Exiled to nowhere
Publisher: The Economist
Author: Banyan | SINGAPORE
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

FOR all the cheerful news out of Myanmar in the past year-and-a-half, it remains a country mired in poverty and prey to appalling ethnic violence. This week Valerie Amos, the United Nations' most senior humanitarian official, has been in the country, reminding the world that it is home to two dreadful crises.

In Rakhine state, she visited camps for some of the more than 115,000 people displaced by ethnic violence that flared in June and then again in October. Most of those in the camps, whose conditions she rightly described as "dire", are Rohingyas, members of a Muslim minority, some of whom have lived in Myanmar for generations, but most of whom are denied Burmese citizenship.

This year's violence has drawn some attention to their plight. But a moving book compiled before it flared up is a reminder that it was not some freak outbreak of communal ferocity, so much as a symptom of a long-running, chronic malaise. "Exiled to Nowhere: Burma's Rohingya" by Greg Constantine, a photographer, documents the poverty, squalor, misery and persecution that mark their lives.

Made up of pictures and interviews across the border in Bangladesh, where many have fled only to be denied refugee status, it has 150 pages of beautiful black-and-white photographs, mostly of people. Not a single smile lightens the darkness of their fates. Rohingyas are recorded in their own words, telling their stories: of the day-to-day struggle to feed themselves; of sons who fled as boat people and have never been heard from; of gruelling forced labour; of sick widows with no access to medical care; of a man whose son was born in Myanmar without an identity, and died in Bangladesh, still without an identity.

For those whom Baroness Amos visited in Rakhine state, it is hard to be hopeful. On a visit there in October, I found almost every member of the Buddhist Rakhine majority I spoke to adamant that co-habitation with the Rohingyas was impossible. For them—as for the rest of Myanmar—these are foreigners, illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, who should be made somehow to vanish.

The Rohingyas are a special case. But the Rakhines, too, see themselves as a disadvantaged minority that has suffered over the years at the hands of the ethnic Bamar majority, and some of whom have hankered after independence, or at least a place in a new federal constitution. Like most of Myanmar's other ethnic minority groups, Rakhine's secessionists have agreed to a ceasefire with the army, but are waiting for a peace agreement that would involve some devolution of power.

The one insurgency that is still fighting is the Kachin Independence Army, in Myanmar's north-east, which was also on Baroness Amos's itinerary. Some 75,000 people have been displaced by fighting there. Of those, an estimated 39,000 in areas outside the government's control have also been out of the reach of the United Nations' humanitarian efforts since July. Low-level fighting continues.

Last month, an American senator suggested that the army may have been guilty of war crimes in its war against the Kachins. Like the ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state, the conflict there is a nasty blemish on the image of the new government. But also like the fate of the Rohingyas, the war in Kachin and the complex issues it raises never seem to occupy the thoughts of Western politicians for very long. Sympathy for a country that genuinely does seem to be trying to reform and liberalise, and move away from China's orbit, helps them look the other way.
 

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