Beyond All Bounds

How Myanmar’s democratic opening has failed the Rohingya

Sectarian violence swept through Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2012, leaving at least 200 people dead and over 100,000 displaced. STAFF/ REUTERS
Elections 2024
01 November, 2015

ONE NIGHT IN 1992, ten army buses came to Lawadong, a village about 20 kilometres from Maungdaw—the last city in west Myanmar before you reach the Teknaf River, which separates the country from Bangladesh. Soldiers told all the village’s Rohingya residents to pack up immediately and leave, because they wanted to build a camp there. When the residents asked where they could go, a 48-year-old Rohingya woman who was there recalled, the soldiers said, “This is not your place. Your fathers are from Bangladesh. Go there, or go to the sky.”

Many Rohingya, accustomed to abuse as members of a Muslim minority in largely Buddhist Myanmar, left. A few days later, the woman said, the soldiers returned. They had a list of the names of all the Rohingya in the village, and warned the few non-Rohingya residents not to help their Rohingya neighbours. Rohingya men who had remained were taken away or tortured. Women, particularly those without men in their homes, were harassed. Some, including the woman, were taken away and forced to work at a temporary camp the soldiers had set up nearby—tidying, doing laundry, cooking. They had to look for their own food. The woman recalled regularly hearing the screams of other Rohingya women being raped.

One morning, she woke up early and escaped to Maungdaw—a staging post for Rohingya looking to cross into Bangladesh. A few weeks later, she managed to get on a boat. It was intercepted, as such boats often are, by Burmese soldiers. The woman, travelling with her three children—two boys and a girl—was forced to give up two necklaces her grandmother had given her. She had no money or valuables when she stepped onto Bangladeshi soil.

I met the woman in January last year in Kutupalong, a sprawling, official Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Ukhia upazila, or sub-district, near the country’s southern tip, which lies pincered between the Myanmar border and the Bay of Bengal. I had come from Cox’s Bazar, a tourist resort and fishing port. On the hour’s drive south to the camp, with a small group of activists working with the Rohingya, I saw Bangladeshi tourists enjoying fresh seafood at restaurants along what is touted as one of the world’s longest stretches of beach.

The camp was a picture of misery. Officially, Kutupalong and another nearby camp, at Nayapara, are home to the approximately 30,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh legally recognised as refugees. The total number of Rohingya in the country, according to relief agencies, is as least seven times higher. The refugees’ huts and tents seemed powerless to withstand the fury of the Bay of Bengal monsoon, which batters this coast every year. Each dwelling, I was told, is home to up to ten people—sometimes two whole families, not necessarily related. Water is scarce, and when available it is brackish. Women and children spend hours every day collecting water from a few handpumps, which hiss much but yield little. Doctors visit infrequently, and the area’s only hospitals are in Cox’s Bazar, or in the large port city of Chittagong, at least four hours’ drive north. There is no regular transport connecting the camps to the cities.

I had heard that conditions were far worse in unofficial camps—at Rajapalong and Khuniyapalong—that housed undocumented Rohingyas. The activists who brought me to Kutupalong refused to take me—a journalist and a foreigner—there, fearing backlash from Bangladeshi authorities. With the risk of official retaliation in mind, I decided not to name any of the people who spoke with me about the camps or at Kutupalong.

I was led to a small brick hut, furnished with three chairs and a table. It was dark inside, since there was no electricity, and outside there was a single communal toilet. This was the office of an NGO, and so was relatively comfortable. I spent two sweltering hours there, interviewing the 48-year-old woman and four Rohingya men. They spoke in the Rohingya language, which an activist translated into Bengali.

The woman told me her children lived scattered across two camps in Bangladesh—one legal, one not. The previous year, one of her sons, aged 27, had tried to sneak into Malaysia aboard a trawler full of refugees. The boat carrying him was intercepted by Burmese authorities, who sent him back to Bangladesh.

