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“My grandmother was a Rohingya”

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Mahi Ramakrishnan.  Journalist

Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin, Kuala Lumpur

“It was a chance meeting, really. But he stirred something deep inside me – the ache I had kept buried away.

Billal looks like any other ordinary boy – playful, smiling, loud and noisy – but he is not.

He is a Rohingya refugee from Burma, who fled his homeland with his mother Rasheeda in 2014, fearing the mob and Burmese military junta.

I was in Burma in 2014 on a work visit. I went there three times that year, doing the groundwork for a film on the Rohingya, which was released later the following year.

I visited Sittwe where Billal comes from. After much wrangling, I was one of the lucky few, who managed to gain official permission to visit the displaced peoples’ camps in the state.

I didn’t meet Billal there but in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, when researching for another film – Bodies for Sale.

His smile tugged at my heart strings and I was horrified at the trauma he was forced to face – being stranded on an overcrowded boat at sea for over ten days, trapped in one of the jungle camps because Rasheeda had no money to pay the traffickers, to witnessing his mother getting raped by them.

Billal escaped with his mother towards the end of 2014, when Thai and Malaysian authorities raided the death camps along the border of the two countries.

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They made their way to Ampang, where Rasheeda gave birth to the trafficker’s baby. When I gained her trust, Rasheeda told me about her life as a little girl growing up in the town of Sittwe, her marriage at the age of 12, her husband’s death, the escalation of violence against the Rohingya by the military and fleeing Burma.

Rasheeda jumped into a waiting boat with Billal when she feared for their lives. Upon landing in Thailand, the traffickers demanded two thousand US dollars from her, a sum way beyond her means.

When she couldn’t pay, a Rohingya trafficker raped her. Two more traffickers – another Rohingya and a Thai – raped her as well.

I spoke to many Rohingya women and men after that, who told me a similar story of rape, horror, violence and bonded slavery.

 

In 2014, I met a trafficker in a displaced persons’ camp in Sittwe. He told me about the abuse suffered by the Rohingya, who were forced to risk their lives and dignity at the hands of traffickers.

It disturbed me. But I stopped myself from thinking or feeling about it, fearing the emotions would drown me.

But the women and men, who shared their stories of sexual, physical and emotional assault, taught me courage. They taught me to hope despite adversity.

Their strength was the stepping-stone to this film. Bodies for Sale echoes not just their experiences but the untold stories of those who never made it in their journey of hope, looking for another home, fearing death and persecution in their birth countries.

There are some 150,000 Rohingya in Malaysia who left Burma when the military junta turned against them.

The Rohingya became stateless when the regime introduced a new citizenship law in 1982. Their rights were further curtailed when the Burmese government barred them from owning land, restricted their movement, banned them from having more than two children and prevented them from voting in 2015.

Malaysia does not recognise the rights of refugees but they are a part of our society now. I hope this film encourages people to accept the Rohingya as one amongst us and enables us to understand that we are strong because of our differences.

Leaders, parliamentarians, heads of states and all of us have a role to play in ending the violence that is perpetrated against the Rohingya.

Hopefully, this raw portrayal of the journey by the Rohingya from Burma to Malaysia via Thailand, can help all stakeholders to exert pressure on ASEAN and foreign governments to reprimand Burma and stop the targeted killings in the state of Arakan.

I look forward to the Rohingya living amongst the various ethnic groups in Burma, in peace and dignity once again. I hope this film could contribute to making it possible.”

Mahi’s new documentary will debut in Malaysia on November 6, 2016 at 3pm. Venue: Black Box @ Publika

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Bodies for Sale is a film that uses powerful narratives and chilling visuals to describe the abuse and slavery of the Rohingya, at the hands of traffickers, as they embark on a sea journey to Malaysia, fearing death and persecution in Burma.

The film is a collaboration with Monitoring Sustainability of Globalisation and supported by The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany.

“It took me 1.5 years to make this film- I didn’t want to meet people, document their stories and leave. So i worked with the Rohingya: got them access to food aid and medical aid. For example Billal, the main character, had chronic ear infection. I took him to see my ENT and then enrolled him into a school run by Mark Bayoud. I assisted in finding money for medical aid including child birth. So it took time.

The person who helped me make this film possible is Ustaz Rafik who runs MyWelfare. I also had a leverage because I have worked with the Rohingya community for 11 years now. So they know me and most importantly, they trust me.

I don’t belong to any organisation or NGO. But Lilianne Fan is setting up the Geutanyoe Foundation in Malaysia. I am one of the three directors and my pet project in this organisation is a sustainable livelihood program for all refugee women. We will start the project by teaching the women to do mats, baskets and begs from used plastic bags. I hope to teach them to make soaps and hand stitched note books after that. We aim to start with 45 women and the three places where we will start this project are Klang, puchong and ampang. We will market and sell these products. I hope this project empowers the refugee women and gives them financial independence.”

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