Since the wave of attacks in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August, about 600,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee the land they have called home for generations. They now face hardships in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Muslim minority group has long-complained of persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. They are denied citizenship and face restrictions on movement as well as access to basic services.
Sujauddin Karimuddin knows what it’s like to have to leave Rakhine. He said that in 1995 he also fled with his family.
Sujaud, 37, was born near Kyauktaw, where he grew up. The grandson of an influential judge and the son of his village’s community leader, Sujaud had a relatively sheltered childhood despite the discrimination that he faced as a Rohingya.
He had access to education and his family owned the largest rice field in the village, which they had cared for for over six generations.
However, the tide began to turn against Sujaud and his family in 1995 when the junta announced that everyone in their village was to be ‘relocated’ and given a week to leave their land.
“Everyone in my village was preparing to leave,” he recalled. “But my father announced that he would remain behind to fight for his ancestral land.”
Many people decided to follow suit and stay behind. Sujaud’s recollection of the time was not all grim.
“Despite the tension, there was a sense of camaraderie in the air,” he said. “Everybody shared what they had. Everything was communal.”
However, Sujaud said as the discrimination worsened and the purges intensified, his family had no choice but to escape to a refugee camp at the Thai border.
There, conditions were not much better. They were not allowed to leave, movement was restricted, they had no money, and work and food were scarce.
Driven by desperation, his father with the help of traffickers, took the family to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur in search of a better life. But their hopes of freedom were dashed after they were rounded up by immigration authorities.
“Malaysia has an unofficial policy called ‘buang’ for stateless people,” said Sujaud – a word commonly used in Malaysia and Indonesia to refer to rubbish.
“They would drive us up to the border with Thailand by the busload, and there would be traffickers waiting on the Thai side.”
Sujaud then recounted the three options he had – 200 ringgits ($50) to be taken back to the Malaysian side, 1,000 ringgits ($250) to be taken back to Kuala Lumpur, or to work for his freedom.
“As I had no money, I ended up working on a fishing boat,” he said.
“We were herded on and off the boats [into a camp], and there were armed guards whose jobs were to make sure that nobody left the camp.”
For many – including Sujaud – it was a vicious cycle.
“Many escaped only to find themselves back in the traffickers’ camp,” he said.
“But one night, we decided enough was enough.
“We climbed the fences and by luck, none of the armed guards spotted us,” recounted Sujaud.
But there was still a long way to go before his family found their happy ending.
After about a year and a half in Kuala Lumpur, in 2005 Sujaud made it to Australia where he and his relatives were finally granted asylum. They eventually settled down in Queensland.
His desire to fight for the Rohingya cause, however, continues to burn and Sujaud is now the president of the Queensland Rohingya Community (QRC).
Sujaud has been based in Phnom Penh for a year and has been working in the region helping refugees with the asylum process and making sure their needs are met.
“I realised that the situation has taken a turn for the worse when I counselled a fellow Rohingya who has to live with the guilt of having killed a little boy in the mad scramble for lifejackets as the boat that they boarded began to sink,” he said.
Indeed, the number of Rohingya that are being forced to leave Myanmar due to the escalating violence across Rakhine state has continued to rise.
Sujaud said that according to a QRC estimate there are 4 million Rohingya worldwide, but only half a million left in Myanmar.
“Who knows how many Rohingya will be left if the conflict continues?” he asked.
Sujaud thanked Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina for accepting the refugees, but to him, it is an ad-hoc solution to a bigger problem.
“There has to be a greater understanding of the root cause of the problem. That is Myanmar’s exclusionary identity politics,” he continued.
“Without deeper reforms, we will always be seen as foreigners in our own country.”