On a 2013 trip to Shah Porir Dwip, at the mouth of the Teknaf, where the road south from Cox’s Bazar ends, locals had told me of flashing lights they often saw out at sea, indicating that the coast was clear for boats to bring people from Myanmar to Bangladesh, or to set out for South East Asia. Hundreds of smugglers compete to traffic poor Bangladeshis, Rohingya and others, charging thousands of dollars per head. The journey to Malaysia—where unskilled labourers can earn several times what they do in Bangladesh—takes up to a week.

At one point in our conversation, the woman broke down. “We are not afraid of death,” she said through her tears. “We are already dead … I have gained nothing in Myanmar or Bangladesh. I will gain nothing, there or here. I don’t care. They can do what they want. They can hang me if they want to. I have suffered enough.”

One of the men, who was 47 years old, told me five generations of his family had been born in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, formerly known as Arakan, which borders Bangladesh and has historically been the Rohingya homeland. Still, he said, he was always treated as an outsider there. When he reached class eight at school, he had to take on a “Burmese” name to study further. So he became Khi Maung. But teachers kept intentionally failing Rohingya students, and he, like many of them, had to drop out. When he tried to arrange paperwork to rent a property, he was beaten up. Soon afterwards, he came to Bangladesh. “We live like this, here or there. We don’t belong anywhere,” he said.

Over 200,000 Rohingya are thought to be in Bangladesh, many in camps near the Myanmar border such as the one at Kutupalong. JONATHAN SARK / GETTY IMAGES

The other men described how the Burmese army had rounded them up to carry weapons and supplies on operations against insurgents. “Sometimes exhausted workers fainted,” one of them said. When any of them died, the soldiers dumped their bodies in holes and moved on. Another man, aged 38, was forced to become an army porter when he was 16. “They would beat us up if we said no,” he told me. After about seven weeks of this work, he escaped to Bangladesh. “Now I am in a camp here, which is like a jail,” he said. “When I speak to my family, who are still in Myanmar, they say they are also in a jail. But it is a bigger jail.”

THE ROHINGYA ARE AMONG the most persecuted people on earth. Including the over 200,000 in Bangladesh, there are an estimated 1.5 million of them worldwide, with an estimated 1.1 million in Myanmar. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh have made it amply clear that they do not want them. The vast majority of Rohingya are stateless, rejected and commonly forced away by countries they try desperately to enter to escape misery.

Every year, particularly with the end of the monsoon, thousands buy passage on overcrowded boats and ships operated by human smugglers, aiming to reach the prosperous economies of South East Asia or beyond. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 25,000 migrants took to the Bay of Bengal in the first quarter of this year—double the number for the same period in the two preceding years—an estimated 40 and 60 percent of them from Rakhine state. Many of them never reached their destinations. Those who die at sea are unceremoniously tossed overboard. In May, smugglers abandoned shiploads of Rohingya on the high seas as country after country in South East Asia refused to let them land. Last month, the human rights group Amnesty International released a report detailing the “hellish” abuse of Rohingya refugees by traffickers, and said that hundreds, perhaps thousands, had perished after being abandoned at sea at the start of this summer. It also warned of further tragedy as thousands more Rohingya prepare for perilous sea journeys in the coming months.

For centuries, the Rohingya have lived in the area that now straddles the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Through the early twentieth century, while the area was under British rule, they moved freely across it. After the Second World War, most of them ended up in the territory of a newly independent Burma, as Myanmar was known then. But many in the young country considered them intruders from “Bengal,” or what at that point was East Pakistan. Since then, they have faced simmering hatred and appalling mistreatment in Myanmar.

