Jailed Burmese refugees: ‘We came here for freedom’

March 26, 2011
Rohingya refugee mother and child in a refugee camp near the border of Bangladesh and Burma.

Two days after staging a rooftop protest, Burmese Rohingyan refugees inside the Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC), received a notice on March 17 from the immigration department.

“Your concerns about the delays in finalising cases are understandable,” it said.

“New streamlined processes have recently been developed for security checking so that the checks will be completed much faster. This means that for most cases, security checking for people whose refugee claims have now been accepted will be completed progressively by the end of April.”

All the Rohingyans were granted refugee status 10 months ago. The notice was sent to all refugees in mainland detention centres.

A notice sent to refugees held on Christmas Island was longer, with pointed comments about “decision makers” being held up by “unrest” on the island.

I spoke to the Rohingyans at NIDC a few days after they received the news. They said the department had probably intervened to hurry up the process due to overcrowding at Christmas Island, and the need to transfer refugees to the mainland.

I didn’t need to point out the hypocrisy of it: how much anguish, uncertainty, how many suicide attempts, must be endured before the immigration department decides it will intervene to speed up the process?

“We’re happy the government intervened, we are happy and feel good since [the notice],” one refugee told me. “It feels promising for us.”

But he also pointed out that the immigration department had broken its promises before — for example, about getting children out of detention.

“Maybe at the end of April they will be apologising to us for more delays,” he said.

Rohingyans are a persecuted ethnic Muslim minority in Burma. They speak a separate language, but have lived in the western state of Arakan for generations.

Despite this, they are denied Burmese citizenship, and denied recourse under the new citizenship act. With tensions increasing under the repressive Burmese military regime, thousands of Rohingyans have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Some make it to Malaysia, such as the refugees I met.

Malaysia’s abhorrent treatment of refugees is well-documented. It is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, nor has legislation for protection of refugees. Amnesty recently reported widespread caning of refugees by authorities.

The Rohingyans said many refugees are sold to human traffickers by Malaysian immigration officials. They are held in Thailand until their families can pay what amounts to a ransom for their release.

I asked if this had happened to any of them. A few men nodded. One man said: “Not to me. A human trafficker gave me to a fisherman and I had to work on his boat until my family could pay for me to be released.”

They spent many years living in fear in Malaysia. Eventually, they made the scary, difficult decision to leave their families and seek refuge in a country that was a signatory to the refugee convention; a country they thought would respect their rights under international law.

Forty-two Rohingyans came in four boats, arriving in Australian waters between September 2009 and January 2010.

They were all transferred to Christmas Island. Some have since been released and many transferred to other detention centres, including the seven I met. Four have attempted suicide while in detention.

By late May, the immigration department had recognised them as refugees. Not that this meant they were all finally freed.

The conditions in Australian detention, one said, were “100 times better [than in Malaysia]. But in Malaysia, when the UN [High Commissioner for Refugees] intervenes, we are let out of detention. In Australia, we are recognised as refugees and we are still locked up.”

They said they don’t want to complain about conditions at NDIC, having left behind family in much worse conditions in Malaysia and Burma.

“But we didn’t come here for food and a bed [things not guaranteed in Malaysian detention centres]”, one refugee told me. “We come from a very poor country, we are used to being hungry, used to living in the jungle. We came here for freedom.”

Since May, they have been told ASIO was undertaking “security checks”. ASIO, the immigration department and ministers have ignored enquires about the cause of the delay. Some of were interviewed by ASIO for the first time last month.

The men looked tired, battle worn and traumatised. But the government’s notice had made them hopeful.

What else do they have, if not to cling to news from the immigration department and believe that it could lead to their release?

One man I met was particularly withdrawn. I asked about him later.

He left his three children behind in Malaysia. Three months ago, hearing that his children had been left with a friend and were struggling to pay rent and eat, he told his case manager he wanted to return to Malaysia as he could no longer cope with being unable to support his family and did not know when he would be free to do so.

He was ignored and resorted to setting himself on fire.

He is a lot more hopeful now since hearing the news from the immigration department.

But if the immigration department’s promised “streamlined processes” is just another attempt to calm things down, to quell the growing protests — and if the Rohingyans are still in detention in May, June, and beyond — what resources, what hope, will get them through?

I told them there were many Australians fighting to change government policy, to free them and all refugees. We must raise our voices, so those in detention hear us and have something to hope for.

And, importantly, we need this campaign to win, so the detention centres are closed down and the refugees are made welcome.

We must defeat government policies that lead people who want nothing more than the basic freedom others take for granted to attempt suicide and self-immolation.


Rohingyans are a persecuted ethnic Muslim minority in Burma. They speak a separate language, but have lived in the western state of Arakan for generations. Maybe that seems the right fact, but As a Arakanese, I found them coming to our state yesterday and they claim Arakan is their land and seek citizen status of Arakan that is under colony of Burmese regime. They speak a separate language at our home but the same language in Chittagong areas of Bangladesh, so is their appearance different from us but the same with people of Bangladesh. But they are called Rohingya and their pure ancestral relatives in Bangladesh are not called Rohingya, they are called Bengali. Refugees in Teknaf and Ukia in Bangladesh have their ancestral relatives who are not called Rohingya but Bengali or Bangladeshi. Their relatives never help them instead beat and kick them, pushed back them into Arakan with their idea of Islamizing the Arakan. But contrarily, whenever they go to abroad from Bangladesh, they uses the name Rohingya to get some status to work or stay or live in the countries like yours hiding in the skin of the human rights. How many those so called Rohingya coming from Arakan will be affordable to risk or go to your countries in boats. That will be very costly. From the Teknaf, they have to pay 40,000 Taka (Bangladesh Currency) to go just to Malaysia in boats. Not more than a dozen of Refugee Rohingya will be included in a Dozen boats leaving from the Bangladesh towns of Teknaf, Cox's Bazar and Chittagon, because the pure refugee are very poor enough to afford those risky journey that also cost thousands of Taka for a people to travel. Undoubtedly they are the relatives of refugees in human right skin. If you don't believe you can compare boat from Arakan and boat from Bangladesh. Their structure are very different if you will closely look at. It is hundred percent impossible to risk the sea from Arakan, but very easy from Bangladesh. The persecuted are not only those Rohingya, but the pure Arakanese are being widely persecuted on their own land. At least 3 millions of pure Arakanese have already fled to Burma mainland, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Bangladesh, taking shelter in Third Countries like yours, and western countries and Canada and America. For more pure Arakanese who are not Muslim are limited to give refugee status in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a close country of Arakan State, thousands of pure Arakanese who are not Muslim also come to Bangladesh, but never recognized as refugees and they have to flee to Indian borders there they are not also recognized as refugee and living like IDP.
My Dear Human, Subjection might not be for their whatever race. Rohingya's language, tradition and physical appearence proved that they are origion of Arakan. However, it is shown here that Rohingyas are not only denied by rulers but also includes the context of their neighbor Rakhines who are religiously closed to central rulers indoctrinate burmanizing campaigns. Self judging is unacceptable and let the world decide who are earlier settler. Here is THE ORIGIN OF RAKHINE ..(from Historical background of Arakan) In the year 957 AD, a Mongolian invasion swept over Vesali, and killed Sula Chandra, the last king of Chandra dynasty. They destroyed Vesali and placed on their throne Mongolian kings. Within a few years the Hindus of Bengal were able to establish their Pala Dynasty. But the Hindus of Vesali were unable to restore their dynasty because of the invasion and migrations of Tibeto-Burman who were so great that their population over shadowed the Vesali Hindus. They cut Arakan away from Indians and mixing in sufficient number with the inhabitants of the eastern-side of the present Indo-Burma divide, created that Indo-Mongoloid stock now known as the Rakhine Arakanese. This emergence of a new race was not the work of a single invasion. But the date 957 AD may be said to mark the appearance of the Rakhine in Arakan, and the beginning of fresh period. The new English Dictionary states that the word Mog, Mogen, Mogue appear as names of Arakan and the people in 15-16th centuries. Today the Maghs of Arakan and Bangladesh disown this name because the word Magh became synonymous with sea pirates. For more than two centuries the Maghs of Arakan were known as sea pirates in Bengal. The Maghs earned such a bad name during the last many centuries that it has become a great shame for their descendants of today to own the name Magh. Thus they started calling themselves Rakhines. But according to Phayre, the name Magh originated from the ruling race of Magadha and also a well-known poet of Rosanga (Arakan), Dault Kazi (1622-38) mentioned in his Sati Mayna that the kings of Arakan belonged to Magadha dynasty and was Buddhists by faith. According to the Maghs of Arakan, they are descendants of Rakkhasa (bilu); the aborigine of the land and the name of their country is Rakkahpura. Ethnically most of the Arakanese Magh belongs to the Mongoloid race. Ethnologists point out that north-western China, the cradle land of mankind between the upper courses of the Yang-Tse-Kiang and of the Hoang-Ho rivers was their earliest home. They entered the area, now known as Burma, through the upper courses of the Irrawadi and Chindwin in three successive waves. In making this entry they encountered the local Mon-Khmer and by defeating them they settled in Burma. However, Arakan Yoma Mountain separates the Arakanese Maghs from the parent stock. Though descended from the same stock, worshipping the same faith and speaking the same language as the Burmese, the Arakanese Maghs have a distinct culture and have preserved a distinct dialect. Hence the Arakanese Maghs of the northern section, close to Bangladesh, exhibit the original Mongoloid features in lesser and subdued degree than their southern brethren. Whether these ethnic differences are due to the intermixture of race or ecological and other factors it is not known. The Arakanese Maghs are short in stature, whose height rarely exceeds five feet six inches. The body seems to be stocky with relatively short legs and body; cheekbone is high and broad. Females are flat chested with thin lips. Black straight hairs, brown small eyes and flat nose are common features of the present-day Rakhine Magh population. The spoken language of Rakhine Magh is not a separate language but pure Burmese with phonetic variation. Historians commented on the Rakhine language as follows: “The question of the emergence of the Arakanese Rakhine language is more difficult. No inscriptions in the Burmese script are found in Arakan before 11th and 12th centuries. Whether it was the language of the Mongolian invaders of 10th century or whether it filtered across the mountains after contact with Burma in the 11th and 12th centuries is undecided. As Rakhine language is the same language as Burmese, being merely a dialect, to suppose that it was the language of the invaders is to contend that the Mongolians who extinguished Chandras spoke afterwards became predominant in the Irrawady plain. If the country is postulated, and it is argued that the Burmese language, coming over the mountain road, impinged upon the Mongolian speech of the then Arakanese and created modern Arakanese, linguistic difficulties are raised which are difficult to solve. This question awaits judgement.” King Anawratta of Pagan (1044-77 AD) conquered North Arakan, but it was not incorporated in his kingdom. It remained a semi-independent feudatory state under its hereditary kings. When Pagan fell in 1287 AD Arakan asserted its independence under the famous Minhti, whose regime, according to the chronicles, lasted for the fabulously long period of ninety-five years (1279-1374 AD). His reign is also notable for the defeat of a Bengali raid. After his death Arakan was for a considerable time one of the theatres of war in the great struggle between Ava and the Mon kingdom of Pegu. Both sides sought to gain control over it. First the Burmese, then the Mons, placed their nominees on its throne.
Dear Rakhine Loyalist, I hope to talk more conventionally. By James, Email: aung_792000@yahoo.com.sg Your segregation idea is would be useful for Burmese regime. Rohingya is not like Rakhine mixed descend from Burma and migrated from earlier Burma. The Arakan is separate state and original people were migrated from part of India in 5,000 years ago and it was home to Hindu dynasty. Yet Rohingyas' tradition, culture, dialect, feature shown closed to India while Rakhines are not. And there are Thet, Mru, Khami, Dainet, Maramagyi origin ethnic groups livinf in Arakan, are also speak in Rohingya dialects, but they are not violated because they are being non-Muslims. Rohingyas have to prove 'Rohingya' once Burma rulers and its neighbours denied their historical existences, as well as, blending them as Bengali instead of Burmese Muslim or Arakanese/Rakhine- Muslim. Rohingyas have to claim their lands once Arakan state named as Rakhine state in 1974 by BSPP gov in order to form anti-Rohingya state and restore Rakhine independence state. Again in 1983, Thandwe, Gwa, Taungup, Ponnagyan townships of Arakan state were defined as Muslim-free Zones by government. Do you have any record of Rohingya's persecution over any group or individuals. Not you forgotten of both Rakhines and Rohingyas were driven to Bangladesh by Burma invader king in 1784? But Rohingyas have documented proofs of how Rakhines annihilated them in every power transition periods. Particularly in year 1942, 1949 and later in 1967, 1978, 1991 to now by collaboration with Burmese rulers. The world has well documented that; thousands of Rohingyas were killed by Rakhine chauvinists, Rohingya women were raped and Rohingya men were brutally beaten to death by Rakhines, Rohingyas' lands were confiscated and substituted with Rakhines, model Rakhine villages and houses were built on Rohingya lands, Rakhine leaders in exile and home are yet pro-junta and express Rohingya-phobic. You can search more about it through google.. I will openly challenge any feed back against Rohingya.
By Arkasoe, I don't understand about your political career. keep corporate with military and expell your neighbour Rohingyas like you people did before. Before you don't respect the rights of others, then how you know your rights and fight against military ruler.

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