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Beyond All Bounds

How Myanmar’s democratic opening has failed the Rohingya

ONE NIGHT IN 1992, ten army buses came to Lawadong, a village about 20 kilometres from Maungdaw—the last city in west Myanmar before you reach the Teknaf River, which separates the country from Bangladesh. Soldiers told all the village’s Rohingya residents to pack up immediately and leave, because they wanted to build a camp there. When the residents asked where they could go, a 48-year-old Rohingya woman who was there recalled, the soldiers said, “This is not your place. Your fathers are from Bangladesh. Go there, or go to the sky.”

Many Rohingya, accustomed to abuse as members of a Muslim minority in largely Buddhist Myanmar, left. A few days later, the woman said, the soldiers returned. They had a list of the names of all the Rohingya in the village, and warned the few non-Rohingya residents not to help their Rohingya neighbours. Rohingya men who had remained were taken away or tortured. Women, particularly those without men in their homes, were harassed. Some, including the woman, were taken away and forced to work at a temporary camp the soldiers had set up nearby—tidying, doing laundry, cooking. They had to look for their own food. The woman recalled regularly hearing the screams of other Rohingya women being raped.

One morning, she woke up early and escaped to Maungdaw—a staging post for Rohingya looking to cross into Bangladesh. A few weeks later, she managed to get on a boat. It was intercepted, as such boats often are, by Burmese soldiers. The woman, travelling with her three children—two boys and a girl—was forced to give up two necklaces her grandmother had given her. She had no money or valuables when she stepped onto Bangladeshi soil.

I met the woman in January last year in Kutupalong, a sprawling, official Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Ukhia upazila, or sub-district, near the country’s southern tip, which lies pincered between the Myanmar border and the Bay of Bengal. I had come from Cox’s Bazar, a tourist resort and fishing port. On the hour’s drive south to the camp, with a small group of activists working with the Rohingya, I saw Bangladeshi tourists enjoying fresh seafood at restaurants along what is touted as one of the world’s longest stretches of beach.

Salil Tripathi lives in London, and is a contributing editor at The Caravan and Mint. He is the chair of the writers-in-prison committee of PEN International. An award-winning journalist, he has written extensively for over a quarter century for the Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Reviewthe New StatesmanIndia Today, and other publications. As a correspondent in Singapore and Hong Kong, he covered the Asian economic crisis. He is the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull, 2009), The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (Aleph, 2014; Yale, 2016), and Detours: Songs of the Open Road (Tranquebar, 2015). He is currently working on a book about Gujaratis. 

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