(Still) seeking shelter

Noor Muhamad was barely 10 years old when a soldier flew into a rage and used the buckle of his belt to whip him, causing a gushing wound and leaving a mark that he still carries on his back.

  • Published: 4/02/2013 at 12:00 AM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

Having lived in Thailand for 25 years, Noor Muhamad, a Muslim Rohingya, still lingers in a state of uncertainty and permanent transit. (Photo by Thanarak Khoonton)

Born into a middle-class farming household, he recalls how as a child, soldiers falsely imprisoned women and children for crimes they didn't commit.

Noor managed to sometimes convince the soldiers to take him in their place.

Like so many Muslim Rohingya, Noor fled the persecution in what was his home in Myanmar to Bangkok during Myanmar's student uprising in 1988. Here he's had to face a kind of permanent transience, despite his white immigration card, and risks suspicion, and even run-ins, with Thai officials.

Every morning Noor, who looks cheerful and happy, goes out to the streets of Ramkhamhaeng to hawk Indian crepes, or roti, on his pushcart, ekeing out a living and hoping for a better future for himself, and for his people adrift in the void of statelessness _ or worse, homelessness.

"While growing up in Myanmar's Rakhine state, my family were subjected to all forms of persecution for being who we are. Running from the authorities has become part and parcel of being a Rohingya, no matter where we are," he said.

Noor says his personal struggles so far are nothing compared to what members of his ethnic group are facing. This has made him all the more thankful for the opportunity to call Thailand his temporary shelter _ perpetually temporary perhaps _ despite the adversities. Nevertheless, he has fought tooth and nail to live an existence in Thai society which, he says, is befitting a human being.

His eyes quickly well up with tears when he proudly displays a pocket-size calendar with a photo of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, given to him by a charity under royal patronage that he volunteers with.

Back in Myanmar, many Rohingya are considered officially stateless by the government _ despite the fact that they have lived there and toiled the land for centuries. Since Noor's earliest recollections, he was told that his lot are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, thus denied citizenship. During his childhood, he recalls the sense of trepidation he felt whenever soldiers marched in front of his family farm in Rakhine state, for that only meant bad news in the form of physical abuse, forced detention or having sacks of farm produce forcibly taken.

Noor Muhamad’s family picture. He doesn’t live with his wife and children. (Photo by Thanarak Khoonton)

"The current surge of Rohingya boat people fleeing their homeland is not a new phenomenon," stated Noor. When his hopes of getting refugee status faded, he had no choice but to stay in Thailand. The 25 years that have elapsed since can best be described as tumultuous, marked by having to play hide-and-seek with Thai immigration police.

"My fate seems no better off than that of my fellow Rohingya brothers today. Rohingya are a forgotten people. I can put myself in their shoes because I also live in constant fear of being caught by Thai authorities, who look at me as an illegal migrant. Some even kick and beat me, not to mention take money from me when an opportunity arises."

And yet there are also other, brighter opportunities. To beat the odds set against him, Noor began to volunteer at charitable organisations, from flood-relief programmes to orphanages.

''I hope that the deed would form a positive impression of the Rohingya with locals, and break any stereotypes they might have of us,'' he says.

His humble demeanour, polite nature and willingness to help made him a hit with everyone he's met _ and also with the regulars of his roti pushcart.

When they need a helping hand, the charity invites him to come and assist, for instance during the big floods of 2011. As a form of gratitude, they have given him a certificate of appreciation each time he has taken part.

For Noor, at the least the paper serves as credentials with which to boost his self worth to live with his head held high in society. This passion to get involved in charitable causes also played a pivotal role last year in enabling him to receive a temporary ID card.

Despite his status, Noor also talks about how he has realised his penchant for martial arts and acting when he landed a job as a stunt extra in a handful of Thai films. He has also resigned himself to the fact that people cheat him of his acting fee because they know he can't stand up for his rights. Such ambiguity _ Noor looks at it as both good and bad _ seems to characterise the limbo most Rohingya have to endure.

Over lunch _ Noor cooked lentils and Indian spices _ he spoke nostalgically about his childhood in Rakhine state.

The situation is always complex. Noor's personality and willingness has got him acquainted with a certain branch of Thai law enforcement and the media, who use him to update them on the latest developments in the Rohingya migrant crisis. With his relatively proficient spoken Thai, he also doubles as a translator when the need arises.

Unfortunately, this has done little to deter corrupt law enforcement officers from extorting money from him.

'' I still get picked up by police,'' said Noor. ''They tell me the white ID I have doesn't give me the right to reside in Thailand legally. So it's back to playing cat and mouse with the police, a situation which has kept up since I first stepped foot in Thailand.

''So far I have had 10 serious run-ins with the immigration police, which once resulted in my deportation to the Thai-Myanmar border town of Mae Sot. Before they left us in the forest, they physically abused us.''

More than physical pain, the bruises left by the beating reminded him of his torture at the hands of Myanmar soldiers during his childhood.

Being an active member of the Burmese Rohingya-Muslim Association of Thailand _ plus his work as an informant _ have put the well-being of his wife and two children, who reside in Mae Sot, in danger as he is now closely monitored by Myanmar authorities.

For their protection, he keeps in contact via phone. The last time Noor made attempts to reunite with his family was four years ago when, according to him, he was almost arrested during an illegal migrant round-up in Mae Sot. Not a day goes by that his heart doesn't ache to be with his family, he said.

With the recent arrival of the estimated more than 1,000 Rohingya boat people in the south of Thailand, Noor's take on the refugee crisis of his fellow countrymen is pretty simple: stop treating the Rohingya as refugees in their own country and give them citizenship. Getting resettled in a third country is not out of choice, he said, it is out of necessity. As the coming together of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) nears, he believes it will reflect positively on the Myanmar government to accept the Rohingya as its own people in the eyes of the world. He said whatever follows that shouldn't be an issue because all they want is Myanmar nationality.

''Despite being treated with disdain, the Rohingya still feel strongly connected to Myanmar,'' Noor says. ''A stray dog is treated better than us because the dog can at least fight for a spot under the bridge. We don't have that privilege.

''Human trafficking is on the rise,'' he says, adding to the suspicion that officials are sometimes involved.

''They can do what they want with a Rohingya because our lips are sealed for fear of reprisals.''

After he cooks lunch, Noor sings us a song he's written about the plight of the Rohingya.

The lyrics are in Thai and talk about a forgotten, lost people who have nowhere to go and no place to call home _ a pitiful race that should never have been born. Blighted and shunned for no fault of their own, that's what he sings and that's when the song ends.

It sounds like a lamentation, but in fact it's a plea.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Yvonne Bohwongprasert
Position: Reporter

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