The tamarind is always sour.
If you crouch and hug your knees to your chest, and feel the skin of a man’s arm peeling against your own, and the sweat collecting on your nose drips onto the back of another man hunched over in front of you; if slices of light sift through the wooden slats a foot above your head, and your stomach feels like it is grinding stones, your throat clenches against swallowing each waft of urine and vomit, and the sting from a gash torn through your thigh by a rubber gear belt swung at you like a mace burns like the entire limb is being ripped off, like the chilli powder a filthy hand ground into your eyes; if you and the hundreds in the hold with you have been like this for twenty days, the gentle but maddeningly off-beat rocking of the sea pierced only by the occasional screams of women above deck, and you don’t know when it will end, and even when it ends you don’t know how every day after that will end, if you will be in bed with your wife or in jail, as confined to a cell as you were to the village your grandparents built a thousand miles from here, where you had a house but no quarter, land but no country, time but no future; if you do not exist on paper, anywhere, if no one will take you in, and you are drifting, always, then you know what that means. You know the tamarind is always sour.
When I travel for work, it is neither a president nor a queen but the Secretary-General of the United Nations who requests free passage for the bearer of my passport, officially called a laissez-passer, French for ‘let pass’. Its sky-blue cover is embossed not with the seal or flag of any one nation but with an outline of the world, all the inhabited continents as seen from the North Pole, swaddled in olive branches. I have presented it to dozens of immigration checkpoints nearly every month for four years now, but I still feel charmed every time I do. I possess no other document that gives as true and full a picture of my identity, shaped as it has been across several of the continents emblazoned on my laissez-passer.
My grandparents fled interregnum China nearly a century ago to colonial Hong Kong and Indonesia, where my parents grew up before studying and then settling in Australia in the 1960s. I was born an Australian citizen and a British subject in 1983, left for Taiwan when my parents’ careers took them there in 1986 and never went back. I ended up growing up mostly in both British and Chinese Hong Kong before going to university and law school in the United States.
After working for some time as a New York corporate lawyer in Hong Kong, I found a job in Thailand with the Southeast Asia office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A week after I arrived in Bangkok, I came to the office to find my new work passport sitting half open on my desk, the visa pages trying to flutter out like the thrill I was trying to contain in front of my grizzled UN colleagues. When no one was watching, I took a photo of my laissez-passer and messaged it to my closest friends and family.
It was 2013, not long after Barack Obama’s second inauguration. I had stood for six subzero hours on the National Mall in Washington, DC, during his first inauguration, waiting for the new dawn, for a multicultural child of immigrants to become the most powerful person in the world, a man whose childhood in Indonesia included tying string to dragonfly tails and eating soto bakso from a street stall, just as my mother’s did. And when Americans re-elected Obama in an actual Electoral College landslide, confirming that it had been no fluke the first time, that this was not an aberration but the full forward march of history; and again later that year, when the immigration officer at Suvarnabhumi Airport stamped my laissez-passer and admitted me into the Kingdom of Thailand as an official of these United Nations, I could not help but feel like I was being certified on a cutting-edge assembly line, like I was a prototype for our new globalist age, friend of all nations, citizen of the world.
My job is to follow the movements of refugees across Southeast Asia so that we know where and how they might seek asylum, and what kind of needs they will have when they do. For the last few years, by far the largest group of refugees moving across Southeast Asia have been the Rohingya, an ethnic minority from Myanmar. The Rohingya are Muslims who have lived for generations in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine, but are considered by virtually all other Myanmarese – most of whom are Buddhists – to be interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh.
By law, the more than one million Rohingya in Myanmar are almost all excluded from Myanmar citizenship, making them the largest stateless group in the world. They are cut off from livelihoods, medical care and schools. Systematic discrimination, punctuated by occasional eruptions of violent conflict, has pushed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to seek refuge across a vast expanse stretching from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to Bangladesh and Malaysia. There are anywhere between two to three million Rohingya in the world, and the large majority of them do not exist on paper.
When I first started talking to Rohingya refugees in 2014, most of them were fleeing Myanmar by boat because they are generally prohibited by local authorities from crossing by road into even the next town. Every month, thousands of Rohingya were committing $2,000 a head to a multinational network of Myanmarese, Bangladeshi, Thai and Malaysian people smugglers whom they entrusted to bring them across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to Malaysia. My team and I interviewed hundreds of Rohingya who made this journey, and their testimonies were remarkably consistent and consistently terrifying. The only more inhumane crossing I have ever heard or read about is the Middle Passage, the part of the slave journey across the Atlantic that killed millions of Africans between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
To be clear, the Rohingya were not enslaved on ships – most at least started the journey voluntarily – but the conditions were so brutally coercive that they were arguably all victims of human trafficking. Seven or eight hundred and sometimes over a thousand Rohingya and poor Bangladeshis hoping to find work in Malaysia would be packed into the hold of a fifteen- to thirty-metre-long fishing trawler, modified to fit the maximum number of human beings that could possibly crouch shoulder to shoulder on multiple levels below deck, none high enough to stand on. The twelve per cent who were women or girls were usually kept above deck, near the crew quarters.
