For a virtual tour of this exhibition, please click here.
“Because we don’t have citizenship we are like a fish out of water, flapping and unable to breathe. If we were given citizenship in Burma, we would be like that fish you catch and then throw back into the water where he belongs. We are still out of water and when a fish is out of water, he suffocates to death. We have been out of water for such a long time and we are suffocating. We are suffocating to death.” ~ Jafar, Rohingya man (2009)
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from the Rakhine State in Western Myanmar (Burma). Though the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for several hundred years, successive Burmese governments and local Buddhist groups in Rakhine have refused to recognise the Rohingya, unjustly claiming the Rohingya are not indigenous to Burma. For over 50 years, the Rohingya have endured systematic human rights abuse. Nearly one million Rohingya were made stateless when the Burmese government enacted the 1982 Citizenship Act, which recognized only 135 ethnic groups as being citizens of Myanmar, of which the Rohingya were intentionally not included. Since then, the Rohingya have been one of the largest stateless communities in the world.
Over the past twelve years, I’ve traveled fifteen times to Bangladesh and inside Myanmar (Burma) to document one of the most extreme and horrendous situations of human rights abuse in the world (and for years one of the most underreported as well). The year 2017 marked a time when many people around the world first became aware of the plight of the stateless Rohingya community, yet this systematic abuse of the Rohingya perpetrated by the Burmese military has been happening for decades.
In August 2017, the Burmese military launched a ‘scorched earth’ campaign against the Rohingya. Over 700,000 Rohingya men, women and children were forced to abandon their homeland, leave their belongings and possessions behind and flee into southern Bangladesh. Hundreds of Rohingya villages were destroyed and thousands were killed by the Burmese military and local Rakhine Buddhists. Officials from the United Nations described this campaign as a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing while others claim it is another stage of an ongoing genocide toward the Rohingya that is already decades in the making.
I returned to Bangladesh in September 2017 and then again in May/June of 2018. The sheer number of Rohingya sharing the same level of desperation and suffering in Bangladesh is epic in size and scale. Those Rohingya violently thrown out of their homeland of Myanmar since August 2017 now live a makeshift existence in an even more desperate and desolate place where they will never be permitted to belong. Each Rohingya has a story to share. Stories of mass killings. Stories of the use of rape as a weapon of violence. Stories of torture. Each of those stories, whether told by a father, mother, grandmother, wife or child is wrapped in loss, abuse and trauma. Today, as displaced people in Bangladesh, the suffering continues, which I have always felt is an extension of the violence perpetrated against them by the Burmese authorities in 2017. Their statelessness as well as the terror they experienced and the displacement from their country into Bangladesh will impact the lives of generations of Rohingya to follow.
On August 27, 2018, a UN-Fact Finding Mission released a scathing report that concluded Myanmar’s top military generals be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court for genocide against the Rohingya. This report adds to a growing recognition of genocide against the Rohingya and the need for justice for the mass atrocities committed against the Rohingya in 2017. While there has been an abundance of media attention on the Rohingya since 2017, I’ve been determined all these years to create a sustained, comprehensive documentation that exposes the slow, strategic and tragic destruction of this community. Years, even decades of human rights abuse often become invisible to the world due to the demands of current events as well as the fatigue of the international community toward human rights issues. Situations like that of the Rohingya are recognized and acknowledged by the world’s diplomatic elite. High-level missions and delegations from all the major power countries in the world have visited Myanmar and Bangladesh and have voiced their outrage over the abuse of the Rohingya. But, as is often the case, the will of the international community to hold perpetrators and states to account, uphold justice and actually find solutions to stop the abuse, are easily sidelined by the pressures of realpolitik. The situation for the Rohingya is a perfect example of this.
I made my first trip to Bangladesh in early 2006. Since then, I have explored how the Rohingya have been stigmatized, dehumanized and harassed; subjected to violence, mass displacement and terror; and have been targets of hate speech, religious persecution and deep rooted racism. I’ve tried to document how the Rohingya have been segregated and isolated into camps, denied education and health care as well as the freedom of movement. To add, I’ve tried to visually translate how the Rohingya have endured deprivations (including the deprivation of citizenship) and discriminatory polices that have systematically weakened this community over time.
