Encik Fairuz, one of the community elders of the Kampung Rohingya, in KL, is a kindly, diminutive man, in his sixties. He speaks fluent Malay, and the occasional word in English. He enjoys smoking and chewing on betel, a habit that’s common among many Rohingya, but often seen as repulsive among local Malaysians. The smell of betel can be strong and hard to ignore. It turns one’s tongue and mouth orange, and its common to see people spitting the leaves out in public. Encik Fairuz is aware of the stigma attached to the practice – he only chews betel when he is at home or among friends, never in public. He makes sure to be respectable in public, which he deems to be important for his community and reputation.
Encik Fairuz’s wife, Puan Jati, is an excellent cook. She has been learning how to prepare local kuih-muih (pastries and snacks) that she then sells to local restaurants and stalls. Her karipap daging (beef curry puffs) are a particular favorite of her husbands, as he recommends that I try one. We were sitting outside the pasar, at a food court nearby where Puan Jati works as a chef. He tells me they are both grandparents now, since their daughter recently had a son with her husband, another migrant from Bangladesh. A good man, Encik Fairuz tells me, willing and responsible, who works very hard.
Encik Fairuz had wanted to meet me since the evening that I went to the surau to observe the tutoring session. He wanted to find out more about the book that I was writing, and my interests in the Rohingya. He tells me that few people took any real interest in the community, though they sometimes would get social workers and NGO folk come visit once in a while.
“We get these agents who come by sometimes, wanting to see if anyone is newly arrived and in need of documents and refugee IDs… usually from UNHCR. We don’t get a lot of professors coming here to visit us. I don’t think anyone has written books about us (Rohingya). Why would anyone write books about us?” he laughs. “We’re just poor people, not famous, with a hard life… why would anyone want to read about us?”
By chance, I happened to be carrying along my E-reader in the bag, and I was able to show the two major recent books on the Rohingya that were published – Francis Wade’s Myanmar Enemy Within and Azeem Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas. Encik Fairuz’s eyes lit up in surprise, as he tried to read the words on the reader, struggling and shaking his head due to difficulties reading in English. He shyly admits he didn’t understand what was written, and asked me what they were about. I explained that the books were about the struggles of the Rohingya in Burma, and the violence and expulsion that these communities had been experiencing over the years. Encik Fairuz looked solemn, thoughtful. He kept scrolling and touching the reader – almost desperate to be able to read what was written.
“Do you think there’s a Malay or Ruingga version of these books?”
I replied that I didn’t know for sure, but I would be happy to check and find out, and if I can find copies, I’d be happy to give them to him. Encik Fairuz was particularly drawn to the cover of Wade’s book, which featured a male figure in Muslim attire with his face covered. “What does this word mean?” he asked, indicating “genocide” on Ibrahim’s book. It took me a hard few moments to compose myself to try and explain the word, suddenly overcome with uncertainty. I tried. Encik Fairuz listened quietly.
“They are trying to kill all of us?” he asked, finally.
I hesitated and backtracked, trying to rephrase and be more precise. I suggested that it was not necessarily about killing everyone, but about making the Rohingya identity non-existent, by making it seem that there were no such people, only Bengali illegal immigrants. Encik Fairuz frowned, confusion clear on his face. I felt terrible, immediately realizing how badly I was fucking up the conversation.
“We’re just people too… if you tell us, we should be Burmese and not Rohingya, then that’s okay. We will do that. There’s no need to kill us…. We’re not illegal immigrants in Burma. We’re all born there, grew up there. But we’re hated. They call us animals, and say that we are a danger to them… These books, do they tell the truth? Are they trying to show what is really happening?”
“It’s really difficult to say… but these authors are well respected, and they worked on the ground, trying to write about what they see and observe as actually happening. They are also historians, and they try to look back to see the history of the Rohingya community, to show that the Burmese government, the junta, the Buddhist fundamentalists… that they are wrong in what they do.” I tried.
“Good. That’s good. So maybe these books can help show the truth. Good. Are you also writing about this?” I shook my head, and explained that my own work is about the Rohingya, and other migrants, who come to Malaysia in search of sanctuary and a new life. I had yet to go to Rakhine, but have some awareness of what was happening there.
“So your book is about the migrants who are in Malaysia? Good… there’s so many people here. Much better, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s much better to come to Malaysia, if you’re Rohingya. Here, people don’t mind who you are, as long as you’re peaceful and work hard. Here, they leave you alone most of the time, as long as you have the proper documents. Here, you can make money well, and live in better houses, and your children can be happy. This is a good country, much better than Burma. I’m sad to say that, about my own country, but it’s true. Here, they respect you if you’re a Muslim. It’s much better to try and be like the Melayu, they are peaceful, and they are strong as a rakyat (community). They want good things for the country, just like the elections shows. Also, they really care about the suffering of Muslims in other places.”
Steering the conversation to his own life and family, I came to learn that Encik Fairuz and Puan Jati had been living in Malaysia for over a decade, since 2007. They had initially left Burma to go to Patani in Thailand, where they had relatives, but then came to realize that it was very difficult to find work and were left destitute after having to pay for their transportation. They had been travelling by bus and train, because flights were too expensive. Life in their old village had already become difficult – there were constant threats of violence and they would frequently get warnings about the military moving in, until eventually most people decided it would be better to try and leave. They were already aware of stories about villages being burned down or people being attacked and shot. Encik Fairuz was more fortunate than most – he had relatives and friends who lived in Thailand and Malaysia, who were strongly advising that they find their way to those countries rather than stay or go to Bangladesh. They had been the ones telling him that Malaysia had better opportunities, and that he would be able to work and have a home fairly quickly.
Getting to Malaysia was very expensive, but they were able to find their way, and were allowed to stay once they had successfully applied for refugee cards from the UNHCR in KL. Encik Fairuz was an experienced hand at cleaning and preparing seafood, and was quickly able to find work at the pasar, working for a local Malay seafood business owner who was looking for staff to work the tables at the fresh market.
“The work was actually easier and so much better than what I was used to. Not as long hours – just 9-10 hours per day, and then I would have a lot of time to go home, to go to prayers, be with family. Puan Jati and our daughter were also able to find work here, so we became quite comfortable financially, and could rent a small but very nice home nearby (in the kampung). We’ve been living here since then, and I’ve also been seeing how many new people are coming from Burma. The younger families and people, they are always looking for work and place to stay, and I try to help them find work at the pasar. But these days it’s been getting a bit unpleasant as well. