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Exiled to Nowhere

Photographer Greg Constantine's images show the human face of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority who find themselves stranded, with no state to recognize them or protect their rights.

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“First they demanded money from my husband’s parents, then they demanded money from my parents,” says Fatima. “My parents didn’t have the money, so we paid them by giving them our cattle and land. Then the officials told me, ‘You have to have an abortion, otherwise we will send you to prison.'” In the end, Fatima had two abortions. Her husband spent six months in jail, where he was beaten and tortured. When he got out of prison, the officials told her that she had “committed too many crimes” and had no right to be married. Penniless at this point, the couple had no choice but to leave the country.

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Constantine also provides a useful four-page historical timeline for those not familiar with the Rohingya. It starts with 1799 and the first historical document mentioning the “Rooinga,” today’s Rohingya. It notes that the British invaded Arakan, the historical name for Rakhine state, in 1823. During the following decades, a large number of people – mostly Muslims from the Chittagong region – migrated from the Indian subcontinent into Arakan.

In 1942, the Japanese drove the British out of Arakan, leaving a vacuum. Interethnic clashes erupted between Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists, splitting Arakan into a division that still exists today, leaving mostly Buddhists in the south and mostly Muslim Rohingya in the north. Recent developments have dramatized the difficulties of finding a solution. Burma’s President Thein Sein came under international criticism this summer after he suggested that the UN’s refugee agency take responsibility for the country’s Rohingya and that they should be deported. The UN agency rejected his proposal, but thousands of Buddhist monks took to the streets in several cities to back his call, saying the Rohingya do not belong in Burma.

It’s safe to say that many Burmese despise the Rohingya, making any reconciliation difficult to achieve. But the government has also set up a commission to investigate the causes of the June violence that includes a number of respected intellectuals and religious leaders.

Constantine’s book goes a long way toward showing the human face of the Rohingya through more than 80 black-and-white photographs. The photos show not only crowded conditions in Rohingya refugee camps but also the resilience of a people who are willing to work for less than $3 a day in salt fields or even for $1.50 a day drying fish at local Bengali markets. In one area, Rohingya men have become bonded laborers, trapped into debt by Bangladeshi boat owners.

Most compelling perhaps are the faces of those of all ages – from infants to grandparents – whom Constantine has captured on film. In one of them, a grandmother holds a small child, who almost certainly faces a future without education and at best work as a low-paid child laborer.  Another photo shows eight refugees – a mother, father, and grandmother among them – holding and comforting several children. Their expressions tell you that they are utterly tired, lost, and confused.

Publication of the book was supported in part by funding from Refugees International.

Dan Southerland, executive editor of Radio Free Asia, is a former Monitor correspondent and a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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