In his photo essay “The Stateless Rohingya” Belgian photographer David Verberckt, who is currently based in Hungary, captures the dire everyday life of the Muslim ethnic minority, the Rohingya, in Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. He portrays them as human beings deprived of the social, civil and human rights that are so often taken for granted, thereby giving them a face. In doing so, Verberckt increases awareness and brings to our attention the too often unnoticed humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya.
Rohingya women living under inhumane conditions inside IDP (internally displaced people) camps in Rakhine State, Western Myanmar (formerly Burma) provide the backdrop for Marta Tucci’s powerfully intimate images. Approximately 140,000 Rohingya are housed in these camps, hoping for the chance of a better life. In her photographic essay “Acts of Resilience” Tucci highlights the alarming living conditions these Rohingya women endure and the strength, dignity and resilience they demonstrate in the face of overwhelming despair.
Dhaka-based videographer and photographer Sheikh Rajibul Islam showcases, in his photo essay “Waiting to be Registered,” the life the Rohingya face daily in the Kutupalong camp on the border of Myanmar in Bangladesh. In a dark and brooding style, he captures the inhumane living conditions and the risks of seeking employment as undocumented migrants without work permits.
The freedom to live a self-determined life — something most people take for granted — is not available to the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. With severe restrictions on movement and limited access to basic services, social and legal discrimination is rampant. While there are 135 government-recognized national ethnic groups in Myanmar, the approximately one million Rohingya are neither recognized as an ethnic group nor as residents: they are stateless.
An ethnic Muslim minority with their own language and culture, the Rohingya are primarily living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, one of the poorest in the country with a total population of approximately 3.2 million. Besides the Rohingya and the Rakhine, the state is also home to the ethnic minorities Chin, Kaman, Mro, Khami, Dainet and Maramagyi. The Myanmar government estimates 1,090,000 Rohingya live in Rakhine State, most of them in the townships of Buthiadaung and Maungdaw in the north. Historically, the Rohingya trace their origins in the region back to the fifteenth century, and thereby claim a longstanding connection to Rakhine State.
On the basis of their ethnic and religious identity however, the Rohingya have been subjected to long-standing social and legal discrimination. Exclusion by state officials, Rakhine politicians, Buddhist monks and Rakhine civil society activists is commonplace. Since the independence of Myanmar in 1948, successive governments have rejected the historical claims of the Rohingya and have not included them in the list of 135 recognized ethnic groups.
Despite the fact that the Rohingya have lived in the country for centuries, many living in Rakhine State consider them to be illegal immigrants with no social, cultural or religious ties to Myanmar. “Many Rakhine contest the Rohingya’s claims of distinct ethnic heritage and historic links to Rakhine State,” says Chris Lewa, Director of The Arakan Project, a human rights organization based in Thailand. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law officially denied citizenship to the ethnic Muslim minority, rendering most Rohingya stateless.
The Plight of Being Stateless
Being stateless, the Rohingya are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. They have no official documents, no possibility of living in any country legally, and no access to proper medical care, education or employment. Through arbitrary deprivation of nationality, threats to life and security, sexual violence, forced labor, and severe restrictions on freedom of movement (including a ban on travelling without authorization), the state has rendered them ”persona non grata.” These non-citizens are not even permitted to marry without permission from the authorities who (theoretically) restrict the number of babies allowed per family to two and have not issued birth certificates to Rohingyans since 1994. The United Nations (UN) calls Myanmar’s Rohingya community one of the most excluded, vulnerable and persecuted minorities in the world.
Since 2012, incidents of religious intolerance and incitement to violence by extremists and ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups have increased across the country. This violence broke out between the two communities after a group of Rohingya men allegedly raped and murdered a Buddhist woman, resulting in the killing of hundreds and leaving approximately 140,000 displaced and living in makeshift camps.
