Burning villages. Dead bodies. Overcrowded boats full of desperate Rohingya refugees looking for a haven.
Such is the legacy of the Myanmar government's offensive against its Muslim-minority Rohingya people in the country's Rakhine state. At least a half million people have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh since late August, nearly all of them Rohingya, according to the United Nations.
Yet repression against Rohingya in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, is hardly new. For decades the country's Buddhist-majority government has denied them basic rights such as citizenship, health care and access to education.
For a closer look at how this repression has affected ordinary people, Global Journalist spoke with three Rohingya who fled Myanmar prior to the most recent outbreak of violence.
Born in the town of Maungdaw in Rakhine State in 1982, Abul Fayas says he was first beaten by
soldiers when he was a child. At 18, at his parent's behest, he fled the country – eventually making his way through the jungle by foot to India. There, he took a boat to Thailand crossed into Malaysia.
After 15 years in Malaysia with no official legal status or passport, the U.N. helped him obtain refugee status in the U.S. Fayas moved to Chicago with his wife and three children last year. Through a translator, he spoke with Global Journalist's Maria Callejon.
Fayas: I never saw peace. We couldn’t sleep in our house because the military could come at any time and kill us. We used to sleep out in the jungle. We managed to somehow have food to survive. All the villagers were scared. My parents couldn’t do anything. They were scared too.
My parents used to hide themselves. They didn’t know what to do. They told me to go somewhere, anywhere where I could live a normal life. So I went to Malaysia.
Fayas: When I was 9 or 10 years old, I was severely beaten by the military. I was beaten very bad. I still have the marks. They beat me everywhere. They gave me a heavy load to carry. I couldn’t do it so they started beating me.
I experienced the violence, but I also saw [it happen to] my neighbors and friends. They killed my father in 2016, I was in the US. He was shot and then thrown into a burning house. That same year, 100 people from my hometown were killed.
Fayas: We can't get education. I couldn't go to school, the right was denied to me. We don't have insurance, there are no hospitals. When I was beaten, I was cured with home remedies. We couldn't reach any hospital or clinics in the area.
Hla Kyea succeeded in becoming a physician in a country where Rohingya are often denied education. To do so, he stopped using his Rohingya name, Mohammed Khubybe, and adopted the Burmese name Hla Kyaw. Still, even after completing his studies in 2007 at Myanmar's University of Medicine, Magway, he faced persecution.
In 2011, Hla moved to the Netherlands, where he became chairman of the European Rohingya Council, an Amsterdam-based advocacy group. Now 34, he spoke with Global Journalist's Denitsa Tsekova about the challenges faced by educated Rohingya in Myanmar.
Hla: My primary school was all right because it was in my village, the teachers and everybody were from our community. When I moved to the secondary school, the discrimination began. The school was in downtown Maungdaw [a city of about 400,000] and all the teachers were from the Rakhine ethnic community.
My parents gave me a traditional Rohingya name, but I had to choose a Burmese name at school. If the name on the exam paper is a Rohingya name, you will not be able to get a good grade. If I have a Burmese name, the examiner doesn’t know if I am Rohingya or from another ethnic community; then they give you the grade you are entitled to have.
We were severely persecuted by the state, by the local community at the market, at school, and at healthcare facilities.
Hla: I decided to study very hard to become a doctor so that I can give medical care to my own community. I tried my best to get good grades in order to be allowed to go to medical university. I passed with four distinctions at the time, I was No. 1 in English and fourth in the whole province of Rakhine.
I applied for university and I was fortunately admitted, this was partially because my name was Burmese. When I was applying they were asking for my parent’s identity cards. Fortunately, they both had one. I was still applying for [an] identity card but I got admitted. The medical university was in the town of Magway [a city outside of Rakhine state]
However, there was the Nasaka, a very notorious border control agency [since disbanded], persecuting Rohingya people. I submitted photos of my awards and recommendations to the commander of the Nasaka and I was given a travel document but only to the capital of Rakhine state. I had to apply once again to get a travel allowance to Magway.
Hla: I didn't have problems while studying at medical university because the professor who was in charge of the university was very kind to us. He knew that we were discriminated [against] because of our faith.
It was impossible for me to stay there after graduation because we were chased by the intelligence department. The intelligence community in Myanmar doesn’t like educated Rohingya; so we were always under scrutiny.
I finally decided to leave my country for the West. After me there were other Rohingyas who had good grades and were admitted to the medical university, but they couldn't go because they weren't allowed to travel.
Both of Ro Nay San Lwin's parents were activists in Myanmar during the time of military rule, when even landline telephones were uncommon in much of the country. Today Lwin, one of the most well-known online activists for the Rohingya, faces a different set of challenges.
After leaving Myanmar in 2001, Lwin moved to Saudi Arabia and then Germany, where he's become one of the most prominent Rohingya activists online. After assembling a team of more than 100 volunteers back in Myanmar to document abuses, he's become a major source of information about what's happening in troubled Rakhine state. Via Facebook and Twitter, he posts video of burning villages, people wounded by soldiers and other evidence of atrocities.
— Ro Nay San Lwin (@nslwin) October 6, 2017
His popularity has spurred an online campaign to silence and discredit him by government supporters. This has included a false news story by Myanmar's state news agency posted to the website of Myanmar's president quoting an al-Jazeera reporter saying Lwin had provided the network with fake images of atrocities by government forces. In an e-mail the al-Jazeera reporter, Leah Harding, called the state news report "totally false."
"I trust Nay San Lwin and we use him often as a network," Harding wrote.
Lwin spoke with Global Journalist's AnnMarie Welser about the challenges of online activism. Below, an edited version of their conversation:
Lwin: [State media] has taken sides with the Burmese military...they are like the mouthpiece.
If they really want press freedom, they have to change their mind. For Rakhine state, only the government [can] organize media so that journalists can go. These journalists are most of the time hand-picked. Journalists are dangerous for them whenever they go there, they discover something.
Lwin: Actually, it is very hard for me to continue this activism. They are [sending messages] like: "We are going to kill you. We will not even leave your skin."
I am also afraid to go home because you know here even in Germany they can hire [a] gang and they can do whatever they like. They have been posting my photos, and my parents' photo, and Facebook is never taking action against them whenever I report it.
Since Aug. 24, they have organized [a campaign] to take down my Facebook account.
Lwin: The people are suffering...There is extortion, sexual abuse, harassment, torture and also arrests – too many things are going on everyday. Since Aug. 25 up to today, there is no day that they didn't burn Rohingya houses. Continuously they are burning.
with reporting by Rachel Foster-Gimbel