At the age of 35, Habiburahman has already experienced torture, raids, human trafficking, humiliation, exploitation as a clandestine worker, and detention. Still, his greatest woe is being stateless.
Like some 10 million others, according to the figures of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Habiburahman has never had an identity card.
Since 1982, his people, the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority from Myanmar, were stripped of their right to citizenship.
At best, they are treated with disdain. At worst, they are massacred. Their executioners, for the most part, are Buddhist extremists.
Rohingyas are widely considered to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The most recent violence, which broke out in June 2012, has led to over 140,000 people becoming internally displaced, according to Human Rights Watch.
Habiburahman’s fate is closely linked to that of his people. Although he now lives in relative freedom in Australia, it is at the price of immense sacrifice. He tells of these sacrifices in a book, Nous les innommables, un tabou birman (We, the Unnameable: A Burmese Taboo), co-authored by French journalist Sophie Ansel.
In it, he explains: “Most often illiterate, the Rohingyas rarely verbalise their past, the oppression suffered. How can we know about our rights or understand the very notion of law and justice when we have spent our lives fleeing dictatorships, when we have only learnt to survive?” But thanks to this book, Habiburahman has achieved his goal: giving visibility to a people threatened by ethnic cleansing.
Already as a child, Habiburahman soon realised that he belonged to a rejected ethnic group. Bullied by the other school children, he was forbidden, along with his peers, from moving freely, forbidden from even using the word “Rohingya”, forbidden from taking part in football competitions, extorted by the authorities and the military…
His grandmother explained to him: “Look how cute you are, my little one. Yet your beautiful ebony complexion, Habib, is offensive to the ignorant and the racists. In their eyes, we are too black. Too Muslim. Too Negro.”
His father then taught him the law for all persecuted minorities: you have to build friendships, to be supportive, and always have enough money to buy your freedom from the corrupt security forces.
Being a Rohingya, Habiburahman could not aspire to lengthy studies.
At age 19, he decided, however, to leave his family and his region, Arakan, now the theatre of violence, off limits for journalists and NGOs. He went to study electrical engineering, thanks to fake papers and, above all, his exemplary academic results.
After becoming politically active with a teacher and mentor who was distributing tracts on the army’s appropriation of the country’s resources, he was arrested and had to flee the country. Thailand, Malaysia, the years went by and one arrest followed another.
Already, Habiburahman was defending the rights of his peers. He writes in his book: “I mainly attend to writing press releases, documenting the abuses committed against Rohingyas in Malaysia, and passing on the information gathered to the media and NGOs.” One testimony too many, for a British report, denouncing the plight of his compatriots in Malaysia, forced him to flee, to save his life.
The Australian dream?
In December 2009, he reached Australia but was immediately locked away for 32 months on Christmas Island and in Darwin, where his mental health came under serious strain.
Chewing betel, which grows widely in Burma, Habiburahman recalls these months of uncertainty and depression: “It was awful. I was completely trapped in an obscure system. I went on hunger strike several times and staged sit-ins on the roof of the detention facility. I even threw myself against electric fences.”
Australia has one of world’s most severe migration policies and is regularly denounced by NGOs such as Amnesty International. Some 1800 migrants and asylum seekers are being held in detention on Australian territory, along with another 1500 or so in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, waiting for a decision regarding their fate, for several years in some cases.
Now the holder of a temporary visa, Habiburahman works as an interpreter and social worker in Melbourne, but says he would like to study again if he could afford to pay for the fees.
He has also founded the Australian Burmese Rohingya Organization, where Rohingyas can go to talk, have a coffee or take English classes.
“There are around 500 Rohingyas in Melbourne and over 2000 in total in Australia,” says the young man, who devotes all his free time to helping his people.
His eyes glistening, Habiburahman says he still believes in Aung San Suu Kyi. The former Nobel Peace Prize laureate has, however, remained very silent regarding the massacres of Rohingyas.
“She is still in opposition. For the moment, there is nothing she can do. When she is in power, she’ll be able to act. It’s our best hope. Because our government is very good at lying to NGOs and the international community,” argues Habiburahman.
Sixteen years after leaving his country, Burma, Habiburahman says the nightmares still wake him up at night but that he will continue to inform global opinion about the plight of the Rohingyas thanks to the contacts he still has there.
“It’s my people. My family, my friends are there. Every time I call, they are in tears. They are waiting for death or to flee by boat. It is ethnic cleansing.”
“If you could see it with your own eyes, you wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
“I would like to see my people living in peace on our ancestral lands and for all the refugees to be able to go back home.”
But for the moment, the young man writes in his book: “The world is not ready to accept the truth about another genocide. ‘Genocide’, a taboo word that no one wants to hear because it implies an obligation to react. Genocide does not exist. Rohingyas do not exist.”