It all began when Zaw Min Htut learned he was on a list. Back then, however, he had a different name: Luk Man Hakim.
For three years he had been studying at Yangon University — not law or political science, like he dreamed of, but zoology, one of the subjects he was allowed to enrol in as a noncitizen.
Although he was born and raised in Myanmar and could trace his family history in the country back several generations, Zaw Min Htut was stateless. In an attempt to change this situation for himself and others in the same predicament, he had become one of the leaders of an underground pro-democracy movement. And in December 1996, the protest leaders took the bold step of launching street demonstrations against the country’s military government.
Or, as Zaw Min Htut puts it, “I became in a very dangerous situation.”
He was used to dealing with trouble from officials of varying stripes. Growing up, he had learned that being Rohingya meant that he needed special permission to leave his village or access public services, and that often meant handing out bribes — including to school teachers if he wanted an education.
However, the gravity of his situation was becoming apparent. The police were rounding up the protest leaders and they had his name. Friends advised him not to return to his dormitory room, and then later warned him to leave the country altogether. If he was arrested, they said, his ethnicity could mean an early grave instead of a spell in prison.
For nearly a year after the student protests were put down, Zaw Min Htut hid out in the countryside and moved from one friend’s home to another, from one village to the next, desperately trying to figure out how to escape the ruling military junta.
“Sometimes I stayed in a construction site,” he says. “This was a very hard time.”
Fleeing by boat was an option with the help of smugglers, but getting to them would be a long journey overland and his distinctive South Asian looks would raise suspicion.
Instead, he was able to secure a passport on the country’s vast black market and made arrangements for border guards at Yangon International Airport to let him pass. His parents sold land they owned to muster the requisite $8,000.
And with that document in hand, he was able to board a plane for the first time and make his way to Tokyo.
Freedom, however, was still a long way off.
History of oppression
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority of South Asian extraction who trace their origin in Myanmar back more than 500 years and who began to identify as Rohingya in the 1950s, according to the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Their numbers have dwindled thanks to what experts see as a decades-long campaign to drive them out of the country, where they are viewed by some as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many have fled in search of less oppressive living conditions but more than a million remain, mostly in Rakhine state, a sliver of land that juts southward from Bangladesh along the Indian Ocean.
Rohingya who live there today are subject to government restrictions on everything from marriage and childbirth to travel, which makes it difficult if not impossible to find work. They were also left out of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, making them the largest group of stateless people on Earth.
“It is not more than an animal’s life,” Zaw Min Htut says. “(Rohingya) don’t have any kind of rights.”
A wave of communal violence in 2012 saw around 300 people massacred, according to The New York Times, and most were Muslim. Thousands of homes were also burned to the ground. Human Rights Watch described the slaughter as ethnic cleansing.
A fresh exodus followed, as tens of thousands of Rohingya fled by boat. Many wound up stranded at sea and had to be rescued. Hundreds, perhaps thousands died. Most made their way to Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand, where some were enslaved or preyed on by corrupt officials.
The aftermath of the bloodshed also saw around 140,000 Rohingya forced into squalid displacement camps where they continue to subsist, a few hundred kilometers west of the country’s tourist circuit, which is being thronged by growing numbers of foreign travelers.
As Myanmar takes steps to open its economy and democratize after a half-century of military rule, the new civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) is trying to deal with the problem. Although its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has refused to use the word “Rohingya,” she has appointed former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head an advisory commission on the situation.
Still, living conditions remain dire, according to Chris Lewa, who has been involved with rights issues in Myanmar for more than 20 years and runs a nongovernment organization dedicated to monitoring what’s happening to the Rohingya.
Lewa visited the displacement camps in Rakhine state in May, and says that after more than four years the temporary bamboo shelters are crumbling and the humanitarian aid that residents rely on to survive is dwindling.
Meanwhile, in northern Rakhine state, where the Rohingya are the majority, there’s been “an increase in human rights abuses rather than a decrease,” Lewa says by phone from Bangkok.
