The ‘floating people’ of Myanmar: how Rohingya refugees reclaim their identity through art and song

Farzana Kazi Fahmida, University Utara Malaysia

The Moghs [the Rakhine people of Myanmar] refer to us as ‘floating people’ as we do not have citizenship in our country. My grandfather, father, and I were all born and lived there… yet, I am considered a ‘temporary resident’. The Conversation

These words were spoken to me by Kalaya Ahmed, a 62-year-old man, whom I met in a refugee camp in Bangladesh in 2009. Ahmed is a Rohingya. This ethnic religious minority group has been persecuted by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar, assailed by special forces and monk militias.

The United Nations has recently reported appalling atrocities against Rohingyas, including the killings of infants and children in Rakhine State, which Rohingyas call Arakan, its former name.

Rohingyas claim Myanmar citizenship as their natural right and entitlement. However, the Myanmar state political authority continues to deny them any rights, claiming that the Rohingya are “Bengali”, “illegal immigrants” and “outsiders”. Ahmed says:

The Burmese border security force calls us ‘Bengalis’ due to linguistic affinity and skin colour, even though we never came to Bangladesh before. And now I am living here in the camp.

Ahmed is one of those thousands of Rohingya refugees who crossed the border into Bangladesh and is now living as a refugee.

The huge displacement of Rohingyas over the past decade has led more than 400,000 people to flee to Bangladesh alone, and half a million to other countries.

Central to their uncertainty is the question of the group’s political identity. Yet, despite all odds and efforts from the Myanmar authorities to deny Rohingyas any claim of belonging, Ahmed still identifies himself as a citizen of Myanmar and as a Rohingya; a term that the Myanmar government rejects.

The Bangladesh government also rejects Rohingyas. It has recently released a proposal to relocate them to a flood-prone island.

Such denial of rights from both sides has only prolonged the crisis.

Rohingyas at a camp only accessible by boat, in Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar, in 2013.
Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Politics of identity and belonging

How do the Rohingyas identify themselves in the midst of such persecution?

Empirical research among Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh suggests that they understand identity politics very well. They construct their own identity through collective memory of their former life in Rakhine state and their new life in camps. These are expressed through narratives and cultural life using drawings and songs (taranas).

They are highly significant in illustrating their sense of identity and belonging, and in expressing a different form of resistance, without direct confrontation or protest, against the discrimination and violence they have experienced.

The use of drawings is quite common among the Rohingyas. They use drawings to tell stories to their children and to explain why they are in exile, and to send messages to outsiders interested in their case. Whether it is verbal expression or visual expression, a concept that repeatedly appears is persecution or violence.

Anser Ullah, 37 years old, is an undocumented refugee from Maungdaw village, northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. He depicted religious violence and killing in his drawing below.

He told me why he left:

We could not tolerate the persecution anymore. The military and Buddhist monks’ persecution on us has increased so much in recent time. Our ID cards were taken away by the military. We have been evicted from our land and village. Our relatives were killed and many are still missing. Military announced that if we want to stay in Maungdaw, we have to be like them. We have to follow their practice that requires females to uncover their heads when going out, and men to shave their beards and so on. Our mosques, madrasas and cemeteries are being destroyed, and pagodas established in their place.

Reports show that incidents and destruction of cultural and worship spaces have been a regular practice.

Songs are even more widespread in the Rohingya community. They are mainly country songs, religious songs and songs that describe everyday life in camp. Among these, country songs are the most popular.

The song below was shared by a group of refugees in Nayapara camp to express their love and longing for their home.

We migrated to Bangladesh leaving behind our beautiful homes
On our rooftop we had dried food
In our field we had fresh chillies
We migrated to Bangladesh leaving everything behind thinking that we are of the same brotherhood
Now when we look back to the East,
We remember many things of the past
O, where are my beloved parents?
You sent us to Bangladesh
We had to leave our beloved country, Burma

A Rohingya Song from Nayapara camp, Bangladesh, recorded by F.Kazi Fahmida.

The word “home” has a dual meaning in the Rohingya language: it refers to former houses in the village as well as home in the sense of the motherland, Rakhine. Memories of dried food on rooftops and fresh green chilli gardens are symbolic of that concept of life, that stability or peacefulness, which the Rohingyas have lost.