Each passenger was given one cup of water and one scoop of rice per day. The toilet was a couple wooden planks resting on iron bars welded to the side of the boat – the outside – and you could only use it once or twice a day in turn, following everyone else in your row. If you tried to go out of turn, or asked for more food or water, the crew would pistol whip you or belt you with a plastic pipe. The business model was to get as many passengers to Malaysia alive as possible, but crews were not shy about shooting or beating people dead to maintain order. The murdered would be thrown overboard, along with the handful on each ship who perished from starvation or sickness. Based on our interviews, we think about twelve of every thousand passengers died at sea, almost all from abuse or deprivation. There could be over 1,800 Rohingya and Bangladeshi bodies on the floor of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
Crossing by sea from Myanmar to Malaysia should only take one week, but most Rohingya I spoke to were in the hands of their smugglers for months. Boats would drift for weeks while waiting to fill to capacity or, at the destination, for a moment to disembark without being detected by authorities. This usually took place off the coast of southern Thailand, where it was easier for smugglers to land than on the Malaysian coast, which is heavily patrolled.
In Thailand, smugglers hauled their human cargo by truck to jungle encampments near the Malaysian border. There they would sequester the Rohingya and Bangladeshis in wooden cages until their families could pay off their debts. To extract payment, the smugglers called the family members of their captives as they beat them, forcing their screams into the phone. Only after payment was received were the prisoners released to Malaysia.
One sixteen-year-old Rohingya girl travelling on her own told us she was repeatedly raped in the jungle for fifteen days. Hundreds of bodies have been found haphazardly buried near these camps along the Thai–Malaysian border. Survivors have told me there may be hundreds more, killed while trying to escape or simply left for dead because they were too ill to transport when smugglers moved camp to evade authorities. I have met dozens of Rohingya in various states of paralysis, a symptom of the beriberi they developed from being so severely malnourished.
One long weekend in 2014, I went sailing with my brother in the waters just up the coast from where these mass graves would eventually be discovered. It is paradise. From Phuket to the north and Langkawi to the south, the towering karst outcroppings that dot this seascape and the snow white sands that line them are unreal in their beauty, unmatched by any natural scenery in the region, maybe the world. Tourists from Europe and Russia and China and Australia live out their fantasies here in plush beach resorts, watching the sky turn brilliant shades of magenta and indigo as the sun sets over the same seas where refugees and migrants have languished near death for months.
Buddhists and Muslims in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine State, buy and sell produce at a market built to foster peaceful coexistence.
Walking through a village in Maungdaw, a mainly Rohingya district in the westernmost point of Myanmar up against the border with Bangladesh, is akin to navigating a maze. The walkways between homes are like hiking trails: unpaved, narrow clearings with irregular dips and rises. Some are covered overhead by arches of brush, making it dark even during the day, and the woven bamboo fences express a kind of bounce and flow, as if the whole village bends in the wind. The taste of the sea is never far.
It is not hard to imagine Kamal,* a twelve-year-old Rohingya boy, walking through his village one autumn night, suddenly being encircled by a group of young men. Some have guns. They grab his hair and make him walk towards a riverbank, where dozens of people are being herded onto a large canoe of sorts. There are a few other children like him, alone and confused. After several hours out to sea, they sail up to a fishing trawler. Everyone boards, and Kamal is forced underneath deck, into the hold. He does not know where he is going.
Six weeks later, in November 2014, I spoke to Kamal and his friend Ismail* in a featureless mosque in Ampang, a modest suburb of Kuala Lumpur home to a sizable Rohingya community. The two boys told similar stories of being abducted in Maungdaw, loaded onto a boat against their will and shipped to Malaysia via the jungle camps in Thailand, which is where they met. Their parents only found out where they were when smugglers – or, more properly in this case, kidnappers – called them from Thailand, demanding and eventually securing $2,000 ransoms to release Kamal and Ismail to relatives in Malaysia.
Kamal was sullen and withdrawn when I spoke to him, and my colleague who was helping interpret could not hear him well over the evening call to prayer. We did not press him for details, and we did not need to. He was obviously vulnerable, and Ismail in any case happily recounted their journey for the both of them. There was adrenaline in Ismail’s voice, almost excitement about what had happened to them, as if it had been an adventure. He had reestablished contact with his parents, and their plan was for him to work in Malaysia for a number of years until Ismail could afford to join a brother in Saudi Arabia. Ismail was also twelve.
Kamal and Ismail’s circumstances were not common, but they were also not unique. In late 2014, my colleagues and I began to notice a few worrying trends in our interviews with Rohingya who had just arrived in Malaysia. One was the abductions of children like Kamal and Ismail. Ten thousand Rohingya and Bangladeshis were being loaded onto boats every month. Smugglers in Bangladesh and Myanmar, paid per passenger they loaded, had apparently promised to deliver full boats to their counterparts in Thailand, who leased each boat against the income they expected from maximum capacity. The profit margins were so robust that the smugglers seemed to grow overconfident, leasing more boats than could be filled. To artificially bring demand in line with supply, they started abducting children and stuffing them into the unfilled boats. It was riskless kidnapping: you could get caught for holding someone for ransom in your own country, but not if you shipped the victim overseas and could still bank on the ransom being paid.