As the years have passed, my work on the Rohingya developed from that of a visual documentation of their plight into a visual
account of ‘slow violence’ that I hope can challenge and expand our contemporary understanding of genocide as being a process that can be slow, protracted and attritional. When sewn together, the work over these past twelve years collectively shows how the tactics taken over this time, combined with those of previous decades, have led to the near destruction of this community.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no meaningful solution in sight to ease their plight, let alone their statelessness. My years of photographing the Rohingya serve only as a small window and a slice of time within decades of similar abuse. Over the past fifty years, the Myanmar authorities and their tactics have intentionally and systematically tried to reduce and annihilate the Rohingya from that of a people living on the land they have always called home, to non-citizens, to non-humans. In a manner of months, the Burmese military and radical elements of the Rakhine Buddhist community physically eradicated almost the entire Rohingya community from the makeup of Myanmar as a nation and a society. Sadly, Jafar’s words are more relevant now as they were when I met him back in 2009. Yet, as they have for decades and in spite of all that has been done to destroy them, the Rohingya continue to find a way to survive and persevere regardless of the ground beneath their feet.
Work in Bangladesh in September 2017 was supported by the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Work in May/June 2018 was supported by a fellowship from the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF). For more info please visit: www.nowherepeople.org
About the Artist:
Greg Constantine is a Canadian/American documentary photographer based in Southeast Asia. He has dedicated his career to long-term, independent projects about underreported or neglected global stories. His work explores the intersection of human rights, inequality, injustice, identity and the power the state. He spent twelve years (2005-2017) working on the project Nowhere People, which documented the lives and struggles of stateless communities in nineteen countries around the world.
He is the author of three books, including: Kenya’s Nubians: Then & Now (2011) and Exiled To Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya (2012) which was named a 2012 Notable Photo Book of the Year by the Independent on Sunday in the UK and Photo District News Magazine (PDN) in the US and was named a finalist for the 2013 IPA Photo Book Asia Award. His third book, Nowhere People (2015) was named a 2015 Notable Photo Book of the Year by the editors of Photo District News Magazine and was recognized as one of the Top Ten Photo Books of 2015 by Mother Jones Magazine in the US.
His work has been featured in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Newsweek, South China Morning Post, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, The Telegraph Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, Internazionale, CNN, and Al Jazeera. The work has been recognized in Pictures of the Year International, NPPA Best of
Photojournalism, the Human Rights Press Awards (Hong Kong), the Society of Publishers in Asia, Days Japan, Allard Prize for Photography, International Photography Awards, Prix de la Photographie and the Harry Chapin Media Award for Photojournalism. In 2009, he was a co-recipient of the Osborn Elliot Prize for Journalism in Asia presented annually by the Asia Society. In 2011, he was shortlisted for the Amnesty International Media Award for Photojournalism.
Exhibitions of his work have been shown in over 50 locations worldwide. Exhibitions have also been shown in Bangkok, Yangon, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Istanbul, Tokyo and Phnom Penh. In 2014, an exhibition of his work was shown at the Peace Palace in The Hague during the 1st Global Forum on Statelessness. In early 2016 he spoke about statelessness and the project Nowhere People at TEDxEastEnd in London. He is also the recipient of multiple grants from the Open Society Foundations, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Oak Foundation and has also received grants from American Jewish World Service and the Sigrid Rausing Trust.
In late 2016, Constantine earned his Ph.D. from Middlesex University in the UK for his research on the issue of global statelessness and his visual approaches as a documentary photographer. He was a 2015 Distinguished Visiting Fellow with the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London and a 2017/2018 Artist in Residence of Salt Spring Island in British Columbia.
Since early 2006, he has been documenting the persecution of the stateless Rohingya community from Myanmar (Burma). He is currently an ISRF Fellow with the Independent Social Research Foundation in the UK and is using his fellowship to continue his visual documentation of the plight of and genocide committed against the Rohingya community.