“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.” – From First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks, by Habiburahman.
There has been much written about the Rohingya people of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The Muslim ethnic group has been persecuted for generations, most recently from 2017, when 800,000 picked up whatever they could carry to flee to Bangladesh. But little has been written from the point of view of a Rohingya growing up in Myanmar – the daily humiliations, the struggle for survival, the fear, the stories whispered through generations to ensure they are not lost. Habiburahman, known as Habib, was born in a village in the west of the country around 1979 – he is not quite sure of the year. He has written his life story, and through that, the story of his people.
We meet in his publishers’ bland office in Melbourne, Australia. He is dressed in a neat blue shirt and dark trousers, and his black hair is slicked back. He laughs readily and his phone buzzes with messages.
Habib arrived in Australia by boat in 2009 and, although he is a recognised refugee and has a temporary visa, his status remains unresolved. He is still stateless. He has no passport. “I have nowhere to go,” he says, with a laugh that has little humour in it.
We speak in English and Habib wrote the book in English with the help of a French journalist, Sophie Ansel, who has reported extensively on the Rohingya. He explains that the book began with Ansel writing him questions, to which he would provide long answers about his life. It was first published in 2018 in French and is now being released in English.
Habib says he wanted to write his story because “my generation, my grandfather, great-grandfather – we have been oppressed for a long time and this has never been reported. Our history is [becoming] lost. The land where we lived in the past is now replaced with government buildings, new projects; everything has gone. The new generation of Burmese, they don’t know anything about Rohingya.” He called the book First, They Erased Our Name.
Habib’s own life has been one of erasure and running. In 1982, when he was a small child, the military dictator Ne Win introduced a law that said that in order to be a citizen, you had to be a member of specific ethnic groups – but the more than one million Rohingya were not among them. From then on, Habib writes, “the word Rohingya is prohibited. It no longer exists. I am three years old and am effectively erased from existence.” Burma became isolated and desperately poor. The Rohingya were declared to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It was a “secret identity” talked about only at home. Clandestine language lessons were organised for children.
The book is written in simple language and tells the story without embellishment. There is no need for flourishes; it is relentless.
Habib was regularly called “kalar”, a derogatory term referring to dark skin. He grew up in a world where Rohingya must get permission before leaving their village and official approval before marrying. Many are denied access to education or healthcare – Habib had to falsify documents to pretend he was not Rohingya in order to study at college. They are constantly harassed in a country where, he writes, “tormenting the Rohingya has become a national sport”.
For Habib and his family, life outside the home meant keeping their heads down, trying not to be noticed. Members of the army trashed his father’s small goods and herbal medicine shop, and dragged him and his wife off for questioning. His parents returned the next day, beaten and terrified.
Bribery, in order to stay out of trouble, was routine. Villagers were required to offer up family members to work for nothing for the army. Then soldiers told the family their home was being requisitioned and would be destroyed to make way for military toilets. It became impossible to live in their village, so in the mid-1990s the family fled to Sittwe, deep in Rakhine state, the ancestral home of the Rohingya, where they face intense persecution.
Habib tried to have a life. He dreamed of becoming a lawyer and became involved in a political group while studying in Yangon, secretly distributing pamphlets identifying the riches of Myanmar plundered by the military. The group was raided. Habib and others were tortured. He writes that he was held for days and beaten, his interrogators demanding to know whether his papers were fake, and he was really Rohingya. A teacher helped organise bribes for the guards and Habib escaped to Thailand, eventually ending up in Malaysia.
His nine years in Malaysia brought a new world of purgatory. The country is not a signatory to the UN’s refugee convention, and Habib and hundreds of thousands of others were illegal immigrants, tolerated because they were needed on worksites, but regularly rounded up and detained. Eventually he was put in contact with the UN’s refugee agency, which identified him as a refugee. Life was exhausting and precarious, and he began to talk to the media about the harassment of refugees with nowhere to go. “I am tired of being on edge, day after day, a ball of stress in my stomach,” he writes, “in a world where a single lapse of concentration could turn my life upside down … Because I am my mother’s and my father’s son and I miss my family. Because I am a man like any other.”
Habib ran again, ending up on a boat from Indonesia to Australia in 2009. He was safe, but his ordeal was not over. He spent 32 months in immigration detention centres around the country. Frustrated by delays, he and others staged a rooftop protest and hunger strike in Darwin. He was convicted of damaging commonwealth property, a decision quashed on appeal. But in a country with harsh policies toward refugees who arrive by boat, that incident has meant he is still waiting for a permanent protection visa a decade after he arrived.
He has little contact with his family. His mother, brother and sister live a precarious life on the Myanmar-China border. A sister lives in a Bangladesh refugee camp, and another is a refugee in Norway. One sister followed him to Australia. He says most of his family has rejected him for leaving Myanmar because, as the eldest son, he was unable to help them or send them money.
He has received no counselling. “Culturally, and I personally, we don’t like digging up the old wound, scratching back the scar and talking about the past,” he says. He manages a broad smile. “Whenever I feel it is very hard, I used to take sleeping pills when I was in detention, but outside, instead of sleeping pills, I take beer.”
His daily life involves working for community organisations helping the around 3,000 Rohingya living in Australia, and earning his living in welding and construction. Once a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader at one time considered the great democratic hope of Myanmar, he is disillusioned by her failure to recognise and prevent the persecution of the Rohingya. After decades held under house arrest, she became state counsellor in 2016, and has been criticised for refusing to accept that the powerful military has committed massacres or undertaken ethnic cleansing. After the 2017 military clampdown on the Rohingya, which saw the burning of villages and the killing of thousands of people, the UN described the attack as ethnic cleansing with “genocidal intent”.
Those who fled are reluctant to return without guarantees of safety and human rights. The estimated 400,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar are, according to a UN investigator, living in conditions akin to concentration camps and ghettos.
“She’s just really taken a step for majority representation,” he says of Aung San Suu Kyi. “She doesn’t care about minorities. Not only that, she is defending the military. She is saying, ‘this is not happening, what they [Rohingya] are saying is fake’ and she is blocking the international community coming to Burma.” He recognises international efforts and the work of NGOs, but says developed nations are reluctant to use their power. “The international community’s power has to be backed by the UN, and UN power has to be backed by developed nations, and developed nations have their own interests as to where they will interfere and not interfere. This is why they are not finding solutions to solve the crisis of Rohingya.”
Habib thinks about these big issues all the time and is in contact with groups around the world. In Melbourne, his life is nomadic still. During the week, he works on projects in Geelong, a city to the south-west of Melbourne. On the weekends, he moves in with friends 35km away in Dandenong, where many migrants and refugees live and where local Rohingya organisations are based.
We meet for the second time in a modest blond-brick house, its living room decorated by spectacular arrangements of paper flowers. Shy children arrive to say hello. Habib knows the adults, also Rohingya, from when they all lived in Malaysia. They too arrived by boat and are living on temporary visas, unsure of their future. In Rohingya culture, he says, anyone can stay with anyone, even a stranger. This afternoon, he has a meeting about helping to train Rohingya refugees so that they can find work more easily. Habib says he is proud to be Rohingya and always has been. It took him years to understand why his people were treated so badly, to see the structures and the politics behind it. When he was a child, he was just hurt and bewildered.
“Sometimes I feel, ‘why I was born Rohingya? Why I was born a Muslim in Burma?’ Now I’m thinking, no, I’m not alone. Because of who we are, we are targeted, and why can’t we find a way to have coexistence and a peaceful life? I am always feeling that way.”