Another worrying development was the increasing number of women and girls on these boats. At first they only carried men, but by early 2015, about eighteen per cent of passengers were female, often teenage brides sent off to marry Rohingya men in Malaysia. With so many young Rohingya men having left Myanmar, finding a husband locally had become difficult and incurred a more expensive dowry. Marrying a man making a relatively good income in Malaysia, and willing to pay for his bride’s journey, became an attractive option. For brides under eighteen, it was also, unambiguously, a form of human trafficking.
Hasina* was one of them; she was fifteen when I met her. In January 2015, Hasina’s nikah, or wedding, took place at the home of the groom’s parents in Maungdaw. Hasina had come to stay with them two days earlier, and on the wedding day her own parents arrived, along with a mullah who would officiate the ceremony. As the afternoon heat gave way to a cool winter evening, a full moon rose above the north Rakhine sky.
Shortly after the Isha night prayer, they gathered and sat down on a mat, and the groom’s voice sprung from the speakers of a mobile phone; he lived in Penang, Malaysia. Months before, he had called his parents looking for a wife, and they had approached Hasina’s parents, who were struggling to marry off their daughter because they could not afford a dowry. Not only were the groom’s parents not asking for a dowry, but their son was also willing to pay for Hasina to join him in Malaysia. Hasina’s parents agreed.
During the nikah, over the phone, the mullah asked both Hasina and the groom if they agreed to marry each other, which they did. Food was served: they had chicken, Hasina remembers. The next day, she saw her husband for the first time when a cousin lent a smartphone that allowed them to video chat with one another. They talked for two hours, about what they had eaten and their health, and he told her about the arrangements he was making for her boat journey.
As she recalls the conversation to me and my colleague, Hasina smiles shyly and chuckles, saying she has not thought about any of this since getting on the boat. ‘It’s like a lesson I’m learning from you,’ she says, surprised to be asked about her wedding.
After leaving their homes in Myanmar, Hasina and two other girls, also hoping to join husbands in Malaysia they had never met, were cloistered in the same pre-departure hideout on the Bangladesh side of the Naf River, the natural boundary between Myanmar and Bangladesh. It was the home of a dalal, or smuggler, named Jahangir, whom Hasina later heard, and news reports seem to verify, was shot dead by Bangladeshi police in May 2015. ‘He was a good man,’ said Hasina, echoing the grudging respect, even gratitude, often shown to people smugglers all over the world, from these dalals in the Bay of Bengal to the snakeheads of southern China and the coyotes along the Rio Grande.
The three girls were taken together to a green and white wooden fishing trawler not more than fifteen metres long, with distinctive dragon insignias painted on either side of the bow. They waited sixteen days for smugglers to fill the ship’s three decks with the target load of 500 passengers, which could potentially bring in as much as one million dollars in income before ship and crew costs.
Hasina’s own costs, to be paid by her husband, amounted to $1,400, plus a $120 upfront ‘boat fare’ to board. The ship sailed for six days, then hardly moved for weeks once it reached Thai waters. Hasina was allowed to speak to her husband over the phone on several occasions, but mainly so that he could be threatened by the captain into delivering payment. The captain, a portly polyglot with short hair fronted by a fringe, was called the Kachin – after the ethnic minority still engaged in armed conflict in northern Myanmar. On his orders, the crew routinely beat passengers with rubber gear belts.
Sometime in late March or early April 2015, Hasina and 200 others on the main deck were transferred to an empty red-and-white boat for four days, then again to a red-and-green boat already carrying around one hundred passengers. Word spread that these were people with no means and no sponsor to pay, and that this boat was a kind of floating market of bad debt, where new smugglers could assume the passengers’ payment obligations at a lower price, in the hopes that they would eventually be able to extract the funds. Fearing this would only reduce their chances of disembarkation, Hasina and others pleaded to the Kachin to keep them. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not selling you,’ he said. ‘We’ll take you back.’ It turned out to be true; they had been moved between boats because of a shortage of rations, and while waiting for new rations to arrive, the Kachin had paid the crews of the other boats to temporarily feed his passengers. Five days later, they were all returned to the original ship.
Hasina thinks she spent another month at sea. She would know more clearly had she not lost consciousness several times, so deeply once that the crew was planning to throw her overboard until other women convinced them she would live. They went days without food, and still, ‘I vomited a lot,’ said Hasina. ‘Sometimes ten times in a day.’
