In "Exiled to Nowhere," photographer Greg Constantine tells in pictures the little-known story of the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic minority in Myanmar (Burma) who have long been denied the most basic human rights.
For nearly half a century, Myanmar has resisted recognizing the Rohingya as one of the country’s indigenous groups. As writer Emma Larkin explains in a foreword, the Rohingyas trace their origins back to Arab traders who arrived in northwestern Myanmar as early as the 9th century (although many Burmese scholars and historians insist that many of today’s Rohingyas are recent immigrants from Bangladesh).
Few of the country’s estimated 800,000 Rohingyas have been allowed to gain Burmese citizenship. They cannot travel without permission, their marriages require government approval, they cannot enroll their children in regular schools, and their men are sometimes forced into conscripted labor. The Rohingyas have for decades been largely ignored by the international community except for the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
All of that changed in early June of this year when fatal communal clashes broke out between the Rohingya and the Rakhine ethnic group in western Myanmar. Both the Muslim Rohingya and the local Rakhine Buddhists suffered serious casualties. In late October, the violence erupted again.
Constantine’s book focuses on the nearly 300,000 Rohingyas who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. These refugees are unwanted by the Bangladeshi government, which has periodically attempted to shut down the refugee camps in which they have sought shelter.
It’s safe to say that many Burmese despise the Rohingya, making any reconciliation difficult. But the government has also set up a commission, which includes a number of respected intellectuals and religious leaders, to investigate the causes of the June violence.
Constantine’s book goes a long way toward showing the human face of the Rohingyas 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 willing to take some of society’s lowest-paying jobs: $3 a day to work in the salt fields and $1.50 a day to dry fish at local Bengali markets.
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. Another photo shows nine refugees – a mother, father, and grandmother among them – holding and comforting several children. Their expressions mingle a sense of loss and confusion with their humanity and beauty.
Publication of the book was supported in part by funding from Refugees International.
Dan Southerland is executive editor of Radio Free Asia, a former Monitor correspondent, and a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.