Anti-Rohingya hostility has periodically exploded into violence, sometimes on a massive scale. The most shocking recent example came in 2012, when sectarian attacks in Rakhine state left at least 200 people dead. Human rights groups accused the Burmese military and state of abetting, and even participating in, anti-Rohingya violence. Thousands of homes were burned, and over 100,000 Rohingya were displaced. Many of them still live in refugee camps inside Myanmar, unable to go home. In 2013, the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch accused the Myanmar government of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state, and crimes against humanity—including systematic displacement, killing, torture and rape. This May, Tomás Ojea Quintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said publicly that “the Rohingya are in a process of genocide.” Soon afterwards, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu called the persecution of the Rohingya a “slow genocide.”

Until a few years ago, there was reason to hope that the Rohingya people’s torment in Myanmar might ease. In 2003, the military government that had ruled Myanmar since 1962 announced a seven-phase “road-map” to return the country to democracy. As that process gathered pace, in 2010 Myanmar held a general election, which the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted and declared unfair. Six days after those elections, the NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and an icon of Burma’s long democratic struggle, was released from house arrest. A raft of reforms followed in 2011, and Aung San Suu Kyi was voted into parliament in a by-election in April 2012. Foreign nations gradually loosened economic sanctions imposed against the military government. Many expected that Myanmar’s staggered democratisation would mean an improvement in the country’s appalling human rights record, and in its treatment of the Rohingya. Particularly among her international supporters, Aung San Suu Kyi was expected to stand firmly on their side.

Then the 2012 attacks started, sparked by unconfirmed reports that three Muslim men had raped and murdered a Buddhist woman. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD mildly criticised the violence, but remained largely silent on the Rohingya predicament. Asked specifically if Rohingya living in Myanmar ought to qualify as citizens, the NLD leader replied, “I do not know.”

Besides a small handful of commentators, no one from across the country’s political spectrum spoke up for an end to the persecution, statelessness and collective revulsion of the Rohingya. Instead, as restrictions on political groups and the media loosened and allowed for freer discourse, Buddhist and nationalist chauvinists inflamed hatred of the Rohingya—and of other Burmese Muslims too, including the Zerbadee, who have mixed ethnicity, the Chinese-origin Panthay, and the descendants of Muslim migrants from colonial India.

This month, on 8 November, Myanmar goes to the polls in a general election—its first meaningfully free one since 1990, when the military, taken aback by an NLD victory, reneged on promises of democratisation, annulled a vote, and imprisoned the party’s leadership and thousands of others. The campaigning for the election this year, far from emphasising greater tolerance in a country that is a patchwork of ethnicities and nationalities, has seen subterranean prejudice come into full light, to become a plank of popular politics.

Regardless of the outcome of the 2015 election, the future remains bleak for the Rohingya. The military, which still commands immense power, has a party of its own—the Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP—has the support of the Buddhist right, and has little sympathy for the Rohingya. The NLD, the only broad-based opposition party, has been cautious not to make any firm statements in defense of Rohingya or Muslim rights. Of its 325 candidates for the lower house, 167 for the upper house, and 659 for regional and state parliaments, not a single one is Muslim—though Muslims are thought to form about 10 percent of Myanmar’s population. (The government puts the figure at 4 percent, but Muslim groups dispute official figures.) The other significant players in the vote are small parties representing specific non-Muslim ethnicities. Rohingya, as they are not recognised as citizens, cannot vote. Whatever hopes remain of a democratic impetus for aiding them are foundering.

RAHKINE STATE IS A SPRAWLING LAND OF RAGGED HILLS, fertile plains, long beaches and mud flats. Muslims first arrived in this region in the eighth century, and lived under a series of dynasties that gained and ceded control of it over the next millennium. Towards the end of the 1700s, it was taken over by kings of the Bamar ethnicity, which accounts for the majority of Myanmar’s population today. The British defeated them in 1826, and by 1885 ruled all of what is Myanmar today. In 1935, the British made Burma a separate administrative entity. By the time the Japanese invaded British-controlled Burma as part of the Second World War, in early 1942, about a third of the population of Sittwe, Arakan’s biggest city, was Muslim—almost all of them Rohingya.

