The first time the Myanmar army came to his door to ask about the militants, in early August, Mohammed Ilias, a softly-spoken Rohingya teacher in his mid-forties, invited them in. “My little child welcomed them into the house,” he said. “They said: ‘The teacher’s child is very good. Very nice. He’s welcoming us! How well-behaved he is!’”
Maybe it was the kindness of his son. Maybe it was luck. But that day, Ilias wasn’t among the hundreds he said were rounded up in the village of Doe Tan in Maungdaw township, for interrogation about the new Rohingya insurgency. “At least 400 of them they took to the schools and tortured very badly,” he said.
The next time the soldiers came to Doe Tan, they were on a rampage. Insurgents calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had attacked dozens of police posts two days earlier, on 25 August. In response, homes were set alight and shots fired indiscriminately, Ilias said.
His eyes welled up with tears. “In that gunfire, one of my elder sisters – 75 years old – died in her home,” he said. “I decided: ‘They killed my sister. They may kill us.’” That day, he left the village with his wife and six children, carrying only a piece of plastic to use as shelter on the road.
The chaos that has engulfed Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state over the past three weeks, pushing an estimated 400,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh, has awoken the world to the plight of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority estimated to number around one million.
Soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists are accused of slaughtering civilians and razing villages in a campaign of indiscriminate violence, terrifying in its intensity. But to Rohingya like Ilias, this is the culmination of a lifetime of persecution. It is only the latest brutal chapter in a story of oppression that has deprived an entire people of freedom, education and opportunities over the course of generations.
“They have been torturing us for years,” say many of the Rohingya now living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. The events of August were the final straw.
In the muddy, cramped camp outside the port town of Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi fishing port close to Myanmar, where many of the Rohingya have sought refuge, Ilias sat with his hands folded on his lap. He wears a black watch on his left wrist and a brown checked longyi, the sarong worn by Burmese men. “My name is Mohammed Ilias. I am 46,” he said quietly, beginning his story.
He was born in 1972 to a well-known and respected family, he said. His grandfather, Abdul Aziz, was an influential local leader who had been decorated by the British for fighting alongside them in World War II. During the colonial era, the British had encouraged migration into Rakhine from neighbouring Bengal, supplementing the existing Muslim population.
At the time of Myanmar’s independence, in 1948, the first Prime Minister, U Nu, recognized the Rohingya as an ethnic group. Families who had lived in the country for at least two generations could apply for a green card granting them full citizenship. Abdul Aziz was among them. “My grandfather had a card which was green,” said Ilias. “Green like the colour of leaves.”
But in 1962, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup and introduced sweeping new rules governing national identity. The 1982 Citizenship Act, which excludes Rohingya from a set of accepted races, effectively rendered them stateless.
The junta began issuing Rohingya with temporary registration certificates, or “white cards” that made them “residents” rather than citizens. “My family had so much status, so much honour,” said Ilias. “My grandfather was like a king. He helped the British. He got a green card from the Myanmar government, so why would we take the white card?”
Before Ilias’s father died, when his son was still small, he expressed a wish that at least one of his children follow in his footsteps. But it was becoming more difficult for Rohingya to access decent jobs. They were barred from higher education. “He told my sister: ‘Somehow, please make a teacher from my family,’” Ilias recalled.
Ilias couldn’t go to university, but he managed to get a job at a state-run school, teaching maths and science. It didn’t last long. “After that Myanmar decided not to take Muslim teachers,” he said. “They forced us to resign and took lots of Rakhine people into the schools for teaching.”
He continued teaching informally, he said, sometimes taking payment from parents but more often working for free. But few Rohingya in the village could see the benefits of sending their children for an education rather than to work as farmers or labourers, he said. “Our children were getting an education but they can’t do anything,” said Ilias. “They can’t get a government job. If you are an educated man, but you can’t do anything to earn money, how can you cover the expenses for your family?”
To make ends meet, Ilias ran a small shop in the village. But getting supplies required hiring Rakhines to bring them. Even farmers relied on Rakhines to bring fertiliser for their fields. Relations between the two communities had been tense for years but worsened dramatically after outbreaks of communal violence in 2012.
And then, in 2015, voting rights for Rohingya were withdrawn ahead of the anticipated election in November. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. But it was quickly apparent that advocating for Rohingya was not on her agenda. In late 2016, ARSA militants launched their first attack on police posts.
The ensuing months in northern Rakhine, the center of the new insurgency, were fraught. Imams – accused of lending religious legitimacy to the violence – and community leaders like Ilias were suspect.
In early August, the military called a meeting with educated Rohingya in Doe Tan, Ilias said. They were told to sign a paper promising the tackle the insurgency. “It was a paper given by the military, like a peace contract,” he said.
But the militants attacked again on 25 August and soldiers were soon back in Ilias’s house. They saw bottles of medicine – used to stock his shop, he said – and accused him of treating ARSA fighters. “You are not a teacher, you are a doctor for ARSA,” they told him.
“There were four or five of them,” recalled Ilias. “They pushed me to the ground, then with the pliers they took away my nails. They beat me with a bamboo stick.”
He was saved when a commander recognised him and reprimanded the soldiers. “I saw you, you are a teacher in the school, you are not a bad man,” Ilias recalled the commander saying. “He was just trying to convince me to give information about ARSA. But actually I don’t know about ARSA. How can I give him any information without knowing?”
After fleeing the village, leaving behind the body of his sister Basuma, who he described as a pious and well-liked widow, Ilias heard the whole area had been looted and razed. “The wealth was gone, the houses empty, no people… Then they started to burn from the outside part of the village. They were burning our houses for three days at least,” he said.
The United Nations’ top human rights official has called the recent violence a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Auu Kyi, on the other hand, has attracted international condemnation for failing to speak out. She decided not to attend the UN General Assembly this week, and has limited her comments to saying she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict.
“You start systematically weakening a maligned group in order to make their existence either so fragile that they leave of their own accord, or to ensure they fail to put up much of a struggle when a military operation such as this gets underway,” said Francis Wade, author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’.
Like many Rohingya, Ilias spent years finding ways to work within a system that ground him down. Now in Bangladesh, which has reluctantly accepted the new arrivals but has said it plans to keep them in camps, he is staring into an uncertain future (he was photographed for this article, but from behind, as he did not want to show his face for fear of retribution). “We have lost our homeland. Our birth place,” he said. “We are now here in Bangladesh but we don’t want to make any trouble. We don’t want to be destroyed, like waste.”
Poppy McPherson is a freelance journalist reporting on South East Asia, mainly Myanmar