The refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, a town in south-eastern Bangladesh, are home to nearly 1m people from Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic minority. No family is without its own first-hand account of the atrocities committed by the Burmese armed forces and allied militias since 2017. Unsurprisingly, when the International Organisation for Migration (iom) carried out a mental-health assessment in 2018, many respondents said they felt traumatised by their experiences.
Less expected, perhaps, was how many included “identity crisis” among their problems. But the Rohingya identity has been as much a target of Myanmar’s murder squads as the human bodies they have slain and incarcerated. For the survivors, the journey to Bangladesh was a flight to safety but also a rupture. Few managed to bring with them any cultural keepsakes, leaving “everything but our memories”, says Mohammed Jaber, a carpenter.
The results of the mental-health assessment prompted the iom to do something to celebrate and preserve Rohingya heritage, “because the rarest supply in the world’s biggest refugee settlement is happiness”, explains Nihan Erdogan of iom Bangladesh. Nearly five years since the largest bout of violence that forced hundreds of thousands to flee, a cultural memory centre has opened inside the camp. A mixture of a museum and a workshop, it pulls together past and present, the quotidian and the artistic. From handmade fishing and farming tools to traditional songs and drawings, everything in the collection is produced by refugees, allowing them to tell the story of their people.
Some of the objects have been recreated with faithful authenticity, but for others the artists have woven into their work the new ideas, materials and techniques that they have picked up since leaving Myanmar—where repressive policies left the Rohingya mostly cut off from the outside world. Rather than being frozen in a time before they fled, much of the collection seeks to capture a culture in flux. For instance, tapestries interknit scenes of life in the camp with memories of Myanmar, juxtaposing makeshift tarpaulin shelters with traditional bamboo and timber houses.
The centre is particularly aimed at children, who make up around half of the refugee population. Only the oldest have memories of Rakhine, the state Rohingya hail from in Myanmar. Many of the younger ones have never known anything outside the barbed-wire fences of the camp. “Currently, our young children do not know about our cultural objects. But, if they see them, they will know,” says Soidul Islam, a calligrapher and painter. Like other artisans involved in the project he is also training younger Rohingya to ensure that knowledge of their traditions and skills are passed on. “Preserving our cultural heritage is more important than our lives,” he says. “Though I can die tomorrow, these objects will remain for our next generation.”
The centre also provides a space to heal: participants describe drawing comfort from the familiarity of home and finding creative activities therapeutic. “Our artwork, especially our music, can play a key role in reducing stress and bringing smiles to our faces,” says Shahida Win, a poet. According to Shamsunnahar (many Rohingya do not use a family name), an embroidery artist, for women in particular it brings a reprieve from the boredom and oppression of life in the camp. Increasingly militant Rohingya groups operating on the inside enforce conservative gender norms, unleashing violence against women who step outside of these limits by working for ngos, for instance. Without the embroidery work, says Shamsunnahar, “I would pass my days bored and upset, like the other women in our community without work.”
The organisers have created virtual exhibitions, too. This allows the Rohingya diaspora around the world to experience the centre, but the online component is also aimed at bringing Rohingya culture to global audiences beyond their community. Shibbili, a researcher, organiser and guide for the project, says they want “to show the world the pride and creativity of the Rohingya”. Many Rohingya say it is important they are not just known for their persecution, but also for their unique culture and identity.
This irks Burmese nationalists, especially the ruling military junta, which violently took back power in Myanmar just over a year ago. “The term ‘Rohingya’ has always been rejected by the Burmese people and is not recognised by the Burmese people,” the junta said in a statement about the cultural memory centre in January. Beyond Myanmar’s ethnic-Burmese majority, which accounts for nearly 70% of the population, 135 official ethnic groups are recognised in the country. The Rohingya are not one of them, even though their roots in Myanmar date back hundreds of years to when Rakhine was an independent state called Arakan. They have been fighting for their rights since 1948, when Myanmar gained independence from Britain. Most are denied citizenship: Rohingya cannot vote and have no access to formal education and many jobs.
The Muslim minority are considered illegal immigrants by many in the Buddhist-majority country, and often labelled “Bengalis”. The junta and their allies claim that the Rohingya belong in Bangladesh, where nearly 90% of the population is Muslim. This idea is contested not only by the Rohingya, who share a religion with Bangladeshis but have a distinct culture, but also by the Bangladeshi government—which has offered the persecuted group a safe haven but denied any possibility of integration. In the wake of the influx of people in 2017, the government has banned Rohingya from having jobs and forbids the teaching of Bangla, the main language spoken in Bangladesh, in the camps. In December Bangladeshi authorities went a step further, shutting down schools for Rohingya children.
Tyrannised in their homeland and ostracised in their refuge, the Rohingya are often called the world’s most persecuted minority. Filling a space with a loud expression of their identity, and sharing it with the world, is an act of defiance as much as of preservation. ■