The sky over the world’s youngest city is hazy, streaked with high cloud. Members of a work gang pause, leaning on their shovels as we pass. There will be no rain today, but they are sandbagging a new culvert against the day when the monsoon rolls in off the Bay of Bengal and unloads across this immense, handmade settlement. We step out of their way, and from up ahead comes the sound of singing. Children, in cheerful recitation, their voices rising from a set of small classrooms that look like the only permanent structures in the camp. I hadn’t expected to hear singing today. Unexpected memories of the last time I visited a school in this corner of the world.
Central Myanmar, November 8, 2015. It was a bright morning, and we were at a school in Taunggyi, high on a mountain plateau in Shan State. There was a buzz of quiet expectation in the air. People were queuing patiently across the quadrangle and into the school hall. Two uniformed security guys kept their distance. There hadn’t been any disturbance since the polling booth opened first thing that morning. Against fearful expectations, Myanmar’s first real election in decades appeared to be proceeding without incident.
Three women on their way out of the hall approached our little team, and I asked if it was okay to get a photo. With broad smiles, they proudly held up their pinkie fingers, which were stained a dark purple from the indelible dye that election officials were using to prevent repeat voters.
Australia could take some small credit for what was happening here: officers from the Australian Electoral Commission had been on the ground for months helping put the process together, training thousands ofvolunteers and staff who had fanned out across the country. Our cross-party team of election observers was part of a global effort of the United States, the European Union and the United Nations to help safeguard the candidates, the electors and the process itself.
I felt my cynicism slipping, just for the day. The world’s democracies had reached out to welcome a new arrival into the family: another small part of the world exchanging the rule of the gun for the rule of the ballot box, deserving of all the support it could get.
By midnight, despite some rearguard attempts at vote tampering, it was evident that the result was a landslide. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had routed the generals and their proxies. Her party had taken close to 80 per cent of the contestable seats. Even under an appalling constitution that reserves a quarter of the parliament’s seats for the military, she’d be in a position to appoint the president, hold an outright majority in both houses and lead her torn country into a new chapter. It was a stunning reversal from her lonely years under house arrest. In its coverage, the BBC flipped between a panel of sober political analysts and a riotous Mandalay street party. It was a rare moment: history in motion before our eyes.
The blind spot in the celebrations was hidden in plain sight: some months previously, the authorities had revoked the already-tenuous rights of anyone without full citizenship. An entire ethnic group was disenfranchised just in time for the election. If you’re not considered a citizen, you can’t vote, and you certainly can’t put yourself forward as a candidate. In reality, this was not some fresh initiative but the completion of a project that had been underway for decades. It was hardly a secret, and nor was it considered serious enough to break the surface tension of international support and solidarity. These absent, voiceless people wouldn’t get much mention on the euphoric television broadcasts.
With the best of intentions, we’d all just helped graft a respectable and much-loved face onto something unspeakable.
Less than a fortnight before we swung into Taunggyi, researchers from the London-based International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) had delivered the findings of a 12-month research project into the situation facing Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya people. The report touched on the cancellation of citizenship entitlements, but also spoke with chilling clarity on the deeper crisis. “ISCI concludes that genocide is taking place in Myanmar and warns of the serious and present danger of the annihilation of the country’s Rohingya population.”
Southern Bangladesh, August 2017. They began arriving on foot, by the dozen, then in the hundreds, and then, suddenly, in the tens of thousands. Stories of madness trailed in their wake. Buddhist militias backed by police and a light infantry division of the national army moving into villages and burning people alive. Mass rape and sexual violence against women and girls; torture, mass graves, wholesale bombing and bulldozing of looted villages. A swift regime blackout descended: reporters and international observers were prevented from reaching the area. Two Reuters journalists who continued their work were arrested months later, and are still in jail at the time of writing. From the silence of orbit, satellites scanned the destruction: at least 350 villages and townships attacked or burned off the map.
Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that at least 6700 people were murdered during this convulsion. In that same month, more than 420,000 people fled across the border into Bangladesh. At the height, more than 20,000 were crossing every day, making it one of the largest and most rapid forced migrations in modern history. More than half of the evacuees were children.
Follow the endless sandy beach southwards from the raggedy resort town of Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, then cut inland through busy markets and farming villages, and you’ll soon notice that the whole world is somehow here: a Médecins Sans Frontières depot, Red Crescent ambulances, a Malaysian health complex, World Health Organization Toyotas, Christian Aid infrastructure, Oxfam, the UNHCR.
If you include outlying encampments and thousands of families remaining from earlier waves of displacement, more than 800,000 people now shelter here. Kutupalong is a city crafted in haste, born of emergency, with a population twice the size of Canberra’s.
