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Myanmar’s Rohingya stuck in limbo between persecution and relocation

July 24, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
The Rohingya people, an ethnic Muslim minority group, have fled murder and persecution by the army of Myanmar to seek refuge in camps in Southern Bangladesh, but their arrival has been less than welcome. Special correspondent Tania Rashid reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, we turn to Bangladesh and the plight of the Rohingya.

They are an ethnic minority group seeking refuge there, many having been forced from their homes in neighboring Myanmar.

But as special correspondent Tania Rashid found, they are hardly more welcome in Bangladesh. By the tens of thousands, they are stuck in a deadly limbo.

And a warning: Parts of this story may disturb some viewers.

TANIA RASHID: The island is isolated, covered in bushes, and underwater half of the year. It’s called Thenga Chor, and it lies on the coast of Bangladesh.

It’s a hard and long day’s boat ride from the nearest port. This rough spot might be the new home for the Rohingya, a group of more than 300,000 people the U.N. calls the most persecuted minority in the world.

But on a camp on the mainland, Hafez, a Rohingya activist, says that is no place they want to go.

HAFEZ, Rohingya Activist (through interpreter): If we go to Thenga Chor, we will get sick. We can die. We are used to being here, and we feel safe here.

TANIA RASHID: It’s only a relative safety. Close to half-a-million have fled murder and persecution by the army of Myanmar to seek refuge in camps in Southern Bangladesh.

The Muslim Rohingya have lived in mainly Buddhist Myanmar for centuries, but are viewed as illegal ethnic Bangladeshis by the Myanmar government.

The de facto leader of Myanmar, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has denied a U.N. charge of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya’.

But in the last eight months, the numbers of Rohingya fleeing for their lives have surged to more than 70,000. But now their lives are more precarious than ever before.

Monsoon season and a punishing cyclone damaged many Rohingya settlements. So, the Bangladeshi government plans to resolve the Rohingya’s continued displacement by moving 60,000 of the refugees to this remote island.

Aid agencies like the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch have expressed alarm over the planned relocation.

Our journey to the island was difficult. We began a week before the cyclone. We traveled first by ferry, then by a private boat, where a local fishermen agreed to take us to the island.

It was a dangerous journey. Pirates are known to control these seas and take hostages for ransom. But the island is not easy to access. The tides are too high on the bigger ship, so we had to get a smaller boat to take us to the island.

We just made it on the island. We managed to find a muddy bog to land near, and get us across to the island. The government has already moved forward with the plan of making the island more habitable by planting trees. But this local official doesn’t want the Rohingyas moving into his district.

He thinks it will create more problems for his community.

MINAZUR RAHMAN, Local Government Official (through interpreter): In the past, the Rohingya were related to the drug problem. They are linked to drugs, linked to smuggling. Most of the people here, their main livelihood is fishing. The bad character and influence of the Rohingya people will impact the locals here.

TANIA RASHID: But the Bangladeshi government believe the Rohingyas cross the border at will, with the help of smugglers and corrupt border guards.

The government argues the relocation will guarantee their isolation from the rest of the population. But the island is formed by river sediment, making it unstable, and it could be eroded in five years’ time.

Dr. Ainun Nishat is a leading expert on climate change in Bangladesh.

DR. AINUN NISHAT: The main history of the coastal belt of Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to storm surges and cyclonic weather.

Due to impact of climate change, we believe that the frequency of climate change may not be increasing, but intensity of the storm surges are definitely going to increase. So, they should be accommodated in good concrete structure, where at the time of emergency people should we — can be moved to a height of 20 feet and above.

TANIA RASHID: Today, about one million Rohingyas live in apartheid-like conditions in internment camps in Rakhine State of Myanmar, separated from the Buddhist majority. They have no citizenship, and need permission to marry or to travel outside of their own villages.

On October 9 of last year, Rohingya militants killed nine Myanmar police officers. The Myanmar military then led a wide and brutal counterinsurgency campaign in retaliation, where they killed more than 1,000 Rohingyas, torched homes and mosques.

The Myanmar government calls these accusations exaggerations and denies charges of ethnic cleansing.

Dil Nawaz is one of 70,000 Rohingya’s who fled to Bangladesh. She was gang-raped by soldiers, and witnessed her husband’s murder in front of her eyes.

I’m looking at a photo of her husband who was hacked to death about five months ago, and this is a photograph she took shortly after she was murdered.

DIL NAWAZ, Rohingya Refugee (through interpreter): They used a machete on my husband in front of me on the road. I saw it with my own eyes. They chopped him into pieces in front of me in a rice field. Then, the army came and took all the women out to the rice fields and took several women.

Five men took turns raping them. They took people’s gold jewelry, rings and earrings. They killed some children. Then they burned all the houses down, followed by the mosque. Then the military went back to a Buddhist area. This is why we fled to Bangladesh.

TANIA RASHID: Activist Hafez says they have found refuge here.

HAFEZ (through interpreter): Bangladesh is small, and overpopulated, but they gave us a place to stand. This is a big thing.

TANIA RASHID: But like many other Rohingya, he wants a sense of permanence.

HAFEZ (through interpreter): Instead of sending us to Thenga Chor, if the Myanmar government could, we request that they grant us citizenship.

TANIA RASHID: Forty-five-year old Dilbar hopes for a last-ditch political solution.

DILBAR, Rohingya Refugee (through interpreter): If the Bangladesh government and the Myanmar government negotiate a deal and send us back, then we will be happy. If this doesn’t happen, then please bomb us. We came here, left our homes, rice. We came here to save our lives. If we have no peace, then it’s better to die.

Our children died there. We sacrificed everything and came here for peace. If you take us to the island, it will be like killing us, slaughtering us. We are like ants. We are nothing. It won’t take much to kill us. Just bomb us. Nobody will make a case against you, because we have no ground under our feet.

TANIA RASHID: Their hope, to find that safe ground one day. But, for now, they remain in limbo, not of this land and not pushed from it.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Tania Rashid on Thenga Chor Island, Bangladesh.

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