This May, several South East Asian countries turned away shiploads of Rohingya refugees abandoned at sea by smugglers. After a Thai army helicopter dropped food to a ship stranded in the Andaman Sea, refugees struggled to bring the supplies on board. CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/ AFP / GETTY IMAGES

That is no longer so. Today’s Sittwe—the capital of Rakhine state, home to some 150,000 people, and a place of peeling colonial houses, ramshackle huts and crowded, noisy bazaars—is almost exclusively Buddhist. The attacks in 2012, which were as vicious there as elsewhere in the state, forced thousands of Muslims away. Fewer than 5,000 remain, confined to Aung Mingalar, once a thriving Muslim quarter.

Even before then, the area’s Rohingya had endured decades of displacement and violence. During the Second World War, the Rohingya sided with the British, to the resentment of Burmese nationalists, who supported the invading Japanese. When it became obvious that the Japanese were losing, the Burmese switched sides, but anger towards the Rohingya remained—exacerbated by a perception that the Rohingya were Indians, whom the Burmese resented for being part of the service class of the British Empire. Things got even worse after 1947, after some Rohingya started demanding that the border portion of Rakhine state be joined with East Pakistan. A small Rohingya insurgency materialised, but it never gained more than a few thousand adherents. In fits and starts, several minor armed Rohingya rebellions have risen up across the decades since.

In 1962, General Ne Win seized control of Myanmar in a coup. The military cracked down on the Rohingya, and many streamed across the East Pakistan border. Then, in 1971, East Pakistan seceded from West Pakistan, leading to a war that created an independent Bangladesh. Millions of Bangladeshis fled the conflict. Most headed to India, but a good number came into Myanmar, and especially into northern Rakhine state, though they were not welcomed. In 1974, partly to defuse demands for independence by the Rakhine people, a distinct Buddhist ethnicity, Ne Win’s government recognised their claim to majority status in the state, further marginalising the Rohingya. Four years later, the military orchestrated Operation King Dragon, a large attack against a putative Rohingya insurgency. The operation indiscriminately targeted Muslims, including Bangladeshi refugees, and about a quarter of a million people, mostly Rohingya, escaped to Bangladesh.

After negotiations mediated by the United Nations, Myanmar agreed to take some 200,000 of them back. But in Burmese popular belief, by this point all Rohingya were tarred as Bengali intruders. In 1982, Myanmar passed a citizenship law that disenfranchised the Rohingya. They are not among the 135 distinct ethnicities recognised by the Burmese state.

Another army operation started in late 1991, and pushed over 200,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh in a matter of months. The United Nations later supervised their repatriation, and most of them were sent back. Since the start of the 2000s, and particularly after the Islamist attacks on the United States in 2001, Myanmar has painted the Rohingya as fundamentalists with links to international militant groups. Bangladesh, meanwhile, has militarised its border, and erected watch towers and barbed-wire fences along parts of it.

Through the 2000s, anti-Rohingya persecution and racism continued. In 2009, as images of emaciated Rohingya leaving Myanmar by sea played across the world’s television screens, Myanmar’s consul general in Hong Kong wrote to a local newspaper calling them “ugly as ogres,” without the “fair and soft” skin of Burmese people. A US State Department report on religious freedom in 2011 stated that Myanmar prohibits large Muslim gatherings except on religious holidays, bans the use of loudspeakers for the Muslim call to prayer, “makes extremely difficult” the construction of new mosques and restricts the restoration of old ones, and imposes tight controls on printing or importing religious books. The stage was set for 2012.

ON THE SUNDAY OF 4 OCTOBER THIS YEAR, little more than a month before election day, 10,000 monks, nuns and laypeople gathered in regimented order inside a stadium in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and commercial capital, for a mass meeting of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion—a conservative Buddhist organisation, commonly known as Ma Ba Tha after its Burmese acronym. It was created in January 2014, bringing together a wide coalition of prominent monks, and has a network of chapters stretching across Myanmar. Numerous monks addressed the gathering. “We are very afraid,” one speaker said, justifying the attacks of 2012 as a necessary step for the protection of the Buddhist faith. By many accounts, extremist monks stoked anti-Muslim anger and encouraged violence during the carnage. “This violence,” he continued, “emerged because our people were neglected by the law.”

