With nearly 1,000 killed and 500,000 having fled to bordering Bangladesh in the latest bout of violence, the international community’s eye is on Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state — home of the Rohingya Muslims, often referred to as “the world’s most persecuted minority”.
Attacks by Rohingya militants on an army base and police postings on August 25, 2017, led to a brutal crackdown on the civilian population. Horrific accounts of rape, extrajudicial killing, arson, theft and displacement have been reported. At a United Nations Security Council session, Secretary General António Guterres described the crisis as “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”
Here at home, in Pakistan – which hosts the world’s second largest Rohingya refugee population – large protests were held in solidarity with the Rohingya. Nearly all the major political parties, across the ideological spectrum, requested Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to put an end to the persecution of its Muslim population.
Arguably, Pakistan’s Rohingya connection spans back to the time of its inception. In 1946, Muslim leaders from Arakan (now Rakhine state), Burma, met with Muhammad Ali Jinnah to request formal annexation of two Muslim-majority townships by East Pakistan. Having experienced communal violence in recent years, they were wary of impending Buddhist-rule.
Jinnah declined, saying he would not interfere in the internal matters of Burma, which had been a separate unit from British India since 1937. The Muslim leaders then approached the newly-formed Burmese Parliament with the same request. Their rejection became the starting point of a relationship of mutual distrust. A few years later, a separatist movement was born.
The Burmese Army’s latest crackdown against the Rohingya population (the third in five years) may be making headlines now, but their plight goes back to the time when self-governing nation states were formed after the Second World War. The left-behind children of the haphazard borders that were carved after the British retreated from their former colonies, the ambiguity surrounding their identity, their perceived ‘foreign’ status and their lack of formal citizenship since 1982 have made them particularly vulnerable.
Even the term Rohingya – like the land, like history– is disputed. Prior to the 1990s, they were simply known as ‘Chittagonian’ or ‘Bengali’. Rohang was what early Muslim travellers to the region called Arakan, and reclaiming the word was perhaps a way of saying they inhabited the region for centuries — that they were not ‘foreigners’.
Over the years, repeated suppression by the state, political persecution and social isolation have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to seek refuge in other countries — including Pakistan. A landless people, they chose to settle close to the sea, in the port city of Karachi. As each decade saw a crackdown against them in their home country, each decade also saw a mass exodus of Rohingyas into the city, which has served as a refuge for many different nationalities and ethnicities, throughout the years.
During the 1960s, General Ayub Khan’s government welcomed Rohingyas into Pakistan in the name of Islamic brotherhood. They continued to pour into the country in large numbers till the late 1980s, during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, which (on the behest of the Saudis) promised them residence permits. This generosity, however, came with an expectation: Rohingyas were an easy target for recruitment during the Afghan Jihad.
The National Alien Registration Authority estimates that there are currently 350,000 Rohingyas living in Pakistan. While most worked in agriculture in their home country, they joined the fisheries sector once in Pakistan. This is the reason why the majority of the population is settled along the coastline, at the Karachi Fish Harbour and Ibrahim Hyderi. They can also be found in the construction and textile industries, while home-based workers are involved in carpet-weaving, cigarette-making and embroidery.
Despite their large presence, they remain an elusive community, often difficult to access. Most Burmese Muslims pass off as Bengalis, with whom they share a common culture and language. A large number of Bengalis who came to Pakistan from Bangladesh in the 1970s and 1980s were from Cox’s Bazaar and Teknaf, which is close to the Burmese border. Their identities merge easily.
Statelessness is the basis of the Rohingya’s long-suffering. In Pakistan, statelessness continues to haunt them. They cite racism and discrimination at the hands of local authorities; about routine harassment by the police and rangers. Men are picked up from their community whenever there is an incidence of terrorism in the city.
Due to the lack of formal identification – National Identity Card (NIC) and B-Forms – they cannot get access to government jobs or sit for board examinations. Few government schools exist in close proximity to their communities; on the other hand, there are countless madrassas.
They are hesitant to speak to the media. One Rohingya man – a teacher at a madrassa, who came to Pakistan in the 1980s – would only speak on the condition of anonymity. He says that he came to Pakistan as an “illegal immigrant”, and might run into problems with the law.
However, while many are hesitant to speak about themselves, they are more than willing to speak about the current crisis taking place in Myanmar, to have their grievances heard by the world.
They speak about the relatives they left behind, dead or missing now; about information in an age of state censorship; about humanitarianism and apathy. They speak about brotherhood and Islam. And they speak about Jihad.
An elderly man, lounging amongst a dozen of his grandchildren (“my army of 100”) outside his house, says that if the Pakistani government allowed him to leave the country, he would “get up this instant and fight the oppressors” in Myanmar. His wife, standing by the door, half-listening, suddenly jolts to attention: “What are you saying? Look at you… you’re too weak to fight, old man!”
