Rohingya, Myanmar, Bangladesh, New York City & Akayed Ullah

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

My visit to Mandalay in Myanmar for the Irrawaddy Literary Festival was all about the disastrous campaign against the Muslim Rohingya people of the country’s Rakhine State. Myanmar’s genocidal campaign against the villagers in the district led to thousands of deaths and over half a million people pushed into exile in neighbouring Bangladesh. The situation certainly hasn’t improved in the last two months. This MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders) report calls it for what it is – mass murder – and underlines that Myanmar government talk about repatriating refugees is not just talk, it’s empty talk. On Australia’s ABC network Amnesty International castigates the Australian government for their failure to confront the Myanmar government for their evil actions. Reportedly Australia is still offering a A$25,000 bribe to any earlier Rohingya escapees caught up in Australia’s Pacific refugee prison camps if they will return to Myanmar! In the current edition of The Economist the ‘newspaper’ reveals France as its ‘country of the year’ and regrets giving Myanmar that accolade in 2015.

▲ One curious link to the Rohingya disaster comes from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. This is the George Segal statue The Commuters in the terminal, I took the photograph a couple of years ago, but in what now feels like an earlier lifetime I was a frequent visitor to the terminal, once just a few days after my 18th birthday en route from Montreal to visit my girlfriend in Baltimore. On Monday 11 December Akayed Ullah, a Bangladeshi immigrant to the US, tried to kill as many people as he could in the terminal, but fortunately he was an extremely inept suicide bomber and failed to even kill himself.

There was speculation, as there always is, on how Mr Ullah became ‘radicalised.’ That speculation was underlined by comments about his hatred for the US scribbled in his passport and his statement, after he was arrested, that he’d done it because of American strikes on ISIS forces. Although he was born and raised in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, his family were from the island of Sandwip, south of Dhaka and close to Chittagong, the country’s second largest city. In 2016 he’d returned to Bangladesh, married a woman from Sandwip and they had a child in 2017. His wife and child were still living there when he attempted to blow himself up. In September-October 2017, so less that two months before the blast, he’d returned to see his wife and child and then made a curious Rohingya connection.

He took a bus south to Cox’s Bazar and on to the Kutupalong Refugee Camp where he handed out money and medicine to escapees. So if Mr Ullah had a reason to hate mistreatment of Muslims he’d certainly encountered one, but not an American one. If he wanted to make some terrorist statement about treatment of Rohingya he could have targeted Myanmar’s New York City UN office just off Central Park, why choose random Americans in the bus terminal? After all the USA has actually confronted Myanmar about their treatment of the Rohingya, much more so than the excuse-making Australians? In Bangladesh the Dhaka Tribune ran a story on his Rohingya trip, a report that was picked up by the New York Times as A Mysterious Act of Mercy by the Subway Bombing Suspect.

Terrorist attacks so frequently hit the wrong people. Uzbekistan terrorist Sayfullo Saipov’s October truck rampage in New York City killed eight people, five of them from Argentina, one from Belgium, only two Americans. Just before Christmas in Melbourne, Australia, where I live, on a busy pedestrian crossing I’ve transited countless times, Saeed Noori, a refugee from Afghanistan, embarked on another vehicular rampage, putting 18 people in hospital. Nine were Australians, the other nine from China, India, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea (the largest number) and Venezuela. Mr Noori’s attack was probably fueled by drugs rather than Islamic radicalisation, but when you’ve just been mown down by an SUV the reason behind the driver’s madness is somewhat irrelevant. Incidentally on my 2017 drive from Bangkok to London Uzbekistan was voted the friendliest country of the 19 we crossed.

▲ Anoma Shwekhyatheing Buddha at Mrauk-U

I’ve been to Myanmar 10 times over the years and although I’ve not been to the Rohingya district of Rakhine State I’ve been very close, visiting Sittwe (the main port and airport city) and Mrauk-U, ‘Little Bagan’ the ancient city which is the region’s main tourist attraction. I’ve been to Bangladesh a couple of times – both times to work on photographic books, Chasing Rickshaws and Rice Trails. Neither trip took me down to the Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar areas, down to where the Rohingya refugees have ended up. A visit to Chittagong has long been on my wish list because of the amazing ship-breaking beach at Sitakunda, just outside of Bangladesh’s second biggest city. Years ago I saw a photo exhibit – Steel Beach – Shipbreaking in Bangladesh – by Andrew Bell at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

▲ Back in 2010 I flew from Kolkata in India, across Bangladesh and Myanmar to Chiang Mai in Thailand. As we crossed the Bangladesh coast we flew just south of Chittagong. As I looked south I could see the winding Sangu River and Chandpur, not to be confused with another Chandpur about 100km south of Dhaka. Kutubdia Island was clearly visible about 50km south, continue another 50km south as the crow flies, a bit further by road, to Cox’s Bazar and then it’s just 35km, Google Maps again, from Cox’s Bazar to the Kutupalong Refugee Camp, right at the top of this picture.

Continue 80km to Teknaf, right in the heart of where the Rohingya escapees from Myanmar have ended up, and a glance on Google Earth will show that it’s a winding maze of waterways on the Myanmar side of the shallow Naf River which divides Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine State. It’s a curious link from Rakhine State via Bangladesh to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.