Ma Ba Tha supporters and members gathered in a stadium in Yangon, and at rallies and meetings across Myanmar, to celebrate four laws for the “protection of race and religion” passed this summer SOE ZEYA TUN/ REUTERS

The meeting was held partly to celebrate four laws, passed this summer, for the “Protection of Race and Religion.” Ma Ba Tha had campaigned hard for them, and marked its success with numerous rallies and gatherings across the country. The laws ban polygamy, and mandate that women wait 36 months from their last delivery before having another child. They also require government approval for any religious conversions, and for marriages between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. These measures are widely seen as specifically targeting Muslims, and particularly the Rohingya. Thein Sein, a USDP leader and Myanmar’s president, had helped fast-track the laws through parliament. In a USDP campaign video, the former general, tipped to continue as president after the election, flaunted the legislation as a highlight of his tenure.

Thein Sein and the military-backed USDP’s collaboration in the Buddhist-right agenda points to a consequence of Myanmar’s democratisation that few seem to have anticipated when the process began: the emergence of religion as a powerful force in the country’s politics. Under the military dictatorship, the army zealously kept political power to itself. Since reforms started, however, parts of the Buddhist clergy have secured a good deal of it for themselves, by asserting Buddhist nationalism and using Muslims, and particularly the Rohingya, as an imagined enemy. They aim to make their definition of Buddhism central to Myanmar’s future, and to Burmese identity. No USDP leader has opposed them in public. The NLD, facing electoral uncertainty and caught between defending both its popularity and its democratic credentials, has prevaricated, and tried to accommodate the chauvinism these monks champion.

Shortly before the mass meeting, the Ma Ba Tha leader Ashin Wirathu endorsed the USDP and criticised the NLD in an interview. Wirathu has become the most prominent face of the organisation, and of Buddhist extremism in Myanmar. Born near Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, he left school in 1982, aged 14, to become a monk. In 2003, he was arrested and imprisoned for fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric, but he was released in 2010 as part of Myanmar’s reforms. Since then, like many monks, he has made full use of the opening of the public sphere to loudly voice his views.

Myanmar’s political parties, including the opposition National League for Democracy, are competing for three-quarters of the seats in the national parliament. The constitution reserves the rest for unelected military appointees. SOE ZEYA TUN/ REUTERS

Wirathu led a rally in Mandalay in September 2012, as violence was flaring in Rakhine state, in support of a statement by Thein Sein proposing that all Rohingya be moved out of the country. The following March, he made inflammatory speeches in the build-up to anti-Muslim violence in Meiktila, where about 40 Muslims were killed. Afterwards, followers of the 969 Movement—a group led by Wirathu, whose name refers to the Buddhist belief in nine special attributes of the Buddha, his six core teachings and nine attributes of the Buddhist order—distributed stickers reading “969” in the city. Instead of any sanction, such incitement earned Wirathu growing fame.

In Yangon late last year, I saw DVDs of Wirathu’s speeches easily available in shops downtown. In these, he has said that the halal way of slaughtering animals celebrates bloodshed and is against world peace, and that Muslims are abducting and converting Burmese women against their will. He has also called for all Muslims, not just Rohingya, to be expelled from Myanmar. On one DVD, he calls for a boycott of Muslim businesses. Since last year, some Buddhist monks have been urging customers to shun a Qatari mobile phone network competing in Myanmar’s recently liberalised market. On social media, Wirathu’s sympathisers use their new-found freedom of speech to amplify his message and threaten Muslims.