Another man solemnly reflects: “You know, even if a 1,000 mujahedeen left their countries to fight for the Rohingya, it would make no difference. It would be like a small vessel waging a war against the sea.”
We were chased out of our homes. I was forced to leave Burma in 1971, along with my husband and two sons, who were five and seven years old, at that time. The Burmese Army had launched a campaign against us. Our men were beaten; our women assaulted.
I arrived in Pakistan in 1972. After spending a year in a village – a jungle, actually – in Bangladesh, my husband decided it was time to leave. We got on the railway, passed through India, and arrived in Lahore first. We then took a bus to Karachi.
Since our arrival, we have lived in the same locality in Korangi. My sons are married now and have their own families. I have another daughter, who is also married, and lives with me.
My sons work at a shrimp processing factory; my daughter makes fishing nets from home. She earns about 5,000-6,000 rupees a week.
My husband passed away 11 years ago. He used to catch fish from the sea. My son-in-law is also a fisherman. He makes 2,000, sometimes 3,000, rupees a week. Sometimes, he returns home empty-handed. What happens at sea, only the men know: it’s their territory.
I have three grandsons and six granddaughters. All of them go to a madrassa to learn the Quran and other subjects. I look after the children and the house, cooking and cleaning. As a family, we have to work very hard to make ends meet — our lives are spent working.
Our community is very strict about purdah. Women barely leave the house, except when necessary, or for special occasions, such as weddings. It is not considered ‘good’ for Bengali women to be seen walking around the streets.
Our entire locality suffers from electricity and water shortages. There is no government hospital close by — and there is disease. But despite these issues, I am content. I will never go back to Burma.
I do not consider myself to be Burmese. I have never even had a formal Burmese identification card. I am a Pakistani Bengali. I obtained an NIC seven years ago. I cannot speak Urdu; I speak Bengali, like most Burmese Muslims.
I am not angry at the Burmese nation — the emotion I feel is not of anger. I am hurt. Imagine if your country did not give you enough to eat, would not allow you to sleep in peace, to walk freely, to clothe yourself — would you not feel the same way?
Until recently, I was in touch with my father and siblings in Burma. We used to speak on the phone, exchange letters. But for the past five or six months, we have lost all communication. We have not received any news and have no knowledge about their whereabouts.
I do not know why our people are persecuted. Perhaps our elders knew; perhaps men of status and learning know — but I do not.
My only wish is that the people in Burma live in peace, this is my only request to the world. We want a solution.
My parents arrived in Pakistan in 1973. They had to escape Burma because of the oppressive work conditions there. They would toil on rice fields from dawn to dusk. Half the produce would go to the landowners. If they did not make enough, they were sent home, on empty stomachs.
Despite the exploitation, they said Burma was peaceful back then: the violence started after they left.
Both my parents died in Pakistan: one died in the hospital; the other at home. They left me nothing. I never went to school. I only went to a madrassa for a while and studied a few chapters of the Quran. My father asked me to work with him, to make ends meet. So I started working as a fisherman at the age of 15.
Fishing is the only thing I know; it is how I support my family. There are 10 mouths to feed at home: my youngest child is eight months old, my oldest is 25 years old. I make 2,000 to 3,000 rupees a week. It is an uncertain livelihood: sometimes you get a catch, sometimes you do not.
Most of my life is spent at sea. I leave for the waters at eight in the morning and return 48 hours later, after leaving the fish at the harbour. Then I leave at eight again the next day.
Because I do not possess an NIC, I am not allowed to go towards Gadani, Sonmiani and Pasni. If you do not have an NIC, the authorities send you back. We have problems, wherever we go, because of our lack of formal identification: on land, at sea.
There is no gas in our locality. We get water from tankers, which costs between 4,000 to 5,000 rupees. We have no electricity; we get it by pilfering. When we got an electricity line through proper means, our bill suddenly spiked to 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 rupees. In our house, we only use two light bulbs and two fans — at the most. So how was this possible?
The police frequently raid our homes. Whenever there is a crime committed in the city, and they cannot find the culprit, they pick up innocent men and boys from our locality. They are released after we pay them — anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 rupees. Otherwise, they are thrown in jail.
I have an old NIC that is now expired. They are not letting me make a new one. My wife and I went to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) office in Quaidabad and waited in long queues for hours. She received her NIC in 15 days, but I did not. I went back to enquire. They said that because I am a ‘Bengali’, I am not entitled to one, and told me to go away.
My parents were Burmese, but I am not. I know nothing about that country — so how can I call myself Burmese? I only know whatever my parents told me, about the living conditions there, about people who left everything they had just to save their dignity.