The latest acts against the Rohingya’s human rights include their exclusion from a UN-backed national census in 2014 after Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott the census. More recently in 2015, they were stripped of their voting rights in local and national elections. Additionally, there was the termination of the Rohingya’s identification cards -- the so called “white cards” that many Rohingya in Rakhine State carry but do not confirm citizenship. A citizenship verification process piloted in 2014 in Rakhine State’s Myebon township, where around 200 Muslims were granted citizenship on the basis that they registered as “Bengali,” was officially suspended following resistance from local Buddhist Rakhine. A new pilot exercise for citizenship verification was conducted in June 2016, but it lacked transparency in terms of process, its expected outcome, and trust-building.
Trying to escape the severe restrictions, discrimination, and human rights abuses perpetrated by the authorities, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh over the past decades. Others have sought refuge in various countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Approximately 32,000 Rohingya live as registered refugees in official camps in Bangladesh with another 17,000 in nearby makeshift camps. An additional 200,000 denied official refugee status are living in cities in Bangladesh. But the hope of finding a better life in Bangladesh is remote at best. As in Myanmar, the Rohingya are stateless and treated as “illegal economic immigrants” without the protection of the law and legal status. They are restricted from regular sources of food, income, formal education, and reliable health care.
The Challenging Road Ahead
There is little doubt surrounding the vulnerability of the Rohingya or the necessity of a permanent resolution. It is incumbent upon authorities in Myanmar to not only address the policies of discrimination and hatred faced by the Rohingya and other minorities, but also to implement reforms against ethnic and religious discrimination. Re-integrating the Rohingya into the political, social, and economic life of the country is a critical step forward in Myanmar’s march towards democracy.
Myanmar cannot, from an ethnic point of view, be considered politically stable as the country has yet to manage not only the Rohingya tension, but also tensions between other minorities which make up 40 percent of the country’s population. Still, many pin their hopes on Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner known internationally for her fight for democracy. To this point however, addressing the Rohingya tension is not a top priority of the nation. Nevertheless, there are some initial steps being taken by the government, including the creation of a Ministry of Ethnic Affairs, the establishment of a central committee on the implementation of peace, stability and development of Rakhine State, and a national peace conference held in the autumn of 2016.
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with more than 1,500 photographers from around around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,000 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website, www.socialdocumentary.net.
Fall 2016 Vol. 2/No. 2
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
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ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2016
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
Digital ISSN: Forthcoming
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibited on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
Cover photo by David Verberckt. From The Stateless Rohingya. Children playing in makeshift refugee camp for Rohingya from Myanmar. Shamplapur, Bangladesh, June 2015.
Photographers and writers featured in this issue of ZEKE Magazine.
Caterina Clerici is an independent multimedia journalist based in New York. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she’s currently a freelance photo editor at TIME and the Special Issue Editor at SDN. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, La Stampa, Libération, Die Zeit, among others. You can follow her at @caterinaclerici.
Susan S. Bank
Susan S. Bank lives in Philadelphia, PA and Portsmouth, NH. Largely a self-taught photographer, she studied through Maine Media Workshops with masters Mary Ellen Mark and Graciela Iturbide in Oaxaca, 1997-98, David Alan Harvey, Havana, 1999 and with Constantine Manos, Havana 2000.
Bank’s self-published first monograph Cuba: Campo Adentro, an intimate portrait of daily life of Cuban tobacco farmers and their families, was selected as “One of the Best Photography Books of the Year” 2009 PHotoEspaña and named “Best Books 2009”, photo-eye Books.
Her award winning documentary photography has been exhibited in the United States, Mexico, and Cuba, including The Fototeca, Havana. Bank’s work is collected by museums in the United States, Cuba, Spain, and Mexico, most recently The Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson.
Piercing the Darkness, a personal reflection of that maddening mythical port city of Havana, is her second monograph, published by Brilliant Press. A selection from Piercing the Darkness was exhibited in “100 Years of The History of Photography of the City of Havana” at the 9th Habana Bienal 2006. Throckmorton Fine Art in NYC recently selected work from the Havana series in a group exhibition, “Under the Cuban Sun”. Piercing the Darkness was selected for the 2016 Lucie Awards as First Place, Non-Professional Monograph. Images from the series are included in a traveling exhibition, “Los Dios” as Latin Fotografia V winners in NYC, LA, Brazil, and Brooklyn Photoville 201
Bank continues to work with her Leica M6 on projects close to home, including the Salisbury Beach series. Website: susansbank.com
Fulvio Bugani is an Italian freelance photographer based in Bologna, with more than 20 years of experience. He actively collaborates with Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International. His work has been published on international magazines and websites such as TIME LightBox, LFI–Leica Fotografie International, and Cubadebate.