“They’re starting to harass the community even more by trying to say, ‘You’re not a citizen, you can’t do this, you can’t do that — you need permission,'” she adds. “So really, there is more oppression in the last few months under the NLD government than there was before.”
When Zaw Min Htut landed at Narita Airport in early 1998 he was immediately detained. His travel documents said he was visiting Japan on business but he was suspiciously young and gaunt-looking after a year living on the lam in one of the poorest countries in Asia.
After being questioned by immigration officials for a few days and under threat of being put on a plane back to Yangon, he asked to apply for refugee status. His next two months were spent in detention at the airport, where he says he was fed convenience store meals for which he was told to pay about $800.
He was then transferred to Ushiku detention center in Ibaraki Prefecture, where he spent the next nine months, during which he was allowed outdoors one hour per week.
An immigration lawyer named Shogo Watanabe agreed to take on his case pro bono and, after a handful of attempts, had Zaw Min Htut freed. However, life in his adopted home was tough. On top of the language and cultural barriers he had no work permit, and was forced to rely on food and shelter from his uncle who, like him, had a refugee application pending.
“It was a horrible life,” Zaw Min Htut recalls. “I became very small.”
To make matters worse, immigration officials had issued a deportation order against him. With Watanabe’s help, he appealed the Justice Ministry’s decision to reject his application and, ultimately, became the first Rohingya in Japan to be granted refugee status.
Today, there are close to 250 Rohingya living in Japan, many of whom are children who have been born here, and most of whom reside in Gunma Prefecture.
Kei Nemoto, a professor at Sophia University who studies Myanmar’s modern history, says that like Zaw Min Htut, those who apply for refugee status often run into trouble supporting themselves because they’re barred from working while their cases are before the Immigration Bureau — a process that takes, on average, 30 months.
“This is a very, very inhuman system, isn’t it?” Nemoto says during an interview at his office. “The government is now checking your case but you have to wait, you can never work.”
Human rights groups have also taken issue with the approach, demanding that the central government grant work permits to Rohingya who are seeking asylum. However, the vast majority aren’t granted refugee status but something called “special permission to stay in Japan.” It’s a temporary designation that Nemoto says allows immigration officials to acknowledge that political conditions have forced someone to flee their home country without deeming them refugees. As a result, they aren’t granted the rights or travel documents to which refugees are entitled.
“Most of them struggled for a long time” to secure permission to stay in the country, Nemoto says of Japan’s Rohingya newcomers. “The Japanese government doesn’t want to give full refugee status easily.”
A call for help
Nowadays Zaw Min Htut can be found working at the two recycling yards he owns northwest of Tokyo, not far from where he lives with his Rohingya wife and three children. An affable 44-year-old who likes to talk and laughs easily, Zaw Min Htut has also made himself into a well-connected lobbyist — one of the few Rohingya in exile campaigning to end their persecution.
For years he has pressed bureaucrats in Tokyo to heed the plight of his people and relax the government’s immigration policies so that more Rohingya can make a life for themselves in Japan.
Despite the appalling conditions they face at home, however, Zaw Min Htut says very few other Rohingya have been recognized as refugees here.
He also argues that, as one of the largest donors of foreign aid to Myanmar, Japan is in a position to pressure its new government to stop discriminating against the Rohingya and grant them citizenship.
On a recent Saturday, he was at his office preparing documents for a meeting with officials at the Foreign Ministry, whom he hopes will raise the Rohingya issue with Suu Kyi during a visit to Japan that’s reportedly planned for next month.
“I feel it is my responsibility to do whatever I can,” Zaw Min Htut says, his voice growing louder, “because in Japan there are not many people interested in foreign affairs.”
Officials in Nagatacho, however, have been paying close attention to what happens in Myanmar. Since democratic reforms began there several years ago, hundreds of billions of yen worth of debt has been forgiven and officials pledged a further ¥100 billion in loans this summer.
