A Rohingya speaks: ‘I will make sure that everyone listens’
Rohingya writer Habib has a message for the world from his voiceless, stateless people
Habib during a protest outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur against human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other ethnicities, in February 2009. Photograph: Sophie Ansel
Harrowing stories are difficult to tell, and more so when they take place in remote parts of the world. So what is the best way to tell them? In any hierarchy of suffering, the Rohingya people of Myanmar might not be bested, yet the brutal, decades-long repression they have suffered only occasionally troubles the public consciousness, as when some 700,000 fled over the border to Bangladesh in 2017.
As well as being victims of the Buddhist majority in their country, the ethnic Muslim Rohingya have a linguistic handicap – a spoken language that few understand – that has made them voiceless as well as stateless. Even the best reporting on the story in recent years, the Frontline-Dispatches documentary film, Myanmar’s Killing Fields, struggled to do justice to impossibly cruel first-person stories through the prism of multiple translations.
The ironic title of a 1985 memoir by journalist Edward Behr, expressing the crass pragmatism of an under-pressure war reporter’s question – “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?” – illustrates how hard it is for foreign journalists to tell stories with the context and meaning they deserve.
Western media have carried snippets of horror from Rohingya fleeing persecution, but when the reporting of such events lacks depth, the outcome can be beige.
Depth and context – and, of course, a voice – are what Habiburahman, a Rohingya born in 1979, wanted to achieve when he first thought of writing a book in 2006 while living in Malaysia. He had fled an increasingly fraught situation for his family and his people in search of a better life – or any life at all.
Habiburahman – known as Habib – had his family’s bitter experience of repression, and his grandmother’s nightly stories – “nightmarish sagas” – of Rohingya history, but it was only when he met Rohingya in Malaysia who had fled previous waves of violence that he considered the wider context.
Your memory is all you will have to keep our history alive, Habib
“Then I realised that what my grandmother told me was reality. I found a lot of people had fled before from Burma [the former name for Myanmar] – not just one or two people, but hundreds of thousands of people. I realised we need to keep a record of them,” he says.
His grandmother had shared with him, through stories going back decades, “the ghosts of our family and of our people who perished, decapitated by swords or burnt to death”, with the warning: “Your memory is all you will have to keep our history alive, Habib.”
So he started noting down the experiences of those he met, reading widely on the subject, and sharing some of what he had learned in a blog.
In December 2009 Habib arrived in Australia by boat after a journey so frightening that, when he was rescued, he had already “thrown into the seas the few stones that I was carrying in my pockets, in memory of my grandmother and her stories of sailors”.
In the summer of 2012, after almost three years in Australian detention centres, he heard news of a new wave of violence against his people back in Myanmar. So he decided to finally write the book, with the help of one-hour daily internet sessions (“I had no job other than waiting”) with a French journalist, Sophie Ansel.
The book, First They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks, first published in French in 2018, is now being released in English.
Habib lives in Melbourne, still stateless, still trying to have his voice heard. “Most of the people around the world don’t know,” says Habib of Rohingya history. “And maybe some leaders they are aware but they don’t know this information. And maybe they will not take it seriously because this has never been published. So . . . I decided to put all of it in the book, make it widely available to the whole world.”
Written in a simple style appropriate to the childhood it records, the memoir is a devastating testimony of persecution – bullying, forced labour, beatings, disappearances and torture of Habib and his wider family and community. Though the Rohingya had previously suffered, it was the country’s landmark citizenship law introduced in 1982, when the Rohingya were omitted from a list of 135 recognised ethnic groups, that kick-started what Habib calls the country’s “brainwashing”. “From now on, the word ‘Rohingya’ is prohibited. It no longer exists,” he writes. “I am three years old and am effectively erased from existence.”