When the refugees look to the east from Bangladesh towards Arakan and the mountain range of Arakan Yoma, they “remember many things of the past”. Many families were split up. Parents sent their young children away from Arakan to save their lives while they themselves chose to stay and die in their homeland. As one refugee told me in 2009:

Our memory should remain alive in our songs and poems. Our children should know why we are here. And if any outsider like you wants to listen us, they would listen to our songs and might understand our situation … We are not able to protest against anyone, so songs and poems are the only way to tell our sorrows and sufferings.

As opposed to the official claim that the Rohingya are foreigners and settlers, Rohingya narratives and cultural expressions suggest that they are indigenous to Rakhine State.

Arkan Deshor Musolman (Muslims of the Land of Arakan), film by F Kazi Fahmida.

These narratives express a form of resistance, not only against their socioeconomic and political conditions, but also the identity that has been imposed on them by officials and society. Their songs are “weapons of the weak”.

Rohingyas do not demand a separate state, but rather a separate identity and explicit recognition by the state. Through cultural expression, they remind themselves, and the world, of who they are.

This is the second of a two-part series on the plight of Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Farzana Kazi Fahmida, Senior Lecturer, University Utara Malaysia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Your future food will be grown with waste water

Serena Caucci, United Nations University and Kristin Meyer, United Nations University

In an increasingly water-scarce world, there is no doubt that recycling water we’ve already used has to become normal. Part of that will inevitably mean using waste water to help grow the food we need. But will we ever feel comfortable using waste water for food production? The Conversation

The reality is that this is already happening but more needs to be done to keep communities safe from the dangers of using untreated waste water.

The use of waste water for food production is mainly a question of managing water shortage and socioeconomic costs. Exponential population growth and climate change have seriously compromised water availability in many regions, from the Middle East to Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Local communities urgently need to find solutions to the problem of increasing water scarcity.

If used properly, waste water can provide important nutrients for plant growth and act as a replacement for mineral fertilisers. But it should be used for agricultural purposes only after being treated. Unfortunately, in many regions of the world, the reality is far from that.

Agricultural and water policies have not sufficiently addressed the inherent threats posed by the use of untreated waste water for irrigation. Often, hazardous materials in the form of heavy metals, organic contaminants, pathogens or antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be found in waste water. These accumulate in soils, crops and groundwater and so pass into the food chain.

If evidence of the threats to human health and the environment are readily available, why are so many farmers still using untreated waste water for irrigation purposes?

In developing countries, the use of untreated waste water has one big advantage: it is cost-free. This means farmers use it for irrigation of crops without taking the necessary precautions to avoid public health risks.

Today, waste water irrigates between 1.5% and 6.6% of farmland worldwide; about 10% of world’s food is produced using the practice. But the true extent of untreated waste water being used illegally for agriculture is unknown.

The Mezquital Valley in Mexico perfectly illustrates the issues involved. Rapid urbanisation and inadequate treatment facilities have led farmers in the valley to use untreated waste water from Mexico City for irrigation purposes. For more than a century, this practice has helped grow marketable crops at low production costs.

But these benefits come at the cost of the health of the population. The use of contaminated water for crops growth has resulted in severe gastrointestinal disease and cancer in the local community. Infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people whose immune systems are compromised because of HIV/AIDS are especially vulnerable.

It is not a coincidence that the Mezquital Valley has the highest incidence of kidney cancer in the region as well as occurrence of helminth or Giardia infections in children.

Farmers in the Mezquital Valley have been using waste water for a century. Alextorrej, CC BY-SA

Only by developing eco-friendly sanitation strategies has the reduction of water pollution loads while conserving the benefits of nutrients been possible. Since 1999, local waste-water plants have been built, and new wetlands have been constructed with satisfying results for water quality. But the people of the valley are still sceptical about the benefits of treated waste water.

The experience of industrialised countries shows that even advanced waste-water treatment technologies struggle to address all risks. The presence of emerging pollutants and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in waste water are known to escape conventional waste-water treatment.

Needless to say, these contaminants are, even at low concentrations, a serious threat to human health. We need technologies and structured monitoring to ensure swift responses in order to keep communities safe.

There is no escaping the fact that our future food will be grown using waste water. Local communities like those in the Mezquital Valley can only do so much to protect themselves; regulations and government policies must be evaluated alongside the scientific evidence for the danger waste water can pose to human health. Only then can safe use of waste water in agriculture stimulate sustainable development in our water-scarce world.

