Rohingya community pleads for help
Anayat Ullah’s cousin Mohammed died among mango trees last month, shot down by Myanmar’s military.
His wife and children had fled across the border to Bangladesh days earlier. Mohammed stayed in Rakhine State to protect their land; he had hoped the latest wave of violence would be brief, that his family would have a home to return to.
In Auckland, 23-year-old Ullah has struggled to sleep since August 25. That was when the most recent systematic slaughter of Myanmar’s Rohingya began.
‘‘They flee or die,’’ he said. ‘‘My cousin hadn’t realised those were the only options.’’
Since then, 380,000 of the 1.1 million Rohingya have fled Myanmar, and more than 400 have been killed.
Last week the United Nations Security Council appealed to Myanmar’s authorities to halt the persecution; closer to home, Kiwi actor Sam Neill called on Prime Minister Bill English, via Twitter, to take in more Rohingya refugees.
Although Rohingya have lived in western Myanmar for generations, they are denied citizenship. A lack of paperwork limits their options to study, work, travel beyond their village, or own property.
The tense relations with Rakhine State’s Buddhist majority stems from Rohingya being considered illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh – a view denied by both Rohingya and Bangladesh. The current crackdown is the latest in a series of violent upsurges triggered by extremist Rohingya attacking police in October 2016.
Former refugee Shah Alam understands the marginal existence of Myanmar’s unwanted. After the military seized his family’s prawn farm in 1995, he moved to Yangon and lived in fear of his faux-Burmese accent slipping.
Alam, 39, attended university but was not allowed to sit tests or graduate. He could rent a room, but only for up to six months. He could work, but only unofficially.
If the authorities suspected he was from Rakhine State his lack of identity papers would have been discovered – and he would have been sent back or jailed.
Yangon became too tense for many Rohingya after a terror attack in 2005. Alam fled to Thailand and finally arrived in New Zealand as a refugee in 2012.
He now operates a painting business in Auckland and, along with Ullah, runs the Rohingya Welfare Organisation.
The group is holding a demonstration in Auckland’s Aotea Square today, calling for New Zealand to ramp up support for Rohingya.
They want the Government to push for an ‘‘end to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’’ and for the UN to investigate what has gone on in Rakhine State since August 25. They also want to see New Zealand take in refugees directly from camps in Bangladesh, which has not happened since 2011.
Ullah was born in one such camp and arrived in New Zealand with his parents in 2009. His two eldest sisters stayed behind, raising their children under tarpaulins, on dirt floors covered with plastic sleeping mats.
‘‘I think about my nieces and nephews a lot,’’ said Ullah. ‘‘They’re growing up exactly like me, but our lives will be so different.’’
When Ullah got to Auckland as a teenager he spoke no English; he now has degrees in computer and information science and works as an underwriter for an insurance company.
Most of his savings go to Bangladesh, funnelled into the bank account of a Bengali gatekeeper at the refugee camp he used to call home.
Ullah’s sister had befriended the man; she would collect the cash from him, then divvy it up between relatives.
Staying in touch was important for Ullah’s far-flung family and much of the money went towards their daily phone calls.
Many bore sad news – such as Mohammed’s death at Eid ulAdha, a time when Muslims around the world hold feasts to honour the sanctity of human life.
‘‘When it happened, he’d been running for the jungle to hide,’’ said Ullah.
‘‘Another relative of mine was already in the trees and watched it all. He saw him get shot … and saw the military just left his body on the ground.’’
Ullah said the military tended to wait for enough dead to pile up before disposing of them en masse: either dousing bodies with petrol then setting them alight, or throwing them down wells.
In Mohammed’s case, his reached him first.
‘‘He buried my cousin, realised there was no hope left in the village, and fled for Bangladesh.’’
Ullah’s voice cracked as he told of the incident. He said he didn’t cry often, that he was determined to ‘‘stay strong to give my family hope’’ – but at times could not stop the tears. relative
Anayat Ullah, left, and Shah Alam will hold a demonstration in Auckland today to raise awareness of the situation in Myanmar.