The power of names in the campaign not just by the Myanmar military, but by Buddhist neighbours who appear to support the effort, is striking. Anti-Rohingya “cleansing” operations have pleasing, almost poetic names that belie their intentions: 1978’s Operation Nagamin (Dragon King); 1991’s Operation Pyi Thaya (Clean and Beautiful Nation), and so on.
Habib’s father – a giant presence in Habib’s life who values education over play – tells his children they would be “signing the family’s death warrant” if they use the word Rohingya when introducing themselves. Instead, they are “Muslims”. Neighbours brand them “Bengalis”, implying they are from Bangladesh, or the derogatory term “kalar”. Arakan State, where the majority of Rohingya live, is now known as Rakhine State, after the Buddhist Rakhine community living there.
“The general public or the diplomats from other countries could not understand about why the name has been changed from Arakan to Rakhine,” Habib says. “They simply think this is because it’s a modern word, like modernising the name to Burma, so they may say Arakan to Rakhine changes nothing in effect . . . But when we say Rakhine that represents only a group of persons. It has a very different meaning.”
Last year, when I reported from the Rohingya refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, some refugees told me they came from a town called Siddhar Para – but when I tried to check the spelling I could find no such place. I asked a Rohingya contact living in Carlow if he could help. He said that Siddhar Para is known as Myo Ma Ka Nyin Tan in Burmese, just 1km from where he went to high school.
“It’s difficult to find on the map,” he wrote in a message. “All Rohingya villages used to be in Rohingya language, now the government has entirely removed the names and replaced them with Burmese as a policy of erasing identity.”
The trend appears to have no limits. In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the country’s National League for Democracy and state counsellor, and a former hero to many Rohingya, suggested that the word Rohingya was an “emotive” term that should not be used to describe the ethnic group.
Habib’s father’s efforts to protect the family had limited success. Army members trashed the small shop he owned, then dragged him off with Habib’s mother for a brutal questioning. Much of the family’s money went on bribes to protect their property or their lives.
Eventually, in the mid-1990s, they were driven from their village to the town of Sittwe, in Arakan/Rakhine State, where they were persecuted further. After a period of travel and activism, Habib was captured by the authorities and tortured, before finally beginning his escape from the country through Thailand.
The plight of the Rohingya back in Myanmar has gotten worse since he left. Despite the opening up of the country to democracy, an ongoing wave of Buddhist nationalism has meant that restrictions on freedoms such as marriage, employment, healthcare and education have tightened further.
The campaign of atrocities carried out by the military in 2016, including mass rape and the murder of thousands, has left only a few hundred thousand Rohingya in Myanmar. Another million or so are living in perilous conditions in Bangladesh refugee camps, with no guarantee of citizenship should they return to the country where most Rohingya villages have been razed to the ground.
Habib believes the generals in charge of the persecution must be prosecuted by an international court, and that, ultimately, the Rohingya need a state of their own if they are to survive.
“Because the Burmese government authority, the monks and the gangs and the majority of people say these Rohingya do not belong to our country,” he says. “So we have to separate not only the Rohingya, but the land belonging to the Rohingya.”
Frustrated by his time in Australian detention, Habib staged a rooftop protest and hunger strike in Darwin in 2011. He was convicted of damaging commonwealth property, a decision which, though quashed on appeal, means he is still waiting for a permanent protection visa. Life is immeasurably better, however.
Here everyone is respected and the law guarantees you from discrimination
“I am happy and better than in the past. Here there is no one to come and attack me, no one to come and confront me or interrogate me, so it makes me feel different. There are some issues related to immigration status, but that is nothing related to public discrimination. Here everyone is respected and the law guarantees you from discrimination.”
Habib is unable to leave Australia, and last year could not take up an invitation to address the European Parliament on the issue of Rohingya persecution. He would still like to do so. Meanwhile, in the weeks ahead he will speak at a number of cultural festivals, including one at the Sydney Opera House on September 1st.
“I have direct feelings and those feelings I have to express very strongly,” he says. “I will make sure that everyone listens to me and takes my message.”