They also silence those who dissent. At a literary festival late last year, several monks rose from the audience and started shouting slogans as a Muslim author came on-stage to read from his work. Other writers tried to calm them, but the monks continued. One writer present there told me that the monks boarded military trucks as they left. Ma Thida, a writer, physician and former political prisoner, told me last month that such disruption has become routine at literary events featuring Muslim authors, or authors from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Ma Thida has been criticised for offering her medical services at a Muslim hospital.

Myanmar’s military elite has given the monks a loose rein. Buddhism holds a central place in Burmese culture and society, and monks have a history of political activism. They participated in the resistance to British rule, and in a massive democratic uprising in 1988 that was ultimately crushed. In 2007, defying the army’s grip, they played an instrumental role in a series of large-scale political and economic protests. That, in particular, left the regime rattled. Wirathu was not part of that revolt, and the government seems far more comfortable with his brand of Buddhist activism than that shown in 2007.

Supporting such chauvinism is an easy populist position. “Wirathu knows people’s mentality, and says what people will want to hear,” Ma Thida said. Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and author of many books on Myanmar, pointed to another crucial factor. “These monks are important as a military-backed force to undermine support for the NLD,” he told me last month.

The NLD, with no executive positions  and only a small presence in parliament following the last by-elections, has scant power to oppose the extremists, and has shown little initiative to try. In September, the party filed a complaint with Myanmar’s election commission, accusing Ma Ba Tha of maligning it and using religion to illegally influence voter sentiment, but nothing came of it. Early last month, the veteran NLD leader Tin Oo called on Wirathu in what was read as an attempt to defuse Ma Ba Tha’s outspoken opposition to the NLD.

Things might have looked different had the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi been acting from a position of strength. But the party is hobbled by rules designed to favour the military elite, and its fortunes have not followed the expectations many had for it at the start of Myanmar’s democratisation. Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from challenging for the presidency by a constitutional amendment, reconfirmed by the parliament just this June, that disqualifies anyone with a foreign spouse or children from that office. Aung San Suu Kyi is the widow of a British national, and has two sons holding British citizenship. Another constitutional handicap is that a quarter of all seats in both houses of parliament are reserved, by law, for unelected military appointees.

In her transition from resistance leader to popular politician following the reforms, Aung San Suu Kyi has toned down her criticism of the military and the government. For instance, on a BBC radio show in 2013, she said all Burmese soldiers were like family to her, since her father, the independence hero and general Aung San, was the father of the Burmese Army. On the Rohingya, she said little. But, as many analysts have said, the compromises she has made have not yielded her broader legitimacy—though she has said that that was never part of her calculations.

Aung San Suu Kyi recently stated that she expects the NLD to win a parliamentary majority in the election, and to form the next government. Michael Vatikiotis, the director for Asia at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, an international conflict-mediation group, told me, “She is saying that as deliberate strategy, but it does not reflect political reality.” Electoral forecasting is not sophisticated in Myanmar, but observers expect the ruling USDP to pull in at least 15 percent of the vote—which, together with the army’s guaranteed 25 percent of seats, could well give it enough seats to form a controlling coalition. The NLD is predicted to win a significant share of seats too, particularly in the Bamar-dominated central and southern provinces, where it enjoys its greatest support. But, Lintner pointed out, even if the NLD wins all the seats from those provinces it will still find it very difficult to form a majority in parliament.

A lot hinges on results in the provinces dominated by ethnic minorities that line Myanmar’s borders—which account for almost a third of Myanmar’s parliamentary constituencies, and where ethnicity-based parties dominate. Since Myanmar’s independence, these areas have witnessed anti-government insurgencies. The government would like people to believe that these have been pacified by a recent peace accord it signed with a host of ethnic organisations, but, Lintner warned, only two genuine and active rebel groups have signed on, and “the war is far from over.” The displacement and suffering caused by these conflicts is as tragic as that of the Rohingya. Still, voting is expected to go ahead in these areas without interference. The NLD is not expected to win much of the ethnic vote, nor is the USDP. Both major parties will have to scramble for the ethnic parties’ support in parliament, and each of them could swing either way.

