About 40,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees had fled to India a few years ago from their native land in Myanmar (earlier called Burma) due to what the UN has termed ‘a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.’ Around 900 of them live in Delhi, trying to make a living as daily wage labourers, and living in make-shift camps.
When India went into lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic 15 months ago, they had no one to turn to for support; not even a village to walk back to. I got desperate calls of hunger from the community leaders in April, 2021. My NGO, Apne Aap, had been supporting an anti-trafficking initiative among some Rohingya refugees in a Delhi camp. (In March 2020, we had started a food drive for victims of sex-trafficking, and their children trapped in red light areas, with no food, unsafe housing and sometimes not even adequate fresh air due to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 lockdown.)
We could not ignore the SOS from these vulnerable refugees. Our #1MillionMeals food drive expanded to accommodate the 900 Rohingya families in Delhi. By mid-June, 2021, we had provided more than 12 million meals to nearly a quarter million of the most vulnerable women and children of India.
As I waited for the government to set up some system to reach the most vulnerable, I kept hoping things would not get worse. But for the Rohingya refugees, they did. On June 12 and 13, vigilantes set fire to the Rohingya refugee camp in Madanpur Khadar in Delhi, leaving 270 Rohingya refugees without a shirt on their backs.
The refugees are too scared to call out the vigilantes as they have nowhere to go.
Rohingya Muslims – who, according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is “one of, if not the, most discriminated people in the world” – fled Myanmar as the country perceives them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Ironically, six lakh Rohingya refugees already live in Bangladesh, in the world’s largest refugee camp.
In Myanmar, they are often ambushed by military troops; in 2017, about 6700 Rohingya Muslims were killed, many of their women and children raped. A large number of Rohingya refugees in India had reportedly tried converting to Christianity to get Indian citizenship, following the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) which allowed Indian citizenship to non-Muslims fearing persecution from neighbouring countries.
India’s Supreme Court has ordered the deportation of the Rohingyas from Kashmir to Myanmar. But Myanmar’s military Junta government, which had forced them out in the first place, has refused to take them back.
It was in a coup on 1 February, 2021, that the military Junta arrested Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi along with many government leaders and politicians. Ironically, Aung San Suu Kyi had gone along with the government’s atrocities on the Rohingyas!
It only serves to remind me that if we don’t stand up for every last persons whose rights are taken away, our own rights will be taken away too. And that is why my respect for my friends , Burmese pro-democracy activists Thin Thin Aung and Soe Myint outstrips my respect for Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
I met Thin Thin Aung and Soe Myint as students in Delhi almost two decades ago. They were living in exile to run a news service called Mizzima that would spread word about the anti-democratic activities of the Junta in Burma. I attended their wedding at the home of George Fernandes, a socialist leader. We used to meet in my Delhi apartment, cook together and play songs on a guitar that Soe had.
Both of them went back to Yangon in 2013, after private news organisations were allowed in the country for the first time, when democracy seemed to have returned. They were critical of Aung San Suu Kyi ‘s stand on the Rohingyas and her reluctance to challenge the military.
In April this year, Thin Thin was arrested following the military coup, and Soe Myint has gone into hiding. The struggle for democracy continues.
If Aung San Suu Kyi had stood up for the Rohingyas, challenged the military when she had a chance, she would not have been in jail again, Soe would not have been in hiding, Thin Thin would not have been arrested, and the Rohingyas would have a homeland.
All our freedoms are interconnected.