Human Rights

Beyond Aung San Suu Kyi: Rohingyas

The Rohingyas are the most persecuted and wronged people on the face of the earth today but the world is fixated at the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers.

Plight of Burmese refugees in Saudi Arabia

Mecca: While walking up the Misfalah road to the Haram late at night during Haj, we decided to have a quick supper before entering the Haram as we intended to stay there for long offering prayers and performing Tawaf al-Wida’ (Farewell Tawaf). We saw a small restaurant which had a few tables and chairs for visitors but no table was empty at the time. My wife chanced a 4-seater table where two youngmen of South Asian features were having their dinner. She asked them if we could sit with them and they readily agreed. Soon we started chatting and asked them which country they belong to, as a majority of Mecca population is non-Arab, mainly from the Subcontinent. They said, “We are from Burma.” While one of the youngman was more composed and reserved, the other seemed to be waiting to tell his story to anyone who cared to listen. Let us call them “Salim” and “Hisham” (names changed for their protection).

Salim came to Saudi Arabia many years ago from Karachi where he had moved from Bangladesh. He had fled Burma after the persecution started in 1972 when the military took over. Now he lives in Makkah with his mother and wife and has no proper job. If he is caught working anywhere during frequent police raids, he will have to pay a hefty fine of SR 1000 which was recently raised to a hefty SR 4000. He has even spent two years behind bars for the same crime.

Two Burmese Muslims in a Mecca restaurant
Two Burmese Muslims in a Mecca restaurant

They are part of around 300,000 Arakani or Rohingya Burmese who live in Saudi Arabia as refugees. They do not possess valid residence permits, hence cannot work or do business or find legal employment.

According to Salim, Haj is the only season when they venture outside their slums as the police stops raids and checking during this season. They provide petty services like cooking meals for pilgrims. Even these, if caught by the police, are thrown away though piping hot. For years, Hashim has been dreaming of marrying but is unable to do so because he cannot afford the high expenses involved. The main business of Burmese in Saudi Arabia is to sell to each other, he says. If a Burmese ventures into business in the name of a Saudi, the local guy will take over the business once it takes off and the Burmese will be shown the door by the police which will tell him that every paper relating to the business is in the name of the Saudi, so he better shut up or go to prison.

Hashim says that years ago there was some American pressure on Gulf countries to grant citizenship to refugees who had spent 20 years in any Gulf country. Suddenly a call was made to the Burmese to assemble at the palace of King Fahd who was to distribute citizenship certificates to them. But the Burmese were surprised to receive residence permits valid only for six months. During this period of six months, they were free to work and get employment. But once this period ended, the permits were not renewed and the police raids and arrests resumed and never stopped since. But Burmese refugees in other Gulf countries like UAE and Kuwait received real citizenship certificates at the same time and now lead a normal life.

Hashim says the condition of the Burmese in Saudi Arabia is worse than that of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Burmese in Saudi Arabia remain in contact with people back home in Arakan where the conditions are as bad as ever. Army confiscates half the agricultural produce, levies illegal taxes and collections, which the Rohingyas have to somehow pay in order to escape execution. They have to offer their women to the soldiers on demand. Punishment for failure to comply is a shot in the head. Such is the condition of Rohingyas in their own country and also in the most important Islamic country. The Rohingyas are the most persecuted and wronged people on the face of the earth today but the world is fixated at the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers.             

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-28 February 2011 on page no. 3

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