We pull over to the side of the camp’s main artery, out of the hustle and flow of scooters, electric three-wheelers, four-wheel drives and battered-looking wagons laden with supplies. I’m here as the guest of MedGlobal, a small US-based network of medicos who specialise in getting volunteer medical professionals into places where they’re most needed.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but not this. Maybe I’d been conditioned to imagine a place of passive helplessness, but that misapprehension is soon corrected. Kutupalong, above all else, is alive, buzzing with determination and energy.
A colourful crowd of kids spills from a makeshift pavilion. As we approach, the teachers show us the sports day medals they’ll shortly be awarding. A wild dance party has broken out in the meantime; if you’re aged between five to about 11 you’re invited, but fair warning, these kids can actually dance. There is nothing to distinguish them from a mob of bright little jumping beans in any suburban Australian school, and for a moment it’s possible to forget the circumstances that have delivered them here.
From a nearby window, little faces press through to check out the commotion. Their singing floats above the delirious blasts of dance music.
This you can’t prepare for. Kutupalong is a city of children.
A jumble of shopfronts compete for attention. Pyramids of fresh fruit, racks of bright fabric, second-hand mobile phones, solar panels. Tides of people move through these nameless laneways: mothers with tiny ones in tow, squads of older kids on errands, young men hauling cargo on their backs. Market stalls, aid depots, a barber shop … all woven from the same crafty combination of bamboo framing and sheets of tarpaulin. Everything is softened under a layer of heavy, mustard-coloured dust. Everywhere are signs of preparation for the rains to come.
It is hard to get a sense of Kutupalong’s scale from within this improvised street market, so ascend a bamboo stairwell to one of the steep-sided dunes that jigsaw across the landscape. Pause, and let it all sink in. A patchwork panorama of canvas recedes to the horizon in every direction. Now it appears as the archetypal refugee camp: the people invisible, devoid of agency, faceless.
Except that we’ve somehow pied piper’d a gaggle of curious ratbags from the dance party, who have followed us up here to see what we’re about. They flat out refuse to be faceless.
In the welcome shade of one of Kutupalong’s immaculate houses I’m introduced to Rose. In her mid 20s and heavily pregnant, she’s been here for six months.
“Our village was raided by the Burmese military, and people were shot,” she tells me through an interpreter. “They burned the houses – my whole family are here, but one of my relative’s whole family was killed. So we knew we had to leave.”
I ask if she is seeking resettlement somewhere else or whether she just wants to go home. “If I get the citizenship rights that I deserve, as a citizen, then I definitely want to go back,” she says.
Until that day, she’s trapped here.
The MedGlobal field clinic lies on the periphery of the main camp, allowing its staff to serve all comers: stateless Rohingya or local Bangladeshi farmers and their kids. The pre-existing healthcare network in this part of the world is patchy at best; one of the ways the medical teams have tried to soften the impact on the host community is to at least ensure they benefit from the sudden surge in resources.
Dr Nadirah Babji is the unflappable clinical coordinator of MedGlobal’s team here. “We see a lot of respiratory tract infection. A lot of psychological illness, mental health illnesses. A lot of gastritis, acute gastroenteritis, stomach pain, a lot of diarrhoea. And maybe five to 10 cases of infectious diseases a day.”
By the time we arrive, about 40 people are queuing patiently in the shade of the clinic. The local Hope Foundation team has been registering people and triaging since the early morning.
MedGlobal treats a lot of straightforward ailments on the spot; anyone presenting with more serious conditions is referred to one of the four larger field hospitals run by the big international organisations. Tarpaulins provide some privacy for those in the bamboo-and-chicken-wire consulting rooms. A baby wails, the humidity rises and, one by one, people see a qualified nurse or doctor, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
It’s a deeply unnatural disaster. Dr Hajra Siraj has left her practice in London for a week and she flew here at her own expense. “Yesterday there was a man who was tortured for five days. He had his shoulder dislocated … so when we saw him, his shoulder was deformed. He had burns on his body and lots of scars. So we’re seeing a lot of people with severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress.”
At the weekly health sector meeting back in Cox’s Bazar, I get a glimpse of the scale of care being woven around this place. Fine-grained tracking of infectious disease cases helps keep a lid on outbreaks of diphtheria, meningitis, measles. Half a million water-hygiene kits have been distributed, 47,000 latrines have been constructed, and water-quality data is being mapped in the effort to bring clean water within easy distance of everyone in the camp.
The health sector meeting is convened with brisk efficiency by a coordinator from the World Health Organization. She has clearly instilled a strong sense of collaboration among groups of vastly different scale and capability.
Somehow, despite the perilous resource shortfall, the centre is holding.
At least it seems that way to the MedGlobal crew. “It’s nice that what one organisation has a specialty in, the other ones don’t,” explains Liz Gilmore, a nurse who, when not somewhere like this, works in the emergency room of an elite private hospital in Abu Dhabi. “Some will take surgery, some will take emergency, some will take burns, or obstetrics, or paediatrics. In that sense it’s well balanced. It’s just a matter of finding who goes where.”
