From Burma to Brisbane: A tale of Rohingya resilience

Sujauddin Karimuddin apologised for being late meeting me for a coffee. He was delayed next door at the Mater Hospital where a woman was having complications with the birth of her baby. The woman was a Burmese refugee and Sujauddin was translating symptoms and orders between doctor and patient. All in a days work for a remarkable young man who was a refugee for many years.

Both Sujauddin and the woman in the hospital are Rohingyas, a mostly Muslim people persecuted for decades by Buddhist Burmese military rulers. The 1982 Citizenship Act stripped them of their right to be Burmese. At a stroke of dictator Ne Win’s pen, a people who had lived in north-west Rakhine (formerly Arakan) province for centuries were declared unpeople with no right to jobs, land, marriage or travel papers.

Sujauddin went to High School in the early 1990s suffering under this injustice. He said he was one of the lucky ones. His father was a wealthy businessman in the sugar town of Kyauktaw and could bribe his way out of most problems. But even he had been arrested for minor misdemeanours. Sajuaddin became involved in Rohingya support groups at school and wrote complaint letters to school and government authorities. He was arrested by military intelligence and charged with raising funds for armed groups in Bangladesh. His father bribed authorities to get him out. But his mother advised her son to get out while he could.

Sujauddin left his home town in 1998 and has never been back. Travelling without papers, he made the dangerous journey to Rangoon by boat and truck. Sujauddin was picked up at a military checkpoint 100km from Rangoon and sent to a prison camp. A new commander from up north was unaware he was a Rohingya and asked him why he was travelling without papers. Sujauddin told him he was just a poor person looking for a job in Rangoon. The commander admonished him and freed him with a note saying “this boy is respectable”.

The plan was for Sujauddin to stay in Rangoon and manage his father’s business. But he was defeated by Rangoon’s repressive laws. Citizens must report visitors on a daily basis with a penalty of two years imprisonment for non-compliance. After six dangerous months moving from friends to friends, Sujauddin admitted defeat. He hired an “agent” (what Australians call “people smugglers”) and took a bus to Thailand. He arrived in Bangkok and sold roti on the streets to survive.

He was caught and sent to an Immigration Detention Centre where they served him rice and pork. As a Muslim, Sujauddin could not eat the pork, but as there was no other food he starved. He had no energy to walk and was dragged into a truck and deposited on the Thai-Burmese border with orders not to return. He ignored the order. Instead he contacted a cousin in Malaysia and asked him to send him money to come to Malaysia. He got back to Bangkok where he contacted another “agent” to take him south to the Malay border. After an all night walk across the jungle, Sujauddin arrived in Malaysia in November 1999.

He took the train to Kuala Lumpur where he found a factory job. Because he was illegal, the conditions were pitiless. He earned just 20 ringgits a day for 12 hours work. He worked seven days a week and hid for a year. Every Sunday he escaped to the university where he found a Rohingyan professor who taught him English. He would study for three hours before returning to work. He got a better job in a shopping centre but lasted two months before being arrested for a third time in a third country.

On arrival at a detention centre he was ordered to strip naked in front of two thousand inmates. Sujauddin refused. “I am a Muslim,” he said. “I have my dignity”. The prison officers beat him up but he refused to obey the order. Prisoners shouted out for him to obey but despite the kicking and the bleeding, he refused obstinately. “I would rather die,” he said. He did not die, but he did not take off his clothes either. The camp foreman ordered he be dragged away.

After three months he was put on a bus with other detainees and driven to a river on the Thai border. They were loaded onto a boat and pushed off shore with orders not to come back. On the other side they were picked up by Thai gangs who worked with police. They demanded 200 ringgits or else they would sell them for 200 ringgits to local fisherman. Those that were sold into slavery rarely made it out alive. Sujauddin promised to ring his cousin in the morning to pay the ransom. In the middle of the night he escaped and led captors on a scary chase through the jungle. Sujauddin could hear his pursuers following on motorbikes but eventually found a highway petrol station where a couple helped him escape back to Malaysia.

He made it back to Kuala Lumpur where he got another job. This time he struck lucky and got a job with a fashion designer. He used his English to good effect and made himself indispensable to his employers. Having some fixity of tenure, he resumed his activism and helped found the National Council of Rohingyas with his former English teacher. They succeeded in getting the UN High Commission of Refugees to issue a document to allow Rohingyas to get medical treatment in Malaysia. But while doctors recognised the document, the police would not. 12,000 Rohingyan refugees in Malaysia remained vulnerable to arrest.

In 2005 Sujauddin married an Australian woman and arrived in Sydney in August that year on a six month 309 spouse temporary visa. The marriage lasted three months and Australia cancelled his visa. He applied for a refugee visa which took another nine months. He joined the local Rohingya support group and became secretary of the Sydney branch. He also became involved in wider Burmese issues. He joined the Burma Campaign Australian and worked with the Burmese Democratic Movement Association. During the Saffron Revolution he organised support rallies in Sydney.

He moved to Brisbane where he provides new Rohingyan refugees with cultural and language support. The love for his Rakhine homeland shines brightly in his eyes and his biggest task now is to be re-united with his family in refugee camps in Bangladesh. He wants the Australian Government to do more to help his people. “I want them to put pressure on the Burmese Government and raise the issue in the UN Security Council,” he said. “Enough is enough. Australia is the western country closest to Burma and should take more responsibility to solve the problem. It’s bad enough for the half million Rohingya in the camps but its worse for the several million still in Burma. It’s our job to provide awareness to the international community so that people know what’s going on”. With that, Sujauddin apologised once more and disappeared into the Brisbane rain. I cycled home, oblivious to the wet, pondering on what it meant to live in a world where freedom could not be taken for granted.

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