From his tent in the illegal shantytown carved out of a Bangladeshi forest, 25-year-old Abdul watched as men, women, and children limped into the refugee camp, gaunt from not eating for days. They were his people, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority that has been widely called the world’s most persecuted people. Abdul had arrived in the camps ten months earlier, when 66 thousand refugees fled the neighboring country of Myanmar in the last months of 2016. Nearly a year later, the Rohingya were once again on the run, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh through grooves worn in the swamps made by the more than 1 million refugees who had preceded them over seven decades.
The most recent violence began on August 25, 2017, when armed Rohingya groups attacked as many as 30 Burmese police and military posts near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The army’s retaliation had been swift, with soldiers razing more than 200 villages, causing about 600 thousand Rohingya to flee. The refugees told stories of Burmese soldiers ambushing their villages, raping the women, and shooting the men or decapitating them with knives. They described landmines being laid along the well-known escape routes. Each morning, corpses of Rohingya who had drowned trying to cross the mile-wide Naf River, which divides Myanmar from Bangladesh, washed onto the shore where they had once sought safety.
Abdul called the new arrivals into his shelter, which was made of discarded plastic stretched over bamboo slats, though all he could offer them was a spot on the red-clay floor. Soon, 30 people were occupying just 80 square feet. But they counted themselves lucky: Most new arrivals slept under monsoon-season skies. Nearly a million Rohingya now crammed into a narrow peninsula on the southern tip of Bangladesh, almost all of them in squatter settlements ringing the U.N.-run camps, which have been at capacity for decades. Eventually, Abdul’s tent became so crowded that he had to bed down at a nearby mosque. But having made a similar escape with shrapnel embedded in his shoulder just 10 months earlier, Abdul felt he had to help.
Denied citizenship in their home country of Myanmar, denied land, medical care, education and jobs, even denied the ability to walk town to town, the one million Rohingya people who live in this largely Buddhist nation have taken flight to find new homes all over the world. Thousands pay smugglers to take them to Malaysia by boat to find a new home, and the journey is dangerous.
At Granta, United Nations employee Keane Shum shares the Rohingya’s tragic story. Shum is charged with monitoring refugees in Southeast Asia, and she has worked with the Rohingya for three years. As if their suffering back home weren’t horrific enough, the smugglers abuse the Rohingya, underfeeding them, beating, and raping them, then keeping them at sea while they extract more money through ransoms. And when refugees are intercepted, they’re often sent back to a home where they aren’t considered citizens.
Around the same time, the captain of a larger smuggling vessel nearby, carrying as many as 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis, also abandoned ship. He also fled on a trailing speedboat, after telling his passengers to sail at 220 degrees in order to reach Malaysia the next morning. But there is nowhere in the Andaman Sea where a heading of 220 degrees will point a ship to Malaysia. The captain was almost certainly directing them towards Indonesia.
Wherever this ship was headed, it ran out of fuel the next day. Passing fishing boats gave some fuel and directed the Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Indonesia. The following morning, 11 May 2015, two Indonesian navy vessels arrived with water, dry instant noodles and biscuits, and returned later in the day to tow the ship towards Malaysia. “We gave them fuel and asked them to proceed,” an Indonesian navy spokesperson told Agence France-Presse. “We are not forcing them to go to Malaysia nor Australia. That is not our business. Our business is they don’t enter Indonesia because Indonesia is not the destination.”
The ship drifted for nearly two days until being approached near Penang on the afternoon of 13 May by two Malaysian navy vessels, which also provided food and water. Overnight, the Malaysians towed the ship back into Indonesian territory. When the Malaysians untied from the ship, multiple passengers remember the Malaysians giving instructions to stay put while they went to retrieve other boats in the area. Then we’ll bring you all to Malaysia, the passengers said they were told.
The next day, Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister, Wan Junaidi, acknowledged to the Associated Press that Malaysia had turned back both this ship and Hasina’s. “We have to send the right message,” he said. “They are not welcome here.”
I met Eh Kaw in 2012, when I approached him as a reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald to tell his story to our shared community. Those first meetings enchanted me. In our earliest conversations, Eh Kaw explained that the Karen’s ability to keep gardens, trap rabbits in nearby woodlands, and slaughter chickens helped his people retain their cultural identity.
From the beginning, I loved Pa Saw’s food: roselle green and chicken skin soup, eggplant and anchovies in turmeric, hot dogs and canola greens scooped with rice mounds into sweet gum leaves. The debtless and quasi-agrarian lifestyle she and other Karen adhered to stirred a primal gene somewhere within me. After I reported that first story, we became friends, and in 2014, I attended a party to celebrate Eh Kaw and Pa Saw becoming U.S. citizens. Dozens of people gathered around a buffet table anchored by goat stew—the whole animal (organs but no hide) cooked in a tall pot. A few months later, I went to a joint wedding of four Karen couples, after which we dined at an outdoor buffet on tables hewed from pine trees.
Every few months, I returned to Comer to visit Eh Kaw and the other Karen. On one trip, he took me to various Karen houses to show off their infrastructure.
Each home we visited was organized in a similar fashion to Semoeneh’s property but adapted to the particular footprint of the lot. The houses were made of materials ranging from cinder block to clapboard, and every yard teemed with life: vegetables, poultry, the odd goat, droplets of brook water falling from minnow-snatching nets, a horde of shoes at the back door arranged as a roll call for those snoozing inside.
Escaping persecution and conflict, many Karen people of southern and southeastern Myanmar have migrated to Thailand, settling primarily in refugee camps at the Myanmar-Thailand border. As Margaret Simons reports on SBS, about 200 Karen people have since found a new home in Nhill, a country town halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia. Their presence has brought new life to the town — jobs, connections, and a sense of community — making Nhill a model for the rest of the country.
A board outside the shop announces, in the exotic Brahmin script of Myanmar, Kay’s great act of generosity and now her cause for hope. She has given, rent free, the space at the rear of her store to Karen community leader Kaw Doh Htoo. There, he has opened a grocery store for the Karen people who have made this remote country town their home. . . .
He sits at the formica table and tries to describe how he came to live here, in this little declining town with its wide streets and closed shops speaking of past prosperity. The Karen come from the hills and mountains of Karen state, part of Myanmar near the Thai border. He gets choked up.
This is home now, he says. It is a good place. But he misses the hills and jungle. Ask him what he hopes for his children, and he weeps.
Hope, after all, can be as sharp as a knife. . . .
But there are other things here, too — less visible to the passing eye. Nhill has a higher rate of volunteering than the nation as a whole. It has what Deloitte Access Economics has termed unusually high levels of social capital. Put more simply, it is a town with a big heart and, over the last six years, it has come to stand for a very different kind of Australian story.