This was the other worrying trend my colleagues and I noticed in late 2014 and early 2015: smugglers were diverting from their usual practice of disembarking and holding people ransom in jungle camps in Thailand. Instead, Thailand was being bypassed altogether, and demands for ransoms were being made on board, meaning boats full of malnourished refugees and migrants were just drifting in the Andaman Sea for months. Upon payment, smugglers were disembarking groups of sixty to eighty Rohingya and Bangladeshis directly to Malaysia, either to the resort island of Langkawi or to the mainland.
Around the same time, according to a Reuters report, Thai authorities had opened an investigation into a Rohingya smuggler named Anwar, based on a complaint filed by a Rohingya roti seller whose nephew was being held by Anwar’s subordinates, even though the roti seller had already paid the ransom. Reuters reported that the nephew was killed in retaliation, and that Anwar was arrested on 28 April 2015, three days before authorities in Songkhla, in southern Thailand, discovered the first batch of bodies hastily buried near jungle camps.
The triad-style hierarchy of the smuggling networks makes it difficult to know for certain, but many Rohingya my team and I spoke to believed that their boats were under Anwar’s control, and that his arrest is what led smugglers to convene an on-water meeting in early May among their various crews in the vicinity of the Thai-Malaysian maritime border. The Kachin was one of the attendees. There were rumours that the Thai navy was out in force looking for smugglers’ boats, so the smugglers conspired to cut their losses and abandon ship en masse, leaving thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded.
Survivors from different boats told us nearly identical stories of how they were abandoned. Crews returned from the on-water meeting and distributed extra servings of food and water, hinting that everyone would disembark in Malaysia soon. Then, in the evening of 9 May, the 578 passengers aboard Hasina’s ship watched in the twilight as a speedboat approached. Four men emerged and boarded their ship, stripping it of instruments and equipment as the entire crew made their way to the speedboat. When passengers began to protest, warning shots were fired. The Kachin, as he stepped onto the speedboat himself, told the Rohingya men on board to sail due west, then offered some consolation. ‘I didn’t destroy the engine,’ he said.
Around the same time, the captain of a larger smuggling vessel nearby, carrying as many as 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis, also abandoned ship. He also fled on a trailing speedboat, after telling his passengers to sail at 220 degrees in order to reach Malaysia the next morning. But there is nowhere in the Andaman Sea where a heading of 220 degrees will point a ship to Malaysia. The captain was almost certainly directing them towards Indonesia.
Wherever this ship was headed, it ran out of fuel the next day. Passing fishing boats gave some fuel and directed the Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Indonesia. The following morning, 11 May 2015, two Indonesian navy vessels arrived with water, dry instant noodles and biscuits, and returned later in the day to tow the ship towards Malaysia. ‘We gave them fuel and asked them to proceed,’ an Indonesian navy spokesperson told Agence France-Presse. ‘We are not forcing them to go to Malaysia nor Australia. That is not our business. Our business is they don’t enter Indonesia because Indonesia is not the destination.’
Hasina was among 578 Rohingya and Bangladeshis who were on this boat for months before it was abandoned by people smugglers in May 2015 and drifted near Lhokseumawe, Indonesia. Photograph © Carlos Sardiña Galache / The Geutanyoe Foundation
The ship drifted for nearly two days until being approached near Penang on the afternoon of 13 May by two Malaysian navy vessels, which also provided food and water. Overnight, the Malaysians towed the ship back into Indonesian territory. When the Malaysians untied from the ship, multiple passengers remember the Malaysians giving instructions to stay put while they went to retrieve other boats in the area. Then we’ll bring you all to Malaysia, the passengers said they were told.
The next day, Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister, Wan Junaidi, acknowledged to the Associated Press that Malaysia had turned back both this ship and Hasina’s. ‘We have to send the right message,’ he said. ‘They are not welcome here.’
I speak regularly to Moy, another teenage bride who spent a month at sea trying to make it to Indonesia to join her husband. The groom’s family was originally from the same town as Moy but had fled the conflict and poverty at home to strike out across the sea for the Javanese hill station of Bandung, 150 kilometres southeast of Jakarta. Moy was sixteen when their parents arranged the marriage and barely seventeen when she boarded the ship that took her away from a civil war and also her mother. They exchanged letters for years after Moy arrived in Bandung, writing each other until Moy’s mother died, having never again seen her only daughter.
When nationalist Indonesians began suspecting Moy’s community of embracing a radical ideology, there was a fear that any links to home, including correspondence, would be used as evidence of subversion. So Moy burned all her mother’s letters. She has never told me about this herself, but I know because her eldest daughter remembers watching, and shared this memory with me because that is what mothers do with their children. Moy is my grandmother. She arrived in Indonesia by boat from China in March 1947, and she, too, knows something about not being welcome there.
Often when I meet Rohingya refugees, they will shake my hand with one arm and with the other present scraps of torn papers with faded Burmese script documenting their residence in Myanmar, and their parents’, and grandparents’. It comes almost from muscle memory, an automatic reaction to meeting officials of any kind, as if to say, Look, I exist, I belong. And it makes me think of the tattered administrative forms with faded Dutch and Indonesian type that my family still keeps in plastic sleeves, decades after we all became Australian citizens.