A portion of the money that Japan donates to U.N. agencies operating in Myanmar also goes to help Rohingya who have been displaced in Rakhine state. However, the Rohingya aren’t a major concern for policymakers, according to Nemoto, because Japan’s main intent in Myanmar is to undercut the influence of an increasingly powerful Beijing.
“From the Chinese point of view, Myanmar is a very, very important country. They want to make Myanmar into a satellite state,” Nemoto says. “If the Myanmar government thinks Japan is a good friend, it may make some distance from China — that’s the goal.”
The Japanese government has also appointed Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, as a special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar.
Officials in Naypyitaw, the Southeast Asian country’s capital, convened a peace conference in August aimed at ending long-running conflicts with hundreds of ethnic rebel groups, but those efforts don’t involve the Rohingya.
Their plight, however, is related to a larger problem left by the military junta. For years, the former government used widespread prejudices against Muslims to help manipulate the Burmese public and deflect attention away from the country’s problems, Lewa says. Those attitudes persist and continue to be exploited by nationalist Buddhist groups.
“Anti-Muslim sentiment is hidden at the moment to some extent — but it’s very much there, so to me it’s also how the government is going to handle this,” she says.
Lewa points to an incident in July in which a mob burned down a mosque hundreds of kilometers away from Rakhine state.
“The authorities claimed they weren’t going to arrest anyone to avoid tension,” she says. “If the government does not take strong action to punish those creating this problem it’s going to continue.”
Meanwhile, the Annan commission faces its own challenges. When its members paid their first visit to Rakhine state last month, they were met with angry protests led by a local Rakhine Buddhist political party. Some lawmakers have been demanding that foreigners be removed. Rights groups have pointed out that it has no Rohingya members, and has only been given the authority to make recommendations.
Yet the specter of mass violence remains all too real. A large group of unidentified assailants killed nine border guards in Rakhine state on Oct. 9. Local authorities are blaming the Rohingya, and an unknown number of the stateless minority have reportedly been shot dead by security forces since the attack.
Zaw Min Htut says the military killed one of his second cousins on Tuesday, and many other Rohingya have been arrested.
He has requested an urgent meeting with officials from the Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy to relay information he’s gathering from friends and family in the area.
“I want to use my freedom to secure their freedom,” he says, paraphrasing Suu Kyi. “But only international pressure can help the Rohingya. Myanmar’s government will never talk to me.”
1,826 refugees from Myanmar living in Japan and
1,492 pending applications from asylum seekers in 2015, according to the UNHCR.
More than 13,600 people held in immigration detention facilities in Japan in 2014, according to Reuters.
603 stateless people in Japan in 2015, according to the UNHCR.
27 people recognized by Japan as refugees last year, with 99 percent of asylum applications rejected.
1825: The British take over present-day Rakhine state; Muslim population grows as newcomers arrive from Bengal
1942-45: Japan invades, and is later defeated by the British; Muslim-Buddhist violence erupts
1948: Burma becomes an independent country
1961: Buddhism is made the state religion
1962: The military seizes power in a coup
1978: Attacks in Rakhine state prompt about 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh
1982: The government passes a citizenship act that names 135 official ethnic groups but omits the Rohingya
1989: The country is renamed “Myanmar”
1990: The opposition National League for Democracy wins the national election; the military government ignores the result
1992: About 260,000 Rohingya cross the border to Bangladesh after attacks by security forces in northern Rakhine state; many are later forced to return to Myanmar
2010: National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is released after years under house arrest
2011: President Thein Sein begins political and economic reforms
2012: About 300 people, mostly Rohingya, are killed in communal violence in Rakhine state; around 140,000 Rohingya are forced to move into displacement camps
2013-15: Tens of thousands of Rohingya make their way to Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia on boats
2015: The National League for Democracy wins the national election by a landslide, forms Myanmar’s first civilian-led government in decades
2016: Suu Kyi appoints Annan commission on Rohingya; the government organizes peace conference with most ethnic rebel groups; U.S. lifts trade sanctions