Serena Caucci, Researcher, United Nations University and Kristin Meyer, Researcher, United Nations University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Shade of Northern Lights: A Current Reflection

How many people do you know would collect orange seeds, put them in a pocket, and throw them on land where they can fruitfully grow? We know one, Semsar Siahaan (1952-2005) [Ed.]**.

A sensitive character in a desensitized world, Semsar concerns himself with issues of humanity and disparity. Born in Medan, North Sumatra, 11 June 1952, Semsar spent his later life contemplating and working in British Columbia, Canada. There, came the idea for one of his most iconic works, G-8 Pizza. It showcases not only his stellar technical ability in painting, but also his concerns in life.

Semsar indeed is a man who feels. He considers his soul stolen by the agenda of global organizations.

Pizza, a global favorite, is a metaphor for the world. Right in the center are characters symbolizing strong economies controlling the human race standing behind them, i.e. on the periphery of the pizza/world. Eight slices are portions of the world divided among these G-8 countries.

Semsar’s other paintings present similar elements and messages. One created in Canada presents a view of how Native Americans are treated. Nature, a spiritual symbol of ancestry for the Native Americans, carelessly destroyed.

It wasn’t just Canada that shaped him though. In Jakarta, his works were carried by protesters against the new order regime prior to the fall of Suharto. Indeed, his concerns on humanity and disparity had been present during his university days in Bandung, Indonesia, long before his move to Canada.

The following article was written in 2004 as a companion to Semsar’s exhibition event at Indonesia’s National Gallery. It was written by our advisor, Serrano Sianturi, who was then the Managing Director of our parent organization, Sacred Bridge Foundation.

What truly intrigues us is the relevance of Semsar’s concerns 13 years after this article was written. Are we not still living in the same world Semsar grew up in? Disparity is far from over, especially when differences are involved. Even within the borders of developed countries today, disparity amongst different races and/or religions is still blatant.

Globalization is also a struggle. US President Trump’s immigration ban is a direct attack on the free flow of people. Continuing presence of protectionism very well affects free flow of capital. Meanwhile, the use of politically correct culture solely to avoid public outcry means free flow of information still struggles to transform us into a knowledge society. I think we can all agree how easy it is today, still, to find ignorance.

We hope the following article can be a way to reflect how far we have come and where we should go.


Throughout history, humans realized one decisive revolution, the industrial revolution. Within 150 years after its commencement, world’s gross domestic product has grown twice as large as total production of the last 6000 years. The industrial output of the 150 years is equivalent to two-thirds of the output of those 6000 years. It is an amazing achievement, no doubt about it. However, with the enormous growth, along came huge costs, such as the sky rocketing population level, relentless exploitation of natural resources, and environmental degradation, among others.

Now that we are entering the third millennium, the abovementioned problems are far from being solved. Yet, humans are already anticipating the formation of another revolution, with its own major problems. This time it is technology (comprising acceleration, convergence, and digitalization) and economy (including deregulation, privatization, and globalization) that are driving change.

It is safe to say, within the context of technology and science, that we are now living in an age of miracles. Humans have successfully climbed the steps to heaven when we explored outer space, drew the genetic code of humans, unfolded the mystery of the human brain, and created information advancements. They have brought us well being, but also left us one open question: are they accompanied by an equally sound progress in our ethics?

We have left, it seems, the age of ignorance. With information technology, we can now tap a gigantic pool of information within minutes, if not seconds. Misery in Africa, war in the Middle East, natural disaster in South Asia, forest fire in Sumatra, we can now get hold of such knowledge almost instantly thanks to our technological progress. The question is thus whether we have become more sensitive than our ancestors to human problems? Are we now in a better position to help our suffering brothers and sisters? If we have to answer with a reluctant “no”, then we have to ask further, what was the point of reaching those technological advancements in the first place?

Within the realm of economy, problems lie not only at the ethical level, but also in implementation. After the collapse of Soviet Union, capitalism has become the only globally dominant economic system. However, within the decades of “lonely” capitalism, we have seen more contradictions and problems than before – although there have also been plenty of proofs for increased welfare and justice. Capitalism becomes confused when it plays the role of the sole world economic system. It can no longer uphold one of its dogmas, competition, after its competitor abandoned the race.