The gathering monsoon hangs behind every conversation. Shipping containers are being readied for dispersal throughout the camp, to act as forward supply points for when the roads are cut off. Detailed satellite mapping is being used to help relocate people and facilities situated in potential floodways or landslide zones. The whole network is being stress tested against the only scenario that really matters: What happens when the storms hit?
It takes time to come to grips with the incomprehensible dissonance at work here. A network of UN agencies, non-government organisations, churches and volunteers from all over the world have stepped up. They are trying to make the most of profound Bangladeshi generosity, and the resilience and ingenuity of the Rohingya. From nothing has come a collective healthcare system, housing, primary education, fresh food, a self-organised economy and an emergency-preparedness framework. It is easy to critique rough edges and inadequacies, but those on the frontline are throwing the best they have at a cruel situation.
And there hangs the dissonance. All of this is only necessary because of unforgivable, repeated global security failures. This has all happened before. In 1978, Myanmar authorities forced 200,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh. In 1991, a quarter of a million people were uprooted, fleeing again to the region of Cox’s Bazar under “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation”. And again in 2012, and 2015, and 2016.
Each time, international agencies scramble to provide basic support, the people of Bangladesh provide a place of relative safety, and diplomats fly into regional capitals to negotiate repatriation. Then the torment of the Rohingya fades from the headlines again.
Before, it was hatchet-faced military men who fronted the atrocities. Now it is the Lady herself, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was once held in the same regard as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. “There have been allegations and counter-allegations” was as far as she was prepared to go in September 2017, even as half a million people were fleeing into Bangladesh. “We have to make sure that these allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action.”
Playing along with this feeble deflection amounts to complicity in genocide. A member state of the United Nations is executing its long-held ambition to extinguish an entire community, through a combination of violent displacement and cultural strangulation. And yet Myanmar’s officials still get invited to ASEAN meetings. Foreign investment continues to pour in. The international community’s sanctions on the former dictatorship have largely been lifted. A veil of legitimacy now masks the regime’s underlying continuity of purpose: Aung San Suu Kyi was welcomed warmly to Canberra as recently as this March.
Australian government policy on Myanmar perfectly expresses the combination of indifference and assistance to which the Rohingya people are subjected. As the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website states, “Australia is working to broaden and deepen our bilateral partnership with Myanmar through strengthening government-to-government ties, growing trade and investment and expanding people-to-people links.”
This extends to military collaboration. As long ago as 2013, the Gillard government announced that, in view of Myanmar’s “significant reforms”, it would lift some restrictions on defence engagement. “Our objective is to encourage the development of a modern, professional defence force in Myanmar that continues to support democratisation and reform.”
The Turnbull government has the same view. While the United States and the United Kingdom suspended military ties at the height of the 2017 violence, Australia remained at the regime’s side. This financial year, $398,000 has been budgeted for Myanmar as part of our Defence Cooperation Program. The government argues that this supports training activities in humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping, which must surely be of great reassurance to the Rohingya.
By any measure, Australia’s “engagement” has failed comprehensively. Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s crisis response director, is blunt: “Australia must cut military ties with Myanmar and they must use their influence in the region and their current position on the UN Human Rights Council … the international community, including Australia, must face the reality of what has been happening in Rakhine State for years.”
The reality includes large numbers of people who will inevitably seek shelter further afield than the precarious dune fields of Kutupalong. A number of Rohingya asylum seekers are now trapped on Nauru and Manus Island, reportedly offered cash by Border Force officers if they agree to return to the arms of the Myanmar authorities.
With one hand, Australia partners with a regime conducting genocidal purges of its own people, and imprisons any evacuees who stray within range. With the other, we are now the third largest donor to the relief effort in Bangladesh – our withered international aid budget making up approximately 8 per cent of the funds required to keep the huge Kutupalong camp alive.
Surely dissonance this sharp is impossible to sustain. The Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia is emphatic that military collaboration must cease, and that the time for diplomatic pleasantries is done: “We urge the Australian government to impose targeted sanctions that would … create enough pressure to end the brutalities waged upon the Rohingyas. We urge the Australian government to renew sanctions until the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is resolved.”
“You asked why I came here?” MedGlobal’s Dr Mark Palfreeman passes me his phone. On it is a photo of him with one of the kids he treated earlier this morning; the two smiles could light up a city block. “That’s why.”
It’s a powerful thing, knowing that even in an emergency on this scale, some of the best and brightest will step in to help. But at the end of the day in the clinic, our team is waved through an armed police cordon and we’re free to go. Behind us in the city of children, 800,000 people are still trapped on a sand plain in the world’s largest bamboo cage, waiting for the rain to come.