LETTERS FROM ARAKAN
HANDWRITTEN HEARTBREAK FROM ROHINGYA REFUGEES
ONa humid night in August 2017, Myanmar government troops, aided by Buddhist militias, swept through Rohingya villages in Rakhine State, also known as Arakan, and opened fire on villagers. The army had launched what the government has called “counter-terrorist operations” in response to an attack on border police posts by Rohingya militants.
Their targets were members of the state's Rohingya Muslim minority, a people denied citizenship in their home country by a government – led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – that continues to label them illegal Bengali immigrants. The ensuing violence has resulted in the forced displacement of more than 640,000 Rohingya as of December 2017, according to OCHA, the UN humanitarian affairs agency. It is the biggest exodus of refugees since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the UN has described the violence as “ethnic cleansing”.
Currently, most of the displaced live in the muddied hills of Cox's Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh. Across the choppy waters of the Naf river, the natural boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar, villages could previously be seen burning from fires set by the military and militias. All day and through the night, thick plumes of smoke bellowed up, mixing with the heavy monsoon clouds. Small fishing boats shaped liked crescents would glide in, packed with newly arrived and exhausted Rohingya, many of whom had trekked for days to reach the overcrowded camps. The shelters here are made out of bamboo and dug into the hills by the Rohingya themselves.
The monsoon weather brings with it the risk of waterborne diseases, and there is inadequate medical treatment to help with the scale of psychological trauma from witnessing and being victims of the violence perpetrated by the Myanmar military. Many of the accounts of the people Southeast Asia Globe spoke to corresponded with testimonies in interviews conducted by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have documented village attacks, mass shootings and rapes. In this portrait series, some of the Rohingya living in camps along the Myanmar border recount their ordeal and voice their anger at the Myanmar government and the international community in handwritten letters.