There is my grandmother Moy’s visa from the Dutch consulate in the southeastern Chinese port of Amoy, now Xiamen, allowing her admission to the Dutch Indies, now Indonesia, dated 24 February 1947. Also in a plastic sleeve is a form signed by my mother on 10 July 1967, changing her name from the Chinese name she was given at birth to an Indonesian name no one has ever called her by, pursuant to Cabinet Presidium Decision 127/U/Kep/12/1966, which stated ‘That replacing the names of Indonesians of foreign descent with names which conform to indigenous Indonesian names will assist in assimilation’.
Without context, this regulation and all our family forms appear benign. The photos of my mother attached to them show her in smart dress and well-coiffed hair, making the kind of scarcely perceptible smile permissible in official photos; a little wider and they could be from my high school yearbook. The transition from Chinese to Indonesian citizenship and nomenclature could seem like the natural assimilation of an immigrant community.
But here is the context: from the beginning of Dutch rule in Indonesia, Chinese who had immigrated there since the sixteenth century were eliminated from the body politic, most violently in 1740, when Dutch authorities ordered a bloodletting in Jakarta that killed as many as 10,000 Chinese. After Indonesian independence in 1949, the Dutch policy of categorising ethnic Chinese as ‘foreign orientals’ was effectively continued through legislation that barred them from doing business in rural areas. To continue their trades, Chinese Indonesians were confined to urban ghettos like the one in Bandung where my mother grew up. In some cases, they were violently expelled from rural areas, as when thousands of Chinese Indonesians were killed in 1965 and 1966 for being suspected Communists. My mother remembers hiding with her siblings in the bathroom one afternoon as mobs descended on their home. When my mother finally emerged, the family car was missing. It had been rolled down a hill and torched.
The smoke combusting from that car, curling from my grandmother’s letters, still signals to me today, in the fires that have consumed Rohingya villages as recently as late 2016, but also in 2012, when an orgy of inter-communal violence in Rakhine State disintegrated whole villages and led to a surge of Rohingya taking to the seas. ‘There were no fire brigades, no rescuers,’ one Rohingya man once told me. ‘Villages were just burnt to ash.’
No one came to put out the flames of my mother’s family car, either. Instead, in 1967, Indonesian President Suharto signed the Basic Policy for the Solution of the Chinese Problem. Public displays of Chinese literature and culture were prohibited. The importation of anything bearing Chinese characters became contraband, which is when my grandmother burned all the letters from her dead mother. And when Cabinet Presidium Decision 127 suggesting Chinese Indonesians should adopt Indonesian names did not prove persuasive enough, Suharto dispensed with any pretence. ‘Indonesian citizens of foreign descent who still use Chinese names’, read his Presidential Decision No. 240 of 1967, ‘are urged to replace them with Indonesian names’.
By the end of that year, my mother had left Bandung for North Sydney Girls’ High School, cramming enough Shakespeare in one year to earn admission to the University of Sydney. She went on a student visa; her family never sought asylum per se, but if they ever had, and if I was the one assessing their claims, as I have for hundreds of asylum-seekers, I would have no qualms recognising them as refugees, defined under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as individuals with a well-founded fear of persecution on account of, among other things, their race and nationality. The tattered forms we keep in plastic sleeves are not benign records of integration into Indonesian society; they were the bureaucratic tools of discrimination. When I showed the documents to my mother recently, including one registering her when she was six years old – in the photo, she has a bow in her hair – for no obvious purpose, she asked, indignantly and rhetorically, ‘Why did we always have to sign all these forms?’
Those are nearly the exact words Rohingya say to me, also indignantly, also rhetorically, every time the Myanmar government makes them apply for new documents or turn in old ones, or register their identities or participate in verification exercises. Intentionally or not, the terminology of exclusion has been recycled: where Chinese Indonesians used to be required to carry around a ‘Proof of Citizenship’ card to get a passport or register their marriages, Rohingya are now being required to apply for a ‘Nationality Verification’ card to travel to the next town or fish or go to school. Even if the Myanmar government one day genuinely seeks to recognise them, the Rohingya have lost all trust in processes, which only ever end badly for them. They sit on plastic stools in a dirt courtyard in Maungdaw and ask me, ‘Why should we have to apply for citizenship?’ And they could be my mother or grandmother, my aunt or my uncle, sitting outside their house in Bandung fifty years ago, asking the same question.
The parallels only go so far; my mother’s family were free to move around Indonesia, run gold shops and trading businesses and, ultimately, obtain Indonesian citizenship. My mother went to proper schools and had proper enough documents and wealthy enough parents to go to university in Australia. Were Chinese Indonesians victims of institutional discrimination? Yes. Did they suffer as much as the Rohingya do today? Not even close.