I was born in Pakistan. I married in Pakistan. My children are born in Pakistan. We cannot go back to Burma. Even if we were to, the children would never settle there: they grew up here, ate the food here, and go to school here.
My biggest worry now is that my son will not be able to sit for his board examinations next year. He is in the ninth grade. Every day, he says he needs his NIC, or he might be kicked out of school.
I ask God to give us peace here, and peace to the Muslims living in Burma. My heart weeps for them day and night. I cannot stop thinking about the people suffering there. I have lost my appetite.
There are so many countries in the world, so many atrocities and so much suffering — but none worse than this. The oppressor is killing small children, raping and killing women.
We can mourn for them, express our sorrow and pray. We do not have the means to go there and fight. We are poor; we are people that live by our labour.
A few days ago, I spoke to one of my uncles, who was able to escape to Bangladesh. He told me that some of my family members have migrated to Bangladesh, but the ones who could not, have been killed. He requested us to pray for them. May God grant them peace.
I arrived in Pakistan on a bus in the 1980s. I came with my parents and younger sister. I must have been around eight years old at the time. We had to make a stop at Bangladesh first, then India, then Lahore. Our journey ended in Karachi. We lived in Orangi for two years, before moving to Korangi.
We had to leave Burma because of the violence. I do not have many memories, but I remember my father saying that Muslims were not allowed to live in peace: that they wanted us to ‘disappear’ from the land.
In Pakistan, I studied for just two months in the first grade. I never went to school in Burma. I learnt Urdu here, picking it up from my friends, from films — a smattering here and there.
I used to work as a fisherman, but the sea was an unpredictable source of livelihood. So, for the past four years, I have been working at a factory that exports fish. I work from nine to five, earning 15,000 rupees a month.
I was married seven years ago, to a woman my parents selected. She was born in Pakistan, her parents came here from Burma. My younger sister is also married.
We are Burmese, but we consider ourselves to be Pakistani. However, when we go to the NADRA offices, they say we are foreigners, not Pakistani. Unless people have genuine records from before or are paying off the authorities, they do not issue NICs to us. We do not get government jobs, with bonuses and security.
And the police bother us a lot. Whenever we step out of the house to go somewhere or buy groceries, they stop us. The very first question they ask is: ‘Where is your NIC?’ Then they demand money: some will let you off with 500 rupees; others with 200 rupees. This happens to me at least twice a week.
My children are going to school. They were asked for their birth certificates, which they did not have. I had to pay money to get them made. What else can I do? I want them to study as far as they can.
We request the Pakistani government to issue NICs to us. And we request them to help the Muslims in Burma.
There is so much violence and bloodshed there. I was told by one of my uncles that my grandfather, who I last spoke to three months ago, was killed. We used to talk weekly two or three times over the phone before. Another one of my uncles and three of his children were also killed.
I have lost all contact with my family. I only know about what is happening the same way you do: the news. I do not know if the situation will ever improve. I heard Suu Kyi is trying to help. Let’s see.
I live with my grandparents, mother, father, and sisters: Musqaan and Nasreen. In my house, I’m the eldest child, and the only one who goes to school.
I’m in kindergarten. Every day, I walk to school with my friends at seven o’ clock in the morning; reach by eight o’ clock; and return home in a rickshaw in the afternoon. They teach us English, Urdu, Math and Computers. After school, I go to a madrassa to read the Quran.
I have so many friends: Khadija, Fatima, Mehvish, Parween, Ayesha. And I’m smart. I know how to speak Bengali, Urdu and Sindhi.
My family says I can be whatever I want when I grow up. They say I can get a good job, maybe become a doctor. When I grow up, I just want to be a woman — like my mother.
She cooks food in the day, and sleeps at night. My father works at a shrimp processing factory, along with my uncles.
My grandfather is Sindhi. He used to be a fisherman, but now he has dedicated his life to religion. He goes to the nearby mosque for two of his daily prayers; the other three he prays at home. He sometimes gives the call to prayer at the mosque.
I am closest to my grandmother. She was born in Burma, and came to Karachi with her parents (my great-grandparents) when she was little — maybe two or three years older than I am now.
She has no memories of Burma, but she remembers living part of her childhood in Bangladesh in the 1970s. My great-grandparents were afraid that if they stayed on in Bangladesh, the Burmese government would call them back any time. They spoke of the cruelty – unspeakable, unimaginable cruelty – they were subjected to there.
My grandmother’s older brother (who later passed away in Saudi Arabia) came to Pakistan first, and told the rest of the family to join him. So they came to Pakistan — because of its distance away from Burma. We might still have family there, but none that we know of or are in touch with.
My grandmother says that since we live in Pakistan, we are Pakistani. Everyone in my family has an NIC — except her. She says that when her parents would go to the NADRA office, they would chase them away, saying they were Bengali, that they did not have any identification papers or birth certificates.
