Q&A | What it’s like knowing your Rohingya family could die tomorrow

State-led violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya population has received increasing attention in the Western media over the last few months, however the oppression of the Muslim minority in the Buddhist-majority country is a long-term injustice. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have already been forced to leave their homes in Rakhine State as a result of ethnic discrimination, and the latest round of attacks by the country’s military has seen a further 600,000 flee, mostly for neighbouring Bangladesh – now facing a humanitarian crisis of its own as a result of the exodus.

State counsellor and (once) iconic Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is being stripped of her various other international accolades at a fast pace, is fielding much criticism for failing to denounce, and act to end the violence – which has been described as nothing short of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Sarah spoke to a New Zealand-based Rohingya woman* who moved to Aotearoa from Myanmar, or Burma as it used to be called, in 2006 with her family. Hers is a moving personal insight into a conflict with no clear end in sight.

Why did you move to New Zealand from Rakhine State?
Same reason – these things that are happening at the moment were happening a long time back. Things at that time were quite unknown, but now people have really gotten to know because of social media and technology. But it was definitely because of the same reason – my dad couldn’t go back because he was a Rohingya, and we couldn’t stay safe, because he wasn’t there with us.

Were you living in the same area that the raids are happening now?
Yes, very close to where things are happening.

So, in theory, if you were still living there you might be affected.
Yes. All our family is in danger, and we can’t do anything about them.

You still have a lot of family living over there?
Everybody. Apart from my siblings and my parents, everyone else is back home. Every day is the same – we wake up with the same hope that things are going to be ok back home, but you hear the neighbours are dead. Somebody you used to call uncle, they’re gone. It’s definitely scary.

I’m so sorry, I hadn’t realised how close to home this was for you. Hopefully it isn’t too upsetting for you to talk about it.
That’s ok, because this is our real life. Every Rohingya you talk to, they all have the same story to tell. At times it feels like you’re lying to people, because you know your story’s the same. But it’s the truth.

What I know of the situation has come from the same sort of media that a lot of people would be looking at. Is the media coverage fairly accurate, or is there a lot that’s not being talked about, and still being hidden?
The media, whatever they’re saying is correct, but it’s just a portion of what’s happening. The reality’s much bigger. They’re not covering exactly what’s happening on the other side. Because even the UN, they can’t even get Burma to allow media in the places that it is happening. The videos and everything that are circulating are from the people that are there, suffering.

How do you find out about what’s happening? Are the communication lines fairly good?
Not all the time. When things get very serious we don’t get to talk to our family – I don’t know, maybe the authorities there stop the communication lines or whatever, but most of the time we are in touch with them. But we can’t always rely on that, because it could go away anytime. We could lose the connection.

“Every day we wake up with the same hope that things are going to be ok, but you hear the neighbours are dead. Somebody you used to call uncle, they’re gone.”

At times we do – seven days, eight days, nine days, we don’t hear from them. And all these times, obviously we are thinking something must have happened to them. When you do hear back, they will tell you exactly what happened.

So it’s very stressful.
It is very stressful. What’s more stressful is that sometimes you get a phone call from the relatives, and they’re like ‘today must be the last day, tomorrow must be the last day’. It’s almost like every day’s the last day for them. To hear that from your own family, it’s very hard to take it in. Especially with my mum living here without any of her siblings; at least I have my sibling here, and I have my parents. She doesn’t have those. So she did start to get other health problems, like depression.

Have any of your family members tried to leave? A lot of people seem to be leaving for Bangladesh.
Oh yes, but they are stuck on the other side of the border, some of them. Actually, just today – about an hour ago – talking to my dad’s sister, she’s going into the camp.

And that’s good?
That’s good, because we know she’s going to live at least.

Have your people always lived in Rakhine State, or were you pushed out there by the government?
From what we know, we have always been living in that area. The name of the area, the Rakhine State, it was initially known as the Arakan State. Arakan meaning it’s the land of the Rohingya. They changed the name, they are changing all this, and finally they came to the people – they want to change the people. But it’s not that easy to just change somebody. They don’t recognise us as Rohingya, but that’s who we are.

Could you give a bit of background as to why the conflict exists? Is it about ethnicity and religion – or something else?
I don’t feel too comfortable answering this question, but just to give you an idea – it has always been about religion, it has always been about ethnicity. It has always been about, just who we are. These things are not new. If you ask a Rohingya, they are not new. This is new to the Western world because you guys are finally hearing about it. But this has been happening forever. All our generations, we’ve heard the same stories. Family being killed here, family being killed there. It’s always been there.

Because there’s more international attention on it, do you have more hope that something could happen, or is it just more distressing to know that more people know about it but the situation is continuing?
I hope something happens, but I don’t see anything happening. Everybody’s condemning, nobody’s taking any action. We can all say ‘I need peace’, ‘you need peace’, ‘she needs peace’ – everybody can say it, somebody needs to deliver it. But there’s no one to deliver. It’s actually more annoying, because the people that are there – like my aunties – they would rather something happened magically, for example a natural disaster or so. Then they don’t have to worry about themselves, or anybody.

