Rohingya—'Exiled to Nowhere'

By Steve Tickner 25 June 2012

The recent conflict in Arakan State has returned the predicament of the stateless Rohingya to the international spotlight just as a new photo-book explores their fraught history.

Multi-award winning American photographer Greg Constantine has produced a compelling and revealing collection of photographs combined with personal stories and interviews of individuals describing their blighted lives.

Exiled to Nowhere” describes the lives of Rohingya Muslims who occupy a geographic region which straddles both southern Bangladesh and Burma’s northwestern Arakan State.

Denied citizenship by both countries, the Rohingya are described by the UN as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities” and regularly face a catalogue of human rights abuses as well as restrictions on movement, marriage and reproduction.

Violent clashes erupted in Arakan State after a lynch mob killed 10 Muslims on June 3 in apparent in retaliation for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman on May 28. A total of 50 people have been killed, 54 other people injured, with 78 riots breaking out and 2,230 buildings destroyed by fire in the 18 days through to June 21.

Working over a period from 2006 to 2012, Constantine made eight trips to visit the Rohingya people in southern Bangladesh. While Constantine gained access to the Rohingya through Bangladesh, the words of the people he encountered focus upon life within Burma.

“Since we don’t have nationality in Burma, we can’t live in peace. In Burma they say we are from Bangladesh. When we come to Bangladesh, they say we are from Burma. People view us as if we don’t exist,” a Rohingha Muslim is quoted as saying.

Constantine remains faithful to the classic time-tested photo-documentary form of black and white images to provide a sensitive and comprehensive portrait of the plight of this largely overlooked minority group.

Despite recent moves towards democracy in Burma, this work illustrates quite clearly how mainstream Burmese society continues to marginalize these perceived outsiders.

“Now, after decades of oppression and endemic discrimination against the Rohingya, I believe there is an opportunity to work for a real change,” Tomas Quintana, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, is quoted by Constantine. “The new government faces many and complex issues, but the cause of the Rohingyas must be a priority. We have to work for this.”

The words of Rohingya themselves are used to describe a life almost beyond comprehension as they struggle with being denied citizenship as defined by the current Burmese Constitution.

Add to this severe restrictions on their right to own property, marry and even have children—all designed to make life for the Rohingya exceedingly difficult, if not impossible—and you begin to grasp the depth of the hardships they face.

“Rohingya people who are born in Myanmar don’t have rights,” another refugee is quoted as saying. “Even a bird has rights. A bird can build a nest, give birth, bring food to their children and raise them until they are ready to fly. We don’t have basic rights like this.”