There are other problems. The main principles of capitalism, “let the market rule” and “free competition”, actually contradict another important principle, democracy. The rule “one man one vote”, coined to protect equality and analogized with free competition where everyone has a chance, is really contrasting economic inequality, where only a handful dominates because of the same free competition principle.

Deregulation and privatization have also been conducted in the name of free competition, with the aim of reducing government intervention in the economy. Efficiency, an objective of market economy, is sought to be attained. Unfortunately, this ‘positive’ intention results in the government’s weakened problem-solving capability in handling economic issues. Simply remind ourselves of diminishing budgets and facilities for, among others, education, health, small and medium enterprises, and the arts, to look for proof. Also keep in mind that these problems occur in both developed and developing countries.

Globalization, basically the free flow of trade, capital, information, and human resources, has brought more benefits to economically advanced countries. For developing countries, this discourse has been hampered by the establishment of economic blocs. Every bloc is busy creating regulations to protect itself against competition from other blocs. This is ironically the reverse of free trade, a principle of free competition.

Free flow of capital, hoped to provide developing countries’ access to foreign investment, has not been sufficiently regulated. As a result, an investment can move between countries at anytime. Not only has economic stability become difficult to maintain, availability of employment becomes unpredictable. Furthermore, the under-regulated money market has made the concept of trade-of-balance irrelevant in the calculation of foreign exchange rates. A sound foreign exchange rate has become very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.

Free flow of information through the Internet, news, and entertainment media has also not shown substantial progress. We are still a long way from a knowledge society. We also realize now the negative implications of global news and entertainment on local cultures.

Free flow of human resources is actually nothing new. Migrations have happened since the early days of humans. Today however, it is almost completely confined within the economic realm. Previously, migration occurred because of slavery, cheaper land, and ideological differences, among others. Now, it is almost always driven by higher wages. “Brain drain” is one the inevitable consequences.

Globalization is not absolutely “bad”. There have been positive developments. One of them concerns war. Because globalization has efficiently reformed the base of welfare and power to become non-territorial, war is no longer part of the major countries’ conflict resolution. Furthermore, the emergence of transnational activist networks, where people share a commitment towards human rights, the environment, economic wellbeing, as well as inter-civilization dialogue, is an effect of the free flow of information. Whether acknowledged or not, the anti-globalization movement has itself benefitted from the positive side of globalization. Sense of freedom is more palpable in the era of globalization. Democratization sounds louder in many parts of the world today.

This Janus-faced globalization, with all of its contradictions and dilemmas, has puzzled many. It has made people anxious. Bounded as communities, it gave people the right to become suspicious. The confrontations between those who favor and those who hinder have not refined the meaning of globalization. On the contrary, they have caused it to move without direction: two steps to the left, then forwards three steps, to the right one step, only to move four steps backward. For the neoliberals who prefer globalization, the future is bright. For those who oppose it, globalization is nothing more that the internationalization of capitalism, which will only bring more oppression, exploitation, and injustice.

However, injustice is the one issue that can be agreed upon by the two camps. It is also impossible to speak about injustice without mentioning the issue of human rights. They too face serious problems in this era of globalization. The first concern is in conjunction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is too oftenly cited in human rights campaigns all over the world. The use of the word “declaration” has not only limited the authority of this rule, but also made it unbinding. It is thus unsurprising that even oppressive government heads could easily adopt the declaration, because they knew it would not affect their leadership style.

This declaration is doomed to fail from the start, because it ignores the views of indigenous people and Islam. Indigenous people, represented by the Informal Working Group of Indigenous Populations, have claimed the right to self-determination, and asked for the acknowledgement of their societies as different and separated from the general public, but equal contituents of the human race. However, as of today, their demands are locked away at the UN. As for Muslims, the fact that they have not been involved in the formulation of the declaration is one of the decisive factors of the West’s questionable purchase of Islam.

Second, the issue of human rights has become a foreign politics tool for advanced countries in the northern hemisphere, to be used at will against developing countries in the southern hemisphere. Human rights become important when related to their foreign political interests, irrelevant when it comes to their own land. The development of human rights, like other things, should start at home, where infractions are real and painful.

