Tuesday, June 23, 2009

From Burma to Brisbane: A tale of Rohingya resilience

Sujauddin Karimuddin apologised unnecessarily for being late meeting me for a coffee. He was delayed next door at the Mater Hospital where a woman was having complications after the birth of her baby. The woman was a Burmese refugee and it was Sujauddin’s job to translate symptoms and orders between doctor and patient. All in a days work for a remarkable young man who himself was a refugee for many years.

Both Sujauddin and the woman in the hospital are Rohingyas, a mostly Muslim people that have been persecuted for decades by Buddhist Burmese military rulers. The notorious 1982 Citizenship Act stripped them of their right to be Burmese. At a stroke of dictator Ne Win’s pen, a people who had lived in north-west Rakhine (formerly Arakan) province for centuries were declared unpeople who had no right to jobs, land, marriage or travel papers.

Sujauddin went to High School in the early 1990s suffering under this injustice. As he admits, he was one of the lucky ones. His father was a wealthy businessman in the sugar town of Kyauktaw and could bribe his way out of most problems. But even he had been arrested on several occasions for minor misdemeanours. Sajuaddin became involved in Rohingya support groups at school and wrote complaint letters to school and government authorities. He was arrested by military intelligence and charged with raising funds for armed groups in Bangladesh. His father came to the rescue and bribed authorities to get him out. But his mother could see the writing on the wall. She advised her son to get out while he could.

Sujauddin left his home town in 1998 and has never been back. Travelling without papers, he made the dangerous journey to the capital Rangoon by boat and truck. Hundreds were arrested on this known refugee route and Sujauddin was picked up at a military checkpoint 100km from Rangoon and sent to a prison camp. Here he had a stroke of good fortune. A new commander from up north was unaware he was a Rohingya and asked him why he was travelling without papers. Sujauddin told him he was just a poor person looking for a job in Rangoon. The commander admonished him and then freed him with a note saying “this boy is respectable”.

The respectable boy’s father had business interests in the capital. The plan was for Sujauddin to stay and manage the business. But he was defeated by Rangoon’s repressive laws. Citizens must report visitors on a daily basis with a penalty of two years imprisonment for non-compliance. After six dangerous months moving from friends to friends, Sujauddin admitted defeat. He hired an "agent” (what Australians pejoratively call “people smugglers”) and took a bus to Thailand. He arrived in Bangkok and sold roti on the streets to survive.

Inevitably he was caught and sent to an Immigration Detention Centre. Here they served him rice and pork. As a Muslim, Sujauddin could not eat the pork, but as there was no other food he starved. He had no energy to walk and was eventually dragged into a truck and deposited on the Thai-Burmese border with orders not to return. He ignored the order. Instead he contacted a cousin in Malaysia and asked him to send him money to come south to Malaysia. He got back to Bangkok where he contacted another “agent” to take him south to the Malay border. After an all night walk across the jungle, Sujauddin arrived in Malaysia in November 1999.

He took the train to Kuala Lumpur where he found a factory job. Because he was illegal, the conditions were pitiless. He earned just 20 ringgits a day for 12 hours work. He worked seven days a week and hid for a year. Eventually every Sunday he managed to escape to the university where he found a Rohingyan professor who taught him English. He would study for three hours before returning to work. He got a better job in a shopping centre but lasted just two months before being arrested for a third time in a third country.

Once again he was taken to a detention centre. On arrival he was ordered to strip naked in front of two thousand inmates. Sujauddin refused. “I am a Muslim,” he said. “I have my dignity”. The prison officers beat him up but he refused to obey the order. Fellow prisoners shouted out for him to obey but despite the kicking and the bleeding, he refused obstinately. “I would rather die,” he said. He did not die, but he did not take off his clothes either. The camp foreman ordered he be dragged away.

After three months imprisonment he was put on a bus with other detainees and driven to a river on the Thai border. The prisoners were loaded onto a boat and pushed off shore with orders not to come back. On the other side they were picked up by Thai gangs who worked with police. They demanded 200 ringgits or else they would sell them for 200 ringgits to local fisherman. Those that were sold into slavery rarely made it out alive. Sujauddin promised to ring his cousin in the morning to pay the ransom. In the middle of the night he escaped his captors and led them on a scary chase through the jungle. Sujauddin could hear his pursuers following on motorbikes but eventually found a highway petrol station where a couple helped him escape back to Malaysia.

