On the Run From Oppression in Burma

Long persecuted in their native land, the stateless Rohingya have sought sanctuary across the globe.
Rahima Khatun

Update, Monday, November 19, 2012: Today, President Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Burma, where he met with President Thein Sein as well as Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Before the visit, President Thein Sein condemned recent violence against the Rohingya and pledged to consider extending new rights to the stateless minority. Human rights groups have criticized the President's visit as premature, citing the regime's remaining political prisoners as well as ongoing violence against ethnic minorities in the country.

Saiful Huq Omi, a photographer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, first focused on Burma's Rohingya refugees in 2009, when he began documenting their lives in Bangladesh, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom. The Rohingya—an ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority from Burma's northern Rakhine State—have been persecuted for decades; nearly a million of them are estimated to reside in Burma, while another half million have sought refuge in Bangladesh. Smaller populations have fled to other countries.

The 1982 Citizenship Law of Burma stripped the Rohingya of their nationality, making them legally stateless. As Amal de Chickera, the head of the Statelessness and Nationality Projects for the Equal Rights Trust, explained in a recent conversation with Omi: "While many individual citizens of Burma experience human rights violations, the Rohingya are specifically targeted and face discrimination as a group. Outside of Burma most Rohingya are irregular migrants with no legal status. Because they are stateless they have to travel illegally, and are thus targeted and often become victims of arbitrary detention, deportation, extortion, trafficking, and smuggling."

What Omi found especially striking from his encounters with the Rohingya was a pervasive and enduring sense of uncertainty among them about having no country to call home. How have these people coped with that agony for so many years?  "Other than the resettled community in Bradford, UK," he says, "no one knew their future."

These photographs were taken between 2009 and 2011. Beginning in late May, Omi will travel again to various Rohingya enclaves to continue the documentary project.

Also read: "For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question."