Homesickness, not hate speech, makes Rohingya refugees yearn for Myanmar at Hari Raya

Husnay Mubarak from Sittwe, Rakhine, says the situation is safer for Rohingya in Malaysia despite the recent spike in hate speech against the refugee community.

PETALING JAYA: In Myanmar’s Rakhine state, regularly closed mosques, jailed relatives and police harassment are usual for the Rohingya Muslim population throughout the year.

“They throw us in jail if we try to go to mosques, and won’t release us unless we pay bribes,” said 26-year-old Husnay Mubarak. “We are scared to celebrate Ramadan. In Malaysia we’re not afraid.”

Husnay is from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state which is the centre of ethnic violence against the Rohingya. The United Nations has condemned this deadly campaign as genocide.

The Rohingya have lived under such systematic persecution in Myanmar for decades, and countless numbers have fled to countries such as Malaysia in search of safety.

Over 100,000 Rohingya asylum seekers are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) here.

Many arrived decades ago. At this time of year, they enjoy freely celebrating Hari Raya with special cookies, desserts and biryani, all to share with visiting friends.

“It’s different in Rakhine,” said Rizaiton Mohd Shafie, who has been in Malaysia for more than 30 years. “We are harassed by the police if we go around visiting our family or friends. It’s very hard to travel in Myanmar as there are always police checks.

“My uncle was taken away by the police 25 years ago and never seen again.”

Rukiah Rafique, a 21-year-old from Rakhine who has been in Malaysia for four years, said Malaysian Hari Raya traditions such as balik kampung are still fresh to her.

A refugee holds a plastic bag with a UNHCR card at a clinic run with funds from the Qatar government in Ampang Jaya, Selangor.

She said customs which Muslim women in Malaysia take for granted – such as wearing a tudung – are frowned upon or even forbidden in parts of Myanmar.

“The practice of decorating streets and homes with colourful lights to celebrate Hari Raya is non-existent in Rakhine. The celebrations are much livelier here,” said Rukiah.

“In Rakhine, many mosques are closed and there are tight travel restrictions. That’s normal. If we go state to state, the police try to catch and jail us, so people just celebrate quietly at home.”

While travel restrictions and shuttered mosques are not normally a concern for the Rohingya in Malaysia, they have to deal with other worries.

Malaysia never signed the UN Refugee Convention, which means that Putrajaya is under no obligation to help them.

Refugees registered with the UNHCR are classified as illegal immigrants by the Malaysian government.

The immigration department recently conducted a swoop on undocumented foreigners after concerns they would spread Covid-19.

Rohingya refugees Kefayatullah Obaidur Rahman and Mohamudul Hasson Rashid.

Hate speech against Malaysia’s Rohingya began spreading on social media two months ago after a Facebook post claimed that activists were demanding citizenship.

But the reality is that there is nowhere the Rohingya would rather celebrate Aidilfitri than at home.

Rukiah’s husband, Mohamudul Hasson Rashid, grew up in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Having been in Malaysia for the past five years, he enjoys celebrating Hari Raya with his wife.

But with the rest of his family still in the refugee camp, celebrations are just not the same.

“Hari Raya is the most exciting time of the year for Muslims and one which we should spend with our families, but we don’t have that here.”

Rohingya refugee Rizaiton Mohd Shafie has been in Malaysia for more than 30 years, and remembers the constant harassment she faced in Myanmar.

Even for those who do have their families with them, homesickness is heightened during this festive season.

Kefayatullah Obaidur Rahman has been in Malaysia for three years with his wife and two teenage sons.

He says he is happy living in a Muslim-majority country and going to mosques unimpeded by police, but he readily admits he would trade it all for a chance to return to Myanmar.

“Myanmar is our country. Our culture and our people are there,” he said.

“Malaysia is helping us in a way no other country is, and I appreciate all the help we have received. But this is not our country and we are all just living here temporarily.

“Definitely, if we can go home, we will.”

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