He made his way back to Kuala Lumpur where he got another job. This time he struck it lucky and got a job with a fashion designer. He used his English to good effect and gradually made himself indispensable to his employers. Finally having some fixity of tenure, he resumed his activism and helped found the National Council of Rohingyas with his former English teacher. They succeeded in getting the UN High Commission of Refugees to issue a document to allow Rohingyas to get medical treatment in Malaysia. But while doctors recognised the document, the police would not. 12,000 Rohingyan refugees in Malaysia remained vulnerable to arrest at any minute.

In August 2005 Sujauddin arrived in Sydney on a 6 month 309 spouse temporary visa. He then applied for a refugee visa which took another 9 months to process. In the meantime, Sujauddin was keeping himself busy. He joined the local Rohingya support group and became secretary of the Sydney branch. He also became involved in wider Burmese issues. He joined the Burma Campaign Australian and also worked with the Burmese Democratic Movement Association. During the Saffron Revolution he organised support rallies in Sydney.

He moved to Brisbane where he now provides new Rohingyan refugees with cultural and language support. The love for his Rakhine homeland still shines brightly in his eyes and his biggest task now is to be re-united with his family who are now in refugee camps in Bangladesh. He wants the Australian Government to do more to help his repressed people. “I want them to put pressure on the Burmese Government and raise the issue in the UN Security Council,” he said. “Enough is enough. Australia is the western country closest to Burma and should take more responsibility to solve the problem. It’s bad enough for the half million Rohingya in the camps but its worse for the several million still in Burma. It’s our job to provide awareness to the international community so that people know what’s going on”. With that, Sujauddin apologised once more and disappeared into the Brisbane rain. I cycled home, oblivious to the wet, pondering on what it meant to live in a world where freedom could not be taken for granted.


AndrewBartlett said...

A great example of how misleading it is to make a blanket smear of 'people smugglers' (as a way of trying to smear the refugees who use them as a desperate means of escaping the serious dangers they face).

Oscar Schindler would be deemed a people smuggler under Australian law, with a mandatory jail sentence attached.

So few people have an idea of the shadowland of constant danger which asylum seekers and refugees live in while they try to seek some permanent security and safety.

The more people we have in Australia who have shown the determination and initiative to survive such circumstances for year after year, the more enriched our nation will be.

Derek Barry said...

Agreed Andrew. "people smugglers" is one of those weaselly nonsense phrases like "illegals" and "queue jumpers" that acts as a political dog whistle.

Meeting Sujauddin was an honour and Australia is fortunate to have people of his calibre here.

Shilpa said...

Thanks for sharing that Derek. I have met Sujauddin and heard about his journey of survival. For us (husband and I) it was a moment of realisation- how fortunate we are to travel across borders and decide where to set down our roots. But for many like Sujauddin or worse still those in refugee camps the choice is between escape to survival or torture and death. To the converted, they stand out for their invisibility as a persecuted minority.

In the case of Burma, with its 50 years of political unrest, military and ethnic conflict leading to the displacement of more than 3 million of its people, the structural changes required to end the mayhem and slaughter is slow to come. It is the international community that can and should push to address the humanitarian crisis in repressive regimes. We need more stories of survival and reclaiming human dignity to help the international communities to make the significant strides crucial to protect the lives and rights of the stateless and the persecuted.

Derek Barry said...

Thanks, Shilpa. Were you the person I was talking to at the Yungaba film festival last week?

Shilpa said...

Derek, you must be the Irish journalist sitting next to us that evening.

Derek Barry said...

yes that's me. And Australian!

Anonymous said...

are you guys sure he is a real helper .Can you think that he is the main hand in smuggling people from Malaysia and Bangladesh camp????
Australia is dishonored to have devil and evil like him .THE TRUTH WILL REVEAL ONE DAY .keep watch ..

Derek Barry said...

Yes "anonymous" I've met him and I'm sure Sujuaddin is a real helper. That includes helping people stuck in the camps.

How about a dose of that truth for yourself - there is no "devil and evil" in Australia or anywhere else for that matter - just people.

James said...

People smuggler is a person who carry to cross the border with little amount and confronting himself into imprisonment.

People smugglers are not trafficker nor refugees are trafficked. Refugees have to hire any smuggler to cross the border where restricted Laws applied against refugees.

If 3 parties are charged in trafficking case, why not this apply similarly on smuggling case. Is not against the clause?