Dark clouds gathered in the horizon and over the vast stretch of sea along Myanmar’s western coast of Arakan or “Rakhine” as the locals call it. A storm brewed. High winds swept wild waves ashore. The beach was almost empty. I stood still in the engulfing silence – the proverbial calm. It was a view from the other side. I usually witness the immensity of the Bay from the Bengal side.
At home in Calcutta, a month earlier, I got a call from Delhi. It was my then boss, Krishna Prasad, who, at the time, was editor of the national news magazine, Outlook. He asked: “Would you like to cover the Rohingya situation?” I was Outlook’s eastern region correspondent at the time.
International media had been reporting on the plight of the Rohingya, who were said to be persecuted in their own land. Their escape route was the Bay of Bengal. They were fleeing in overcrowded boats. Some made it to foreign shores. Others were turned back. A number of them capsized. Many people drowned. A lucky few survived and were rescued. It was a humanitarian crisis. Along with the land they were fleeing, the waters of the Bay itself became the stage on which it was playing out.
The Bay of Bengal. The sea. The ocean. It looks so small on the world map: just a patch of deep blue. One can trace the route between Bengal and Rakhine in less than a second with a pencil tip. An ant, crawling out of the sugary coffee cup that keeps the atlas in place like a paperweight makes the return journey in just under a minute.
A headline from one of the newspapers jostling for space between the atlas and the coffee cup nevertheless reiterates that after days and nights of journeying arduously along the same sea route, a group of Rohingya have landed, unwanted, hungry, thirsty, sick, and tired.
“Yes, of course.” I said. It was the reporter’s dream assignment.
Journalists found it difficult to get visas. Myanmar authorities claimed that the perspectives were pre-determined, one-sided. “We are wary of the lack of neutrality,” said one of the officials sincerely. After a set of interviews with Myanmar’s diplomatic missions in India, however, I was granted permission.
My flight from Calcutta, via Bangkok, took me to Yangon. After a night in the serene city of Buddhist monasteries I was on my way to Sittwe, the capital city of the state of Arakan on the western border of Myanmar. At the Yangon domestic airport, I experienced the warmth of the Burmese people. Few spoke English so the conversations took place in improvised sign languages and smiles.
I gathered that planes were delayed because of inclement weather. There were a limited number of flights per day. There could be cancellations, I was told. Or it could be evening by the time I land in Arakan. I had learned from an online blogger that in Myanmar your Dollar bills need to be squeaky clean in order to be accepted. As for the local currency, Kyat, the notes could be soiled. No problem. I hadn’t made much of that advice. But while trying to buy my air ticket I realized the value of that piece of information. The friendly, matronly attendant at the counter shook her head and pointed at the tiny folds in the corners of dollar notes indicating that these were unusable. “So sorry,” she said.
But then she did something. She called out to a young man who was weighing luggage and instructed him to go outside and get someone. He disappeared and returned with a scrawny boy who brought out a stash of Kyats. The woman at the counter handed him my Dollar bills in exchange for the local currency notes.
It was explained to me that he took “spoilt” Dollar bills for a small charge. My friendly, matronly attendant refused to take the additional money from me. “You…guest in Myanmar,” she said, and smiled. A Sittwe flight was finally announced. She packed me off. “Hurry. Don’t miss this. Who knows when the next one will leave,” she said in a series of gestures.
The tiny aircraft shook in the storm over the Bay of Bengal and, at landing, actually skidded on the picturesque runway overlooking the sea. It was late afternoon.
A week passed by in beautiful Rakhine. “We pronounce it like that,” a woman selling cloth at a local market said. I bought a pink drape, a sarong. “Like Bengalis we like to eat fish,” said a chef at a restaurant. I ate a seafood meal – plain, white rice and a shrimp-and-crab soup. I met the majority Buddhists. Women, men, boys, girls, children and old people. It was difficult to imagine them harboring feelings of hatred against anyone.
But on the question of Rohingya the rage erupted. Comments ranged from the mild “We lead separate lives and don’t interact” to the more vitriolic, “They are our enemies”. Rakhine – ground zero of the “Rohingya crisis” – had seen violent clashes between the two groups, prompting the government to segregate the Rohingya into camps.
The animosity was mutual and lurked just beneath the surface. Scratch it and it was exposed. Inside the camps the voices screaming “separation” grew louder and the crisis appeared more glaring. The Rohingya complained of state repression. “We are confined to specific areas and not allowed to move around freely,” was a common refrain.
Denying that the Rohingya were persecuted, the then Rakhine chief minister, Maung Maung Ohn, in an interview to me, said that at the center of the problem was the demand by the Rohingya that they be governed by their own personal laws. He said that the Rohingya refused to integrate. Their persistence in this pursuit has so infuriated the government that it has refused even to recognize the term “Rohingya” lest it sets a precedent for meeting the demands of self-identifying groups.
Since that visit four years ago, just before Myanamar held general elections, the country has undergone a regime change. Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy, Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was then in the Opposition, has become the State Counsellor, equivalent to the Prime Minister in parliamentary democracies. But she has found it difficult to live up to international expectations of ending the Rohingya crisis. Recent incidents of mass exodus of Rohingya on boats points to that. Perhaps she can’t afford to antagonize the majority Buddhists by espousing the cause of the Rohingya.
So they continue to descend on the Bay of Bengal. The sea after all, does not distinguish between the protected and the persecuted. The majority and the minority. If the voices that it drowns out happen overwhelmingly to be of those of the hounded, the helpless and the hapless, ask the humans who have turned against itself.
As for the Bay of Bengal, it is a picture of in-difference….as it were. No matter which shore you look at it from…the view remains the same. Even in the eye of the storm. Differences are in our perception.