Title: First, They Erased Our Name — A Rohingya Speaks
Author: Habiburahman with Sophie Ansel
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 499
One of the first lessons of life that Habiburahman learnt from his father as a schoolchild was never to identify himself as Rohingya. “We only use it among ourselves in the hut. It is our secret identity. Dad insists we use the term ‘Muslim’ when we introduce ourselves. If we say that we are Rohingya, we would be signing the family’s death warrant, he says. So we never do,” writes Habib, in this memoir of growing up Rohingya.
By then, Myanmar had already delegitimised the group’s existence. In 1982, Rohingya were not included in a list of 135 ethnic groups recognised by the Ne Win military regime as indigenous. “I am three years old, and don’t know yet that I am stateless. A tyrant leant over my cradle and traced a destiny for me that will be hard to avoid: I will either be a fugitive or I won’t exist at all”.
Habib believed he could beat that destiny by getting an education in another province, and left home at 19, to escape the open prison that Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine (Arakan) state, had become. But from that moment on, he became a fugitive and remained one for the following 17 years, until his plea for asylum was accepted by Australia in 2014, but not before he had spent nearly three years in that country’s detention centres. He lives in Melbourne now, but remains stateless, and cannot travel because he has no passport.
The memoir is Habib’s, but it could be any Rohingya’s life story — the frantic process to get false documents as a Shan Muslim; the bribing of policemen who refuse to believe the documents because they identify Rohingya by their skin colour; a sojourn at a government technical institute and a dalliance with the National League of Democracy, whose leader Aung San Suu Kyi was at the time a beacon of hope, all cut short by the junta’s spies on campus; the hopelessness of prison; more bribes for release; the desperate run to Thailand, and from there to Malaysia and Indonesia, pursued in all three countries by special police hunting down illegal immigrants; the escape from human traffickers; and the even more desperate journey across choppy seas in a small boat, all the way to Australia.
The last Habib heard from his brother, he was in China. One of his sisters and her husband fled to Bangladesh in 2017. Another sister was arrested from Yangon after she fled Sittwe with her husband in the anti-Rohingya conflagration of 2012. After bribing officials, she was released, and fled to Norway. After 18 months in the notorious Insein prison, another sister fled to Australia, where she is seeking asylum, while his mother remains a fugitive in Yangon. The father whom he worshipped died in Sittwe after undergoing several arrests and torture.
Habib’s chilling, powerfully narrated personal history, originally written in French with the help of a French journalist and translated into English, is a rare first-hand account of the persecution of Rohingya, and of the futureless escape of hundreds of thousands of the community from Myanmar. It is no accident that there are few other such accounts. An estimated 90 per cent of Rohingya are illiterate, having had no access to education. Along with being prevented from laying any claim to land ownership, extreme restrictions on mobility, and other such poverty-causing repressive measures, it has ensured that there are no strong Rohingya voices speaking up for the group, within Myanmar or in the world.
This is why Habib’s book is important. “Until now, we have been dependent on others to tell our story,” he writes, also pointing out how only one voice from Myanmar mattered to the world even through the killings of 2012, that of Aung San Suu Kyi. “The one voice of Myanmar had not spoken for us, and so now, we would have to speak for ourselves”.
Habib, who runs a blog called Arakan Diary (www.arakandiary.com) lays bare the lengths to which a country can go to enforce a narrow vision of nationhood and nationality, and the unmitigated hatred that goes with othering on the basis of skin colour, features and religion.
“Kalars are like salt for us. We’re going to dissolve you on our tongues until there’s nothing left of you,” a group of Rakhine Buddhists tell a 16-year-old Habib one day as he stops at a tea shop in Sittwe. At the level of government, too, there was nothing secret about this plan. In 1991, an anti-Rohingya military operation was code-named ‘Clean and Beautiful Nation’.
Citizenship in many countries is straightforward enough. There are places where they say, if you are born here, you belong here. Myanmar is not the only place where citizenship is not that simple. In India, the idea of citizenship, belonging, of who is welcome and who is not, is changing before our very eyes. Every country commits its own wrongs. But the story of Habiburahman’s journey from childhood in a little village in the Chin state of Myanmar bordering Rakhine, to growing up in the more polarised Sittwe, to the escape that consumes his entire youth, is a chilling eye-opener for those who dismiss the human, moral and ethical aspects of building nation and nationality.