In all of this, the disenfranchised Rohingya will have no say, and no party stands to gain from siding with them. There has been widespread international outcry over their plight, but even outside Myanmar now, many are willing to overlook their suffering as a necessary price to ensuring that the country’s still-precarious political and economic transition continues. A foreign development expert in the country, who asked not to be named, told me that this election is a vital step to decentralising power, and it is best not to bring up contentious issues at this time. No government is likely to impose sanctions on Myanmar again over the Rohingya issue.

Of course, that is no comfort for the Rohingya themselves. Many I met in Kutupalong in 2014 felt betrayed, especially by Aung San Suu Kyi. “When she was in prison, our fathers and others in the community prayed for her, hoping she will come out and she will do good for the country,” one refugee told me. “But they are not finding anything good from her, so we are upset.” But, he added, “we hope she might do something for us, and we still support her.”

DENIED THE BALLOT, the Rohingya vote with their feet. Thousands continue to stream into Bangladesh, and beyond. But even outside Myanmar, their chances of a dignified life remain grim.

Bangladesh, in the hope that the refugees will be resettled elsewhere, does little to improve life in the camps. Rohingya children are allowed to go to school—if they get to go at all—only up to the fifth grade. There is some paranoia that Rohingya, with their conservative interpretation of Islam, could be easy recruits for fundamentalist groups. Even without Rohingya people’s involvement, though, their plight has already contributed to communal strife in Bangladesh.

Rohingya in Myanmar, estimated to number some 1.1 million people, will not be able to vote in the country’s general election. JONAS GRATZER/ GETTY IMAGES

After the 2012 attacks in Rakhine state raised anger against Buddhists, a manipulated picture of a desecrated Quran circulated on social media and sparked attacks on Buddhist holy sites by Bangladeshi Muslims in areas near Cox’s Bazar. In the village of Ramu, on a visit in 2013, I saw a pagoda defaced by obscene graffiti, and the decapitated head of a Buddha statue in a desecrated shrine. In all, 22 Buddhist pagodas were destroyed in Bangladesh’s southern strip, along with many Buddhist homes. The government reacted quickly. Charred remains were cleared and walls painted afresh, homes were rebuilt, and I saw one pagoda being repaired.

Now, Bangladesh wants to move the refugees from the camps. Government officials consider them eyesores in an area that Bangladesh hopes will attract international tourism and investment. The government has proposed moving the Rohingya to Thengar Char, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal formed by the sediment of the Meghna River, which often disappears at high tide and reportedly only emerged from the sea eight years ago. It lies about two hours from the coast by speedboat, and regularly gets hit by cyclones. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has called the plan “logistically challenging.”

As I was leaving Kutupalong, a thin, soft-spoken young man, dressed in a brown shirt and trousers, came up to me. He was 22 years old, but looked no older than a teenager. After some hesitation, he began to talk, but he would not take his eyes off the ground. “I wanted to be a doctor or an engineer,” he said. “I wanted to study science. But we are not allowed to study beyond the fifth grade. We cannot earn money. We cannot do anything. We can only stay in these camps. We have no place to keep anything.” He was the oldest member of his family, and said it was very difficult to look after them.

He said he often intervened with authorities to rescue other young people in trouble. “Whenever there is any trouble in Bangladesh in this area, they say we refugees are involved, and the local government arrests all the young people,” he said. “Locals attack us if they see us and they don’t like us. They take away what little we have.”

“I was born here, but I have no future,” he continued. “We cannot go out. If anyone can help us, please tell them to help us. If a bird lives for 20 years in a cage, it will die. Now we have been here for more than 20 years. What is our future? Do we live in this situation for the rest of our lives?”

He struggled to stop himself crying.

“We have gone from one prison to another,” he said. “Will we ever know freedom?”