Rohingya refugee writers dial into Myanmar poetry slam
Divided by hatred but united over the written word, Rohingya Muslim poets in Bangladeshi refugee camps joined Buddhist bards in Myanmar by video link as part of a groundbreaking poetry festival in a country reeling from genocide allegations.
Five Rohingya writers took part in the three-day "Poetry for Humanity" event in Yangon, with three speaking live by video link to a packed room while two had sent pre-recorded readings, fearing their stuttering connection would not hold up.
They drew applause for verses on the bloodshed that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes in northern Rakhine state – and also for their resilience.
"My words are taller than the walls put between Buddhists and Muslims. My words are stronger than the hatred designed for me," reads one verse from writer Mayyu Ali's poem "My Words".
He fled with his family to the Bangladeshi camps where he has helped bring together a group of around 150 refugees sharing a passion for poetry. "I want to show Burmese people that the Rohingya are also Burmese. We also love Myanmar," the 27-year-old told journalists.
Rohingya in Bangladesh: anniversary of the exodus
A year ago, the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar began. Hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Andrea Marshall gives her impressions of the refugee camp Kutupalong in Bangladesh.
Dusty, hot, narrow – and almost as big as Cologne: Rohingya began fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh decades ago. A refugee camp grew up next to the village of Kutupalong. As a result of the mass exodus since August 2017, the number of inhabitants there has risen sharply and further camps have been set up. A total of almost one million people now live there – a city almost the size of Cologne, but without the infrastructure
Football fever in the refugee camp: international flags fly at the entrance to the Kutupalong refugee camp. During the World Cup, the Brazilian, Argentinian and occasionally even the German flag were to be seen. Football fever gripped the camp and the surrounding villages, prompting coverage by citizen reporters. Even in a difficult situation there is joie de vivre
Monsoon floods and landslides: threatened by cyclones in the spring and torrential rains during the monsoon season, life here is mostly about coping with extreme hardship. The programme "Palonger Hotha" by citizen reporters serves partly to disseminate vital information: where can I find bamboo poles to reinforce the accommodation? Which residential areas should be evacuated because of the threat of mudslides?
The aim of the mission is also to strengthen people's identity by taking their everyday experiences seriously. The team of reporters, consisting of young Rohingya and local Bangladeshi people, asked: What is the impact on family life when you have to sit huddled together in a narrow hut for hours on end due to the weather?
Collecting constructive ideas: an important concern of the citizen reporters is to find constructive ideas and inspire the listeners. Reporter Sajeda reported on "hanging vegetable gardens" where beans are planted – a way to improve the food supply despite the limited space. There are also reports featuring household remedies for diseases that accumulate in the rainy season for hygienic reasons
Education instead of "lost generation": how do children remember their way home? What can they do to ensure they donʹt get lost in the huge refugee camp? What are the challenges of the Learning Centres in the camp? For reporter Iqbal, the education of the refugee children is a special concern. There are no real schools for them
Elephant alarm new for Rohingya: the refugee camp is on the route of the Asian elephants. At the beginning of the year there were several deaths after people in the camp tried to chase the animals away. The United Nations organised training courses on the correct handling of elephants, while "Palonger Hotha" reporters covered the initiative
Green hills deforested: some Bangladeshi people from the area have found work in connection with the refugee camp. But they also complain that hundreds of thousands of newly arrived Rohingya have raised food prices in the region. Hills have been deforested because the refugees needed space and firewood. That is why it is important to include the perspective of the locals on citizensʹ radio
Conflict-sensitive approach: the "Palonger Hotha" team with their local trainer Mainul Khan aims to deal responsibly with potentially sensitive issues. Politics is not the subject of the programme. On the other hand, the UNHCR's "Smart Card", which is supposed to facilitate the (voluntary) return of refugees to Myanmar and has been met with suspicion by many, is well reported
Overcoming the trauma: on the anniversary of the beginning of the mass exodus on 25 August, traumatic experiences were shared. People also told us how they cope with their trauma – one step at a time
Poets once vexed Myanmar's censorship-obsessed former military junta. Now younger writers are keeping the art form alive as a form of dissent under the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which has defended the crackdown against the Rohingya. The festival came in a week of heightened sensitivity over the crisis.
The International Court of Justice ruled on Thursday there was enough evidence to pursue allegations that Myanmar committed genocide against the Rohingya, and ordered the country to comply with urgent measures to protect the minority. Some 740,000 fled over the border to escape a bloody military crackdown in 2017 that is thought to have killed thousands.
Yet the minority evoke little sympathy in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where even the word "Rohingya" is taboo. Many instead refer to them pejoratively as "Bengali", suggesting they are illegal interlopers from Bangladesh.
Festival organiser Maung Saungkha, who was jailed for six months in 2016 for writing a poem deemed defamatory to the former president, says acknowledging the word "Rohingya" is a first step towards preventing more human rights abuses. "We hope people will learn about equal rights and about treating different people in a humane way."
Forty poets from across Myanmar recite works in various languages including Burmese, but the focus is on re-connecting the estranged Muslim minority.
Ethnic Rakhine writer Won Roe travelled especially from his home state, where deep divisions prevail between the mainly Buddhist Rakhine and remaining Rohingya Muslim communities. Rakhine mobs stand accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya alongside security forces.
But Won Roe is convinced poetry can act as a "bridge between communities" and worked closely, if virtually, with Mayyu Ali ahead of the event. "I see him as a poet, a friend." (AFP)