More to the point, my family’s old documents, that paperwork of racism, are fifty, sixty, seventy years old. And even those – birth certificates, school transcripts, visas – elude the Rohingya today. In 2017. Most Rohingya children have no record of their births. They are not eligible to apply for passports, from Myanmar or any other country. The visa my grandmother obtained at the Dutch consulate in Amoy in 1947 is what Hasina, the Rohingya child bride, could only dream of seven decades later, as she vomited without end and drifted in and out of consciousness in the Andaman Sea.
Hasina made it to land in relatively uneventful fashion. After being turned back by the Malaysian navy, her boat fortuitously drifted almost right to the shore of northern Aceh, in Indonesia. On 13 May 2015, Acehnese fishermen helped disembark the boat’s 578 passengers, and they were eventually sheltered in a kind of refugee camp outside the city of Lhokseumawe, which is where I met Hasina.
Understanding what happened to the other ship, the one that sailed 220 degrees to nowhere, is a Rashomon-like exercise of conflicting interests and narratives – though it also ended up in Indonesia. To start with, it is impossible to know how many people were on the ship. Most estimates range between 800 to 1,000, but there is no passenger manifest, just best guesses by starved individuals who had been at sea for months. Because the smugglers were treating the passengers as sunk costs, there was no need for a passenger count.
There are some things most of the passengers agree on. Other than about forty people who were on the ship from the time it set out from the Bay of Bengal in March 2015, everyone else was transferred to it from one of three different boats. The ship was dark gray, with at least two levels each above and below deck. And not long after the transfers were complete, the captain shot dead a Rohingya man sitting near the ship’s bow. He was wrapped in a longyi, given funeral rites and thrown overboard. No one really knew why, but some Rohingya told us it was superstition: an offering to the sea to indulge its mercy.
The captain and crew abandoned ship several days after the shooting. That is when a scramble for what little drinking water remained erupted into a fight to the death between Rohingya and Bangladeshis, who began slicing crowbars and axes at each other and at the ship. The Bangladeshis acknowledged that some of them punctured a hole in the hull, but accused the Rohingya of keeping all the water for themselves; Rohingya said they were saving it for the children. Some said the Bangladeshis sabotaged the boat because they wanted to bring everyone down with them. Others said the Bangladeshis were irate that the Rohingya had told naval authorities there were Bangladeshis on board, which the Bangladeshis believed ruined their chances of being rescued. Rohingya said only Rohingya were killed. Bangladeshis said Bangladeshis were also killed.
The ship was badly damaged in the fight and eventually sank, though Acehnese fishermen again came to the rescue, ultimately bringing 820 Rohingya and Bangladeshis to safety on 15 May 2015. Because no one knows how many people were on the boat to begin with, there is no way to know how many people died in the fighting or drowned, but based on interviews my team and I conducted, we counted at least fourteen, not including the man shot by the captain.
The survivors were brought to a shelter near the city of Langsa, in eastern Aceh. Many had gaping wounds across their backs and torsos. We registered 60 women and 217 children, some whose parents had drowned. One three-year-old girl, Shahira, was dying from tetanus.
At the time, Tony Abbott was asked about the Rohingya situation. Abbott, who originally came to Australia by boat from Britain, became Australia’s twenty-eighth Prime Minister in 2013 after promising to ‘stop the boats’ of refugees and asylum-seekers attempting to reach Australia by sea. Any who made it to Australian waters were remanded, indefinitely, to ‘offshore processing centres’ on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the tiny island nation of Nauru, 4,000 kilometres from Sydney. But the Rohingya rescued in Indonesia had neither come close to nor been on their way to Australian waters. So, Abbott was asked, might Australia resettle some of them?
‘Nope,’ Abbott said. ‘Nope, nope.’
By the time Shahira was taken to a doctor, it was too late, anyway. It was too late also for the Rohingya teenager who showed up at our office in Kuala Lumpur last year past the point of rescue, afraid he would be turned away by a local hospital. It was too late, again, for sixteen-month-old Mohammed Shohayet, fleeing more recent violence in Rakhine State, photographed dead on the banks of the Naf River in December 2016. He lies prostrated like Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy found on a Turkish beach a year earlier, only Mohammed lies on mud, not sand, with his arms up by his head instead of down by his side, yellow shirt instead of red, shoeless instead of sneakers unstrapped.
There are at least 14,000 Rohingya in India, one of the few countries where Rohingya can obtain a kind of legal status in the form of long-term visas. Several thousand have come to Hyderabad, which is 30 per cent Muslim, looking for steady work and a tolerant community. With earnings from scrap collecting and masonry, they have stitched together a cluster of makeshift settlements – a slum, really – conjoined by the alleyway where I sat on the morning of 9 November 2016, watching the US election returns come in on my iPhone.
I had just come from meeting the leaders of one of the Rohingya settlements and was on my way to meet the leaders of another. My main task was to understand how the most recent Rohingya arrivals to India had made their way from Myanmar, but whenever I have held these meetings with Rohingya communities, everywhere from Bangladesh to Malaysia, they invariably evolve into discussions about what can be done to finally give the Rohingya people a home.