Third, the upholding of human rights frequently confronts problematic conditions. In the case of reconciliation, for instance, which is a way towards peace, rule of law as a pillar of justice too often has to be disobeyed. If, on the other hand, justice has to be maintained, peace may not occur. More often than not, this condition occurs when one regime takes over another, or when two countries engage in war. Another example is the case of humanitarian intervention vis-à-vis sovereignty. We know that sovereignty is but one implementation of human rights. Up to this day, we still reject foreign intervention. However, interventions are often necessary to free people from repression and misery. This “noble” act is, in fact, a violation of the principle of sovereignty.

Another problematic condition rises from the issue of inter-generational economic rights. Poverty alleviation is both urgent and a worldwide phenomenon. Yet, because of its size and earnestness, it often justifies the consumption of natural resources in gigantic proportions, thus taking away the economic rights of our children and grandchildren.

It is this labyrinthine complexity, with all its awkwardness and difficulties, that was depicted by Semsar Siahaan during his domicile in Victoria, British Colombia, Canada. We sense such enormous emotions within his works of art and can feel his sincere intentions to change this sad fact of humanity. We have also found a glimpse of despair in his newest paintings and art installation. Therefore, we believe that this art exhibition is best presented as an aesthetical experience, so that all of us can start to do something to uphold human rights within our own homes. It is all important to summon the citizenry, popular sectors, and vulnerable constituencies of societies to develop a political language and effective means to collect and distribute relevant information. With such an active participation and consultation, there is hope for a culture of human rights and humane relations between state, society, and individual.

Our deepest gratitude to Semsar for entrusting us to organize this single person art installation and painting exhibition titled “The Shade of Northern Lights”. It is a great honor to participate in this outstanding event. We also salute Semsar for his persistence in defending human rights from abuse and ignorance wherever he stands. A word of appreciation is also extended to the State Minister for Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia, TIFA Foundation, Todung Mulya Lubis, UNESCO Regional Office Jakarta. We thank them for their generous support. Not to forget, we would like to apologize for all things short of what has been expected from us in the organizing of this exhibition.

Serrano Sianturi
Managing Director

[Ed.]*

G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man by Semsar Siahaan
G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man by Semsar Siahaan, 2003 Canada
G-8 Pizza by Semsar Siahaan
G-8 Pizza, charcoal on used corrugated cardboard

Featured image at the top of page is a painting by Semsar Siahaan titled “I wish I’m a Seagull“.

*Original article was slightly edited to better match our format.

**Slight edit. We added information about Semsar. He was born in 1952 and passed away in 2005, around five months after this exhibition.

Women at the Top: Cultural Change in Saudi Arabia and UAE

[Jakarta, LttW] Conservative Saudi Arabia, with its brand of what’s controversially known as Wahhabism, isn’t seldom referenced by Sunni Muslim leaders in policy making. Among the ongoing debates is the leadership of women in Islam.

Saudi Arabia has been notorious for banning certain rights for women. The most infamous of which is the right to drive.

Yet it appears change is taking place. In 2014, a woman by the name of Sarah al-Suhaimi extended the small club of women leaders in the country. She became the first female chief of NCB Capital, a Saudi investment bank. The year after was the first time Saudi women were allowed to vote. It was also the first time ever for at least 17 women to get elected to public office.

Not everything, however, has changed. Those elected public officials were not even allowed to speak to male voters. Even today, women are still obligated to cover up in public, and female drivers are yet to be approved.

But recent developments shine a new light. This past week, a woman by the name of Rania Nashar was named chief executive of Samba Financial Group, Saudi Arabia’s third largest bank by assets. The week prior, aforementioned Sarah al-Suhaimi took on the lead of Saudi Stock Exchange.

These developments came with an economic reform set out to bandage damages from low oil prices. Within the reform is a plan to increase the proportion of women in the workforce from current 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.

Speaking of change in strict, male-dominated countries in the region, the Saudis are not the only ones opening up to women. Nearby United Arab Emirates (UAE) appointed 22-year-old Shamma Al Mazrui as Minister of State for Youth in 2016. Not only is she another woman leader in the region, she is also the youngest minister in the world.

This brings up a question on the ongoing debate about women leading in Islam. If the so-called model for Sunni Islam is able to adjust according to current context, perhaps it is a reminder for fellow Sunni leaders to also observe context when designing policies.