail.

Mr. ISMAEL LALU: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Another man, 39-year-old Ismael Lalu, says Buddhist authorities dont allow Rohingya to marry without paying a hefty bribe. And the last straw for him, he says, was when the military forced him to help build a new village for Buddhist settlers on Muslim land. Both men fled the country by boat, and their stories, says Rohingya rights activists Chris Lewa, are numbingly familiar.

Mr. CHRIS LEWA (Rohingya Rights Activist, Arakan Project): Arbitrary taxes, forced labor, construction of Buddhist villages in the middle of Muslim areas, confiscation of land. Thats part of the combination of persecution that the Rohingya are facing. And in that situation, I think many of people just hope to flee and find a better life somewhere else.

SULLIVAN: And thats just fine with Myanmar's military rulers, who have driven the Rohingya out in large numbers before in the late 70s and early 90s, and seemed quite happy looking the other way this time around as many Rohingya flee to squalid camps in Bangladesh or pay smugglers to take them Thailand or Malaysia.

None of these countries are keen on keeping them - economic migrants, they say, not our problem. My friend the aid worker says thats not good enough. Aid agencies like his, he says, help keep the Rohingya alive - but just barely.

Unidentified Man #1: I've been in these situations before, and I'm used to dealing with them. I'm rarely shocked by anything that happens. But after I came back, I realized I was walking through hell there. It wasn't a gray zone; it was hell for these people, and its been that way for a long time. And their hell isnt going to change any time soon.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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