In the Shadow of the Rohingyas of Myanmar

Rohingya in Bangladesh are unable to work legally, yet they are an important source of labor. Rohingya working in salt fields earn less than $3 USD per day. © Greg Constantine

Rohingya in Bangladesh are unable to work legally, yet they are an important source of labor. Rohingya working in salt fields earn less than $3 USD per day. © Greg Constantine

In June of 2015, though the global media was riveted to the sight of Syrian refugees crossing by boat into Europe, for a few days its attention shifted to a solitary boat adrift in the Andaman Sea. Its deck too was packed with refugees, members of the Rohingya community attempting to escape Myanmar and find asylum anywhere else in South East Asia.

For a few days, the world was aware of a different kind of stranded people – not ones escaping the country of their citizenship, but ones who have been denied the citizenship of any country. The stateless are treated as illegal aliens in the places they live, but refused passports or papers that allow them to leave (so they rarely do). The most basic documents of modern life, like marriage certificates and drivers licences, are kept beyond their reach.

It’s a global tragedy, Greg Constantine writes in the foreword to Nowhere People, his book of photographs of stateless communities across the world. Statelessness can have many origins – shifting borders, changing laws, the collapse and creation of states – but in every case, ethnic difference “leads governments and people in power to use citizenship as a weapon to disenfranchise those who they feel threaten their political, ethnic or personal interests.”

In Nowhere People, Constantine visits stateless groups in twelve countries: from Italy and Ukraine, to the Ivory Coast and Nepal, bringing into view ‘the innocent people who are not tolerated by any state.’ This is the third in Constantine’s series on the stateless, following two prize-winning books on Kenyan’s Nubians and the Rohingyas. Both are groups he revisits in Nowhere People, which was selected by Mother Jones magazine as one of the 10 Best Photo Books of 2015.

The Wire shares opening text and images from its chapter on the Rohingyas of Myanmar.

“This is the spot where my family’s house used
 to be,” 23-year-old Mohammed says. Broken slabs of concrete from homes that no longer exist are scattered here and there. Two streets away, Burmese police sit behind barbed wire gates.
 They guard the entry and exit points to the Aung Mingalar neighborhood of Sittwe in Myanmar 
(or Burma). Inside the gates of Aung Mingalar, Mohammed and some 5,000 Muslim Rohingya are trapped in a modern-day ghetto, segregated from the rest of the city, unable to leave to work or go to school.

Outside the ghetto, life continues. Bicycles, trishaws and motorbikes pass by the gates. Across the street restaurants are filled with chatty students from the local Buddhist Rakhine community. It has been several months since Mohammed’s home was destroyed by a Buddhist mob as Burmese authorities stood by and watched, but he feels the loss from those days of terror every day. “All Rohingya families used to live here,” he continues. “I don’t like to come here because my brother was killed in the violence. There is nothing left now. Now most are living in the camps.”

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from the Rakhine State in western Burma, historically known as Arakan. Though the Rohingya trace their history in Arakan back for centuries, the government and local groups claim 
the Rohingya are originally from Bangladesh. Over the past fifty years, the Burmese government has refused to recognize the Rohingya. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law extends citizenship to people from 135 ethnic groups in the country. The list omits the Rohingya, a minority of over one million strong, arbitrarily depriving them of nationality and leaving them stateless in their own country.

Burma’s transition toward democracy has created
 space for new political voices. By promoting religious intolerance, racism and hatred toward the Rohingya, ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks and Rakhine political parties have advanced their own agendas for how Burma should define its national identity. Both groups refuse to acknowledge the existence of a community called the “Rohingya”. Authorities insist that they must first identify themselves as “Bengali” before any consideration is given to their citizenship. In 2014, they were excluded from Burma’s first census in thirty years, and in 2015, authorities revoked their temporary ID cards. Some human rights groups have described the ongoing abuse as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and the international community has condemned the situation. Regardless, leaders inside the country have shown almost no political will to temper the fervor or recognize the Rohingya. This has perpetuated the legacy of abuse that has plagued them for over fifty years.

Each year, thousands of Rohingya pay brokers to smuggle them by boat from Burma and Bangladesh to Malaysia, Thailand and beyond. Recently, thousands
 of Rohingya have been delivered into the hands of human traffickers in Thailand and Malaysia where they are imprisoned in jungle camps, sold into slavery or simply disappear. Desperate and increasingly at risk of more violence, the Rohingya forge ahead despite the rocky ground beneath their feet. They suffer the abuse in Burma but endure. They flee to other countries and adapt. They place themselves at great risk for their families, determined to see their lives are not ruined…

(Images: click to enlarge.)

Images and text excerpted from Greg Constantine’s Nowhere People. Learn more about the project and book, or purchase it at

  • Derek Tonkin

    It is a popular fallacy that the 1982 Citizenship Act “extends citizenship to people from 135 ethnic groups in the country”. The Act, like the 1948 Act, only lists in Article 3 the eight main groups by name, but also extends citizenship to any ethnic group settled prior to 1823. The list of 135 was only drawn up in 1990. At the time of the Act (1982), the current list (last used at the 1973 Census) included Arakan-Chittagonian, Myedu, Kaman, Burmese Muslim, Chinese Muslim and ‘Other Indian Muslims’. The Act guaranteed in Article 6 that anyone who was a citizen under previous legislation remained a citizen. It also provided in Article 4 that the Council of State could determine national races and under Article 8, at its discretion, grant citizenship to anyone.

    So it was not the Act, but the abject failure of the military regime at the time and subsequently to implement the Act, which is the main cause of the statelessness of Arakan Muslims.

  • Anil Maheshwari

    The tragedy of Rohingyas coupled with the tragedy of being Muslims and the callous neglect of HR bodies.