My grandmother says our area is completely safe, and we do not have any problems here. But I do have a problem: my sister Musqaan. Woh bohat tang karti hai (She irritates me).
*This interview was put together after speaking to Iqra and her grandmother, who did not wish to be photographed
Abdul Malick, 50
I left Burma with my mother and father. I reached Pakistan alone. My parents were attacked while escaping Burma. They sustained injuries, which did not receive medical care, and died in Bangladesh. My father went first; my mother died 11 days after him. There was a lot of violence and chaos at the time. It was a Jew* who did that to them.
A kind neighbour of ours brought me to Pakistan with him. I was six or seven years old. He took care of me. I lived with him in his house in Korangi, until he has passed away from an illness. I had one other uncle who lived in Pakistan. He has since moved to Saudi Arabia.
I was married 35 years ago. I have six children. My boys are fishermen, like me. We use the same boat. I work from the morning till 10-11 at night. I just come home to sleep. We sell two to four kilograms of fish to a man at the harbour, who takes it to the market. We keep one kilogram for personal consumption. I make 1,500-2,000 rupees a week. My wife and daughters do not work. Only men work.
I had my first NIC made at the age of 20. I had another one made during Benazir Bhutto’s government in the 1990s. Since I live in Pakistan, I consider myself to be Pakistani. I was so young when I left Burma. I know very little about that country or its affairs, I only know about Pakistan.
Despite having an NIC, I still get harassed by the police. They say things like: “You’re a foreigner. Burmese. Bengali”. They let me go after I pay them 50 or 100 rupees.
The recent events in Burma are very worrying to me. I had aunts and uncles living there — but we lost all communication 20 years ago. There was violence at that time, too. None of us had phones, so we used to rely solely on letters. One day, the letters stopped.
*A lot of Rohingyas at Korangi use ‘British’ and ‘Jew’ interchangeably
Muhammad Ishaq, 70
You want to know about Burma? I will tell you. I am an educated man, I know the history. Others here will not know. I am not affiliated with any political party. I only belong to the party of God.
I was born in Bangladesh (East Pakistan), right on the Burmese border. My father was a Pakhtun, and enamoured with the idea of Pakistan. After East Pakistan became Bangladesh, we moved to West Pakistan. I was 20 years old.
I used to be a fisherman, but I am too old to work now. I spend my time in prayer and thought. I think about Burma a lot. I think about the state of humanity in general, and keep in touch with the scholarly world. I follow the news from Pakistan, British and Arakan sources.
I am aware of history dating back to 200 years ago, when Muslims were ruling the land. But I will tell you about the more recent past.
Before Burma was liberated from British-rule, Muslims were an important part of society: they were in the army, navy, police and judiciary. However, soon afterwards, the Burmese made a different set of plans, and Muslims were kept in the dark.
Over a period of 15 years, the Burmese retired from several posts but Muslims were not substituted or taken as replacements. Muslims were restricted from going abroad to get higher education; they remained uneducated, illiterate and marginalised. They were not eligible for government jobs.
Then, religious scholars were jailed and murdered. It was a period of bloodshed. Muslims were banned from travelling from one country and province to another; one city to another; and, without proper documentation, one village to another.
They were not allowed to get married without the approval of the government. They were not allowed to have more than two kids.
Restrictions were also placed on trading timber, hunting and selling marine and mountain animals.
In 1982, a bill was passed which took away all the rights of the Muslims: they were not citizens of the Burmese state anymore. Before the bill was passed, their identity cards, weapons, and other belongings were snatched. These restrictions remain to this day.
It was as if Muslims were trapped in a cage: a prison. Starvation eventually crept in; boys and men aged 15-30 started fleeing the country.
Three years ago, in order to get out of this prison, nearly 150 men sold their gold and other valuables to buy weapons. They killed a handful of policemen and soldiers.
The Burmese government was enraged. They were afraid that Muslims would thwart their 70 year old plan; that they would stand on the battlefield, and claim their own identities. So they began this campaign against them.
When the Burmese military attack, they do not attack the militants, they attack civilians. When houses were burned down, people took refuge in the mountains and forests. The Burmese police, military and monks hunted through the forests and killed them. The media does not know this, but the people do. They will take you to the bodies.
My wife is Burmese. Three of her brothers are in Bangladesh; one in Malaysia. Another brother was in Burma, but escaped to Bangladesh recently, after two his sons were killed. I send them money for ration. They are living in a camp, receiving funds from relatives in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
I have barely slept in the past three weeks because of the mass extermination that has taken place. Their pain is my pain. If they have eyes, I have eyes. If they have limbs, I have limbs. If they have a heart, I have a heart. If I rejoice in another being’s pain — how can I consider myself human?