“We can all say ‘I need peace’, ‘you need peace’, ‘she needs peace’ – everybody can say it, somebody needs to deliver it.”

Now people are getting sick of the Rohingya news, because it’s been there for sometime. The topic is old. That’s the reality. So no, even after knowing I don’t think much is going to happen.

What’s your perspective on Aung San Suu Kyi? Obviously, she has been lauded as this saviour personality, and her story of incarceration is legendary. But she’s receiving a lot of criticism now for not acting to protect the Rohingya. How do you feel about her?
How do I feel about her? When I look at her, when I see her, all I think is she’s the same person, in the same boat. She’s from the same country – at the end of the day she will have to listen to the captain in that boat. She has a lot of power in her hands, that’s the reason she’s there, in that position, but she’s not going to stick her head out just because she has a Nobel Peace Prize or anything. At the end of the day, we’re not them.

It’s the military that control.
Even if you say it’s the military, officially that country is a democracy. By law they have democracy, but it’s a government thing. I’m sure she has enough power to say what she wants to say, but she doesn’t want to say it, just because people are used to hearing the country is used to being ruled by military. She also has a say, why can’t she say anything?

So you think she does have the power, but she’s choosing not to use it.
She’s choosing not to, because that’s her career. She needs to save her career, and in order to do that she can’t be saving 2 million Rohingya and disobeying 50 million Buddhists. She’s choosing to be with that 50 million and ignore the 2 million. That’s how I see it.

You’re married to a Burmese man. Did you meet in Burma, or New Zealand?
We met in New Zealand.

Was there conflict for either of you with that relationship, or is it ok for people to intermarry?
It was perfectly fine. Civilians, even back home, we were fine with each other – we never had any problems. It’s the government that is brainwashing those people. Even back home we grew up with Buddhists, we are used to having them around us. That’s how we lived. It’s the government that’s brainwashing. But now I don’t think it’s the same.

I love my country so much, but if there were no Rohingya in that country I wouldn’t care if anything happened. That country has given me enough.

What’s the community like in New Zealand? It sounds like there are quite a lot of Burmese people, and Rohingya people living in New Zealand.
The community here is pretty good. They’re all supportive to each other. There was a little bit of youths going on social media and putting up things that they shouldn’t be, but we had a discussion between the two communities, and everything is good.

They were putting things up that were antagonising the situation?
Hate speech, that sort of stuff.

But you find New Zealand a good place to live?
It’s a perfect place. If I was to come back again in this world I would still choose New Zealand, I love it. That’s the country that has given us the right to say, ‘yes I belong to this country’.

Why did you choose New Zealand?
It wasn’t my choice initially, we came here because our parents did. We were quite little when we came. But, if I had to choose myself, I would choose New Zealand – because I have all the freedoms in the world. Back home we have to carry a document just to move from one area to another area. 20-minute drive – you need a special documentation. If you don’t have it, you will be in trouble.

“New Zealand [is] the country that has given us the right to say, ‘yes I belong’.”

Here I don’t have to worry, even if I want to go anywhere else in the country. That’s the type of freedom I have here, that I never did back home.

How old were you when you moved?
I was about 8 when I came to New Zealand, I didn’t know too much about what was happening back home. We did hear a lot of tales, and all the stories, and as I got older I got to know more and I found out more about why we left. At the time we were leaving, I didn’t know why I was leaving home. When I came to New Zealand, after three months, I was asking my mum, ‘When are we going to go back home, and when will I see my cousins?’ She was shocked, didn’t know what to say.

Your father is in New Zealand also?
Yes. My parents are in New Zealand, my siblings are in New Zealand.

And I take it you haven’t been back?
No, I don’t think I’ll ever go back. I don’t ever want to go back, actually. If I can have a choice in this world, to have all my family and relatives in New Zealand I will have them here, and will never ever look at Burma ever again.

It’s such a beautiful country. It’s so sad that there’s so much violence and hatred.
We never grew up with this hatred, it’s them making us. I still don’t have any hate for those locals that we used to know. We only knew them as our friends and neighbours. It’s not the people, it’s the government. It’s got nothing to do with the people. The people are just being brainwashed, nothing else.

How does the brainwashing actually happen? Through the media, or schooling? The law?
It is through the media. And then those people, they have the right to do what they want to do back home, so they can have access to whatever they want. They can get access to more information, where we don’t have any of that and we just stay home. If you’re a woman you look after your kids, if you’re a man you do farming. That was the life we knew back home.

And now, in New Zealand, do you work?
I do work, my husband works as well. I work with an NGO in New Zealand.

And that feels good to you to be able to do that?
Oh yes. My parents dreamt that we’d graduate, that one day we would have a degree – and we did that, here. The dream came true here, in New Zealand – not the country they were born in, called home once.

*Our interviewee requested anonymity to protect herself and her family.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.

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