I try to be optimistic. I explain that the United Nations continues to advocate for the Rohingya inside Myanmar and across the region. The international community, I say, is determined to keep Myanmar on the path towards openness, to ensure that the tide has turned for good and will, however slowly, eventually lift the Rohingya in its wake.
I sometimes want to tell Rohingya to look to my family for hope that progress comes, even if it takes seventy years. For the Rohingya who have risked everything and taken to the seas, I want to tell them my grandmother set out on a boat in 1947 and now lives in a care home in Sydney with Chinese-speaking staff serving Chinese meals, funded by the Australian government to provide dignity in old age to a people successive Australian prime ministers once called unequal and inferior.
Rohingya children play at a camp for internally displaced persons in Pauktaw, central Rakhine State.
To the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar, I want to tell them how, even though I look very much Chinese, when I meet Indonesian officials in Jakarta they embrace me with their delighted voices when I tell them my mother is from Bandung. All the anti-Chinese legislation and regulations from my mother’s childhood have been repealed. Chinese New Year is now a public holiday. In Jakarta, where 10,000 Chinese were once slaughtered, a Chinese Indonesian became governor in 2014: Basuki Tjahaha Purnama, known more commonly by his Chinese nickname, Ahok.
Some Rohingya accept that line of thought; they have no choice but to be optimistic. Many do not. Not for the first time, an elderly Rohingya man openly wept to me that morning in Hyderabad, presenting his own life, lived entirely on the run, as evidence that the world would never care. I was in no position to disprove his despair, but until that morning I had always believed in what I said, even if many of the Rohingya I spoke to had not. I work for the United Nations; for me, the justice towards which the arc of the moral universe bends is the justice of diversity and inclusion, born of looking out rather than turning in.
But sitting by the side of that alley in Hyderabad, watching as Donald Trump was elected President of the United States – I felt like a hypocrite, like I was lying when I said that things would ever get better for the Rohingya, or that the international community would keep trying to help Muslim refugees like them. Donald Trump is President of the United States because there are millions of Americans who feel forgotten and are fearful of their race being wiped out. Try telling that to the Rohingya.
The many Rohingya who have completely and justifiably given up hope would not be convinced by my family’s better fortunes in Australia or Indonesia. They would remind me that ethnic Indonesians looted and raped Chinese in the streets of Jakarta in 1998, nineteen short years ago. They would WhatsApp me the conspiracy theories of a Chinese fifth column that have gone viral on Indonesian social media. And they would show me the half a million Indonesians who demonstrated in November 2016, protesting not the policies or politics of Governor Ahok but his race and his religion, believing Indonesians should not be ruled by a Chinese Christian. The next month, Ahok went on trial, not for corruption or embezzlement but for blasphemy, accused of insulting the Quran.
The last time I was in Jakarta for work, my hotel happened to be around the corner from City Hall, a stately compound that takes up an entire city block. It has been the seat of the Jakarta government for over a century, the official office of Indonesian and Dutch governors alike. As I drove by it one evening, our office driver pointed to it and simply said, ‘Ahok’, and for a moment what I felt was pride that someone from my mother’s community had ascended to the pinnacle of a society that once spurned people who looked like me.
But the next time I am in Jakarta, Ahok will no longer be in office. In April, he was voted out following a race- and religion-baiting gubernatorial campaign that The Jakarta Post called ‘the biggest political spectacle the country has ever seen’. Ahok’s loss, the editorial said, ‘shows that a political candidate is now judged by his faith rather than what he has done or will do to improve people’s lives.’ The blasphemy case against Ahok continued, and on 9 May 2017, he was sentenced to two years in prison.
The next time I drive by the Jakarta City Hall, it will not be my mother or grandmother whom I think about, or the status and happiness they have attained. It will be the Rohingya I have listened to from Maungdaw to Aceh, the pain that has turned an old saying of theirs into a stubborn truism. ‘People never change,’ they tell me. ‘The tamarind is always sour.’
The first time a Rohingya told me the tamarind is always sour was a month before the US election. I was sitting in a KFC in Penang, Malaysia, after meeting with a nearby Rohingya refugee community, the ‘community’ being a few ramshackle lean-tos by the side of a busy thoroughfare. My colleagues and I were discussing what the community had just told us two days earlier: on 9 October 2016, militants had allegedly stormed Myanmar border guard posts in Maungdaw, killing several officers. In response, the Myanmar military unleashed a full-blown clearance operation to apprehend the militants. The Rohingya we met in Penang were frantic, hearing from relatives back home that entire villages were being scorched, women raped and men shot dead on sight.
It was a devastating development. I had been in Maungdaw earlier in 2016, asking Rohingya if they still had any intention of attempting to reach Malaysia by boat. The consensus was that it was no longer possible; they had seen all the boats – and their relatives – adrift in the Andaman Sea in May 2015. Smugglers were no longer confident they could circumvent increased border patrols.
