A Rohingya’s chilling memoir brings forth anxieties and phobias faced by many across the globe in the name of nationalism, race and religion
Habiburahman was just around three, lived in a Myanmar village, when the country’s military dictator U Ne Win declared in 1982 that the Rohingya were not among the 135 recognised ethnic groups that formed the part of eight “national races”. The ethnic group became illegal residents with a mere stroke of the pen as the thunderbolt fell upon more than a million Rohingya who had been living in Arakan state — their ancestral land in west Myanmar.
“From now on, the word ‘Rohingya’ is prohibited. It no longer exists. We no longer exist,” Habiburahman recalled later. First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks is a chilling and poignant memoir by a Rohingya about one of the contemporary world’s most pressing tragedies. It exposes the civilisation’s deepest fears and maladies that suddenly seem incurable.
Habiburahman narrated the story of his people to French journalist Sophie Ansal, who had been reporting on the issue for many years. She first met Habib in 2006 when he had been living in Malaysia. She eventually helped him write his memoir that was first published in French before it was recently translated into English by Andrea Reece.
The exile of the Rohingya is a reflection on the world order that demonises the marginalised. To an outsider it may appear to be a localised ethnic conflict in Myanmar. Dig deeper and one finds suspicion and intolerance towards the dispossessed and disadvantaged. The
country of Buddhists committed unprecedented atrocities on the unsuspecting Rohingya. The Rakhines Buddhists destroyed their mosques, innovated ways to insult them as beating a defenceless Rohingya became a popular sport.
The Rohingya tragedy, in a different form, is unfolding in several countries at present. The cries of nationalism, the insistent focus on indigenous race and religion have engendered various anxieties and phobias, pushing the marginalised to the wall.
Witnessing his clan members vanishing or getting executed, Habib managed to migrate to Thailand in 2000 before he reached Malaysia. In 2001, the UNHCR granted Burmese refugee status to a few thousand Rohingya — a legal protection that only a few dozen had earlier. In a moving account, Habib narrates the hopes he had on the legal status. He believed that since he was now under the UN protection, his travails were over. Far from it.
He continued to be arrested and held at immigration detention centres in Malaysia, later sold by Malay and Thai immigration officers to human traffickers who, in turn, sold him to a gang of Thai fishermen. He became a slave in the Andaman Sea in 2004, before he managed yet another escape to Malaysia. After a few more years of near-slavery in southeast Asia he began another journey of hope to Australia in 2009. It brought him little relief as he and many other Rohingya were sent to the immigration detention centre in Darwin in 2010.
Meanwhile, the Burmese government launched a massacre of the Rohingya in the summer of 2012, a genocide that continued for five years. The world remained oblivious to it until some 6 lakh of them turned up at the Bangladesh border in August 2017.
Amid the tragedy, a cruel irony stands out. The persecution of the Rohingya coincided with the global embrace of Aung San Suu Kyi. For long the Rohingya had pinned hopes on her before they realised she had outrightly betrayed them. As she gave her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on June 16, 2012, 150 Rohingya were massacred in Kiladang village in Arakan state. She was the sole representative voice of Myanmar. “The world was at her feet,” Habib recalled, “She had the power to denounce the horror and injustice.” But she turned away.
At the time of completing this memoir, Habib had been living in Melbourne, separated from his family members, who were in exile several continents apart. “I am still stateless, have no passport, and am forbidden to travel.”
Such a damning commentary on the contemporary world.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist