Read: The world isn’t prepared to deal with possible genocide in Myanmar
Kamal and his family were among about 140,000 mainly Rohingya Muslims who were displaced in the bloodshed of 2012, three years before he and I first talked. Most were rounded up into chaotic displacement camps in Rakhine, where most still reside, while others were held in government-controlled ghettos, barred from leaving. Then in 2017, more than 700,000 others headed to neighboring Bangladesh, searching for safety from a country where they had lived their entire lives but which refused to recognize them. United Nations investigators have called the most recent exodus the result of genocidal military actions.
Kamal made plans for a different path, though—he smuggled himself within his own country. “Do you remember me,” he asked in a recent message. “Now, I am in Yangon.”
Even among the myriad tales of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence, Kamal’s stands out. The 24-year-old, who did not want his full name published for fear of being targeted, is one of the very few Rohingya who have been able to escape a life confined to government slums or squalid camps. His is a route that many are now trying to replicate, whether by land, sea, or air.
The Rohingya have long been subjected to discrimination and communal violence. The minority could qualify for equal rights to other groups when Myanmar—then officially called Burma—won independence from Britain, but in 1982, the country passed a citizenship law that effectively rendered them stateless. Today, government officials here refer to Rohingya as “Bengalis,” asserting that they are not compatriots, but foreigners.
Things have not always been quite as hopeless for the Rohingya. When Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party took power in 2016, she formed a commission headed by the late former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to look at the issues in Rakhine and recommend possible solutions. Observers had a cautious hope that Suu Kyi, who until then had shown negligible regard for the plight of the Rohingya, recognized the situation as untenable and was pushing for a solution. The commission, Suu Kyi said, would help heal a “wound that hurts all of us.”
Then, in August 2017, members of a Rohingya militant group known as ARSA launched attacks on a number of police outposts in Rakhine. The Annan-led commission delivered its final report laying out 88 recommendations just hours before the ARSA attacks, dramatically dimming the prospect of implementation, and the Myanmar military quickly began what it described as “clearance operations,” a disproportionate response to the violence that then spiraled into a frenzy, with widespread reports of rape, arbitrary killings, and arson. (The Myanmar government and military have dismissed such allegations—whether from foreign media, rights groups, or international bodies—as biased and unfounded.)