But there was also a smattering of hope, however tenuous, that things at home might soon improve. In early 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was just about to assume power after her political party overwhelmingly won Myanmar’s first democratic elections in November 2015. One of my Rohingya colleagues, Saw Myint, once told me how he canvassed through Rakhine State in 1988 with young Muslims and Buddhists, spreading the democracy movement spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi, shortly before she was placed under house arrest for the better part of two decades. It was a memory Saw Myint recalled with a kind of euphoria, as if it had been a dream, this bygone time when Muslims and Buddhists had shared a common vision for the country.
So when Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in April 2016, though Rohingya had no illusions of instantly being embraced as citizens of Myanmar, they at least felt the tide, so long against them, had turned. I did, too. As a student, I had backpacked around Myanmar when it was still strictly under military rule, and when I returned to law school, I raised money for media outlets exiled from Myanmar and drafted legal briefs contesting the arbitrary detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other dissidents.
I could not envision then Myanmar’s spectacular transformation in the ensuing decade: first the transition to a civilian government and the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi; then the end of American sanctions, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton embracing Aung San Suu Kyi on the steps of her house – once prison – in Yangon; and finally, free and fair elections that gave Aung San Suu Kyi the reins of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
When, shortly after coming to power, Aung San Suu Kyi commissioned Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, to find solutions to the issues that beset Rakhine State, there was some optimism that the suffering of the Rohingya might ease. Full citizenship may not have been on the immediate horizon, but at least increased freedom and opportunity, and perhaps an end to segregation.
Then in the small hours of 9 October 2016, a band of armed insurgents no one had ever heard of before carried out a coordinated series of attacks on three border guard posts in Maungdaw. The military’s clearance operation in response has driven 74,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees watch a performance in a community hall at Kutupalong Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Based on interviews with these refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported ‘mass gang-rape, killings – including of babies and young children, brutal beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations by Myanmar’s security forces’, and that ‘hundreds of Rohingya houses, schools, markets, shops, madrasas and mosques were burned by the army, police and sometimes civilian mobs.’ The Myanmar government has denied any wrongdoing.
At the KFC in Penang two days after the initial attacks, my colleagues and I were discussing what this would all mean for the Rohingya. It was a bleak conversation. At one point, Saw Myint and another Rohingya colleague exchanged a few words in their native dialect. They interpreted for the rest of us: ‘The tamarind is always sour,’ they said. ‘It means what’s sour will never be sweet.’
In humanitarian work, or maybe just in the ubiquity of everything in our internet age, we are necessarily desensitised by this still common brutality. But what I can never seem to get over is how medieval, even ancient, it all seems. Shakespeare wrote four centuries ago of our ‘mountainish inhumanity’ towards refugees and still today, across the Straits of Malacca, human beings are sacrificed and starved men cut each other down on the high seas. Wayfarers seeking new lives in the Antipodes are marooned without end on all but deserted islands thousands of miles from nowhere. The demagogues of North America and Central Europe want to raise great walls to keep intruders at bay. At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, refugees flee war on airplanes but steal away with life vests in preparation for navigating the same whale road Ulysses sailed to Lesbos. And a little boy we lose along that road – or really just at its start – forgets to strap his sneakers but lies softly in repose, his spirit evaporated.
These moments, these movements, are as anachronistic as they are timeless. We are by our nature both territorial and mobile, creatures of comfort and aspiration. And I don’t know whether that makes me feel hopeful or hopeless. I don’t know if there has been another moment when so much of the world is concurrently wrestling with the same question: to close doors or open them, to turn out to the world or away from it. Germany has answered in one way, and Australia, where I was born, has answered in another. In Southeast Asia, where I work, countries trying to open up are constrained by neighbours who have known for so long only how to be closed. And in America, where I was educated, the self-proclaimed Leader of the Free World clamours more (or at least more loudly) than anything else over how free that world should be and who gets to be a part of it.
I thought we would all get to be a part of it. I thought that was the point of freedom, of struggling to improve one’s lot: so that the entire world could be your children’s. What is wrong with aspiring to be global and elite, to be worldly and the best at what you do? My parents outran the warlords of China and the bigots of Indonesia to seek out somewhere and something better, for themselves and for me. They bussed dishes in Chinatown and faced down lecherous men in boardrooms to raise me in international schools and on three continents, so that I could work for the United Nations, trying to help those who don’t have what I had. This was the right trajectory, was it not? My whole life I was led to believe I could feel at home anywhere. My UN passport made it official, but I thought all along I was a citizen of the world.
‘But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world,’ Theresa May said recently, ‘You’re a citizen of nowhere.’
If that is what I am, if I was not so much a prototype as a fleeting diversion, the last of an experimental line soon to be discontinued, then what was it all for?
The tamarind is always sour, the Rohingya say. They should know. They know better than I do, better than anyone, what it is like to be a citizen of nowhere, in danger of being discontinued.
The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNHCR or the United Nations.
* Names have been changed to protect those involved
All photographs, unless otherwise stated, are courtesy of the author
Featured photograph: An oarsman steers his boat across the Mayu River, the main artery between central and northern Rakhine State, Myanmar