Among other recognition, in 2015 he was awarded at the World Press Photo, and has received two honorable mentions at MIFA-Moscow International Foto Award, for his work about Indonesian Transgender. In 2016 his reportage about Cuba was selected as one of the 12 finalist at the Leica Oskar Barnack Award.
He has several ongoing photographic projects in Cuba, Kenya, Indonesia, Turkey and Georgia. He teaches photography in his private photographic school in Bologna, as well as in seminars an workshops around the world. More info at www.fulviobugani.com
Susi Eggenberger is a freelance documentary photographer based in Arundel, Maine.
She originally worked as an RN for twenty years before making a career change into photography. As in her nursing career, her focus in photography is with children and her emphasis is working with non-profit organizations who address children’s issues including Seeds of Peace, Ronald McDonald House, Map International, and Camp Sunshine. She has won numerous national and international awards for her imagery and her self-generated film project on a transsexual woman living in Southern Maine was nominated for “Best Documentary Film” in the Maine Short Film Festival.
For seven years she has been documenting the journey of a young Iraqi girl who she has been bringing to Maine for surgeries after she was shot in the head by a U.S. sniper.
Isadora Kosofsky is a Los Angeles-based documentary photographer and filmmaker. She received the 2012 Inge Morath Award from the Magnum Foundation for her multi-series documentary about the lives and relationships of the elderly. She was a participant in the 2014 Joop Swart Masterclass of World Press Photo. She is the recipient of a 2015 Flash Forward Magenta Foundation Award and a 2015 Commended Award from the Ian Parry Foundation. Her projects have received distinctions from Women in Photography International, Prix de la Photographie Paris and The New York Photo Festival. Isadora’s work has been featured in The London Sunday Times, Slate, The Washington Post, TIME, Le Monde, American Photo, VICE, NationSwell, Mashable, PDN, The British Journal of Photography, The Huffington Post and The New Yorker Photo Booth, among others. “Vinny and David: Life and Incarceration of a Family” is featured in the Thames and Hudsons’ anthology Family Photography Now and Public Private Portraiture by Mossless.
Margaret Quackenbush is a freelance reporter based in Boston. She graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University in January 2016. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Business Journal, The Dorchester Reporter, Eater Boston and other publications in the Boston area.
She was the 2016 coordinator for Boston University’s annual Power of Narrative conference, and was previously the managing editor of the Boston University News Service and a teaching assistant at BU. Margaret received a BA in English and history from St. Lawrence University in 2010 and previously worked at WGBH, Boston’s PBS station.
Anne Sahler is an internationally published writer, photographer and graphic designer who divides her time between Japan and her homeland of Germany. She holds a master’s degree in Cultural Studies, History of Art and Religious Studies which fuels her interests in Japan, art and social activism. Her curious nature and never ending need for travel helps lend a clarity of prospective to an evermore complicated world.
David Verberckt, originally from Belgium, is an independent reportage photographer currently living in Budapest, Hungary. He has studied photography at “le 75” in Brussels, and afterwards pursued studies in International Development at Bioforce in France. After exhibiting his first documentary reportages in the early nineties, David has turned to aid agencies and has spent 20 years working worldwide in humanitarian emergency and development with Médecins Sans Frontières and later the EU.
David’s reportages portray peculiarities of an often deprived civil society affected by latent or bygone conflicts. David has been working on several projects. Frozen Conflicts in the Caucasus depicts ordinary people whose lives are in limbo following the conflicts of the nineties. Palestinian Chronicles is a continuation of a series started in the early nineties, focusing on the daily realities of the numerous refugee camps’ population.
Recently, he is working on subjects depicting hard labor and seasonal migration flows in the overpopulated Bengal Bay and documenting statelessness of Bihari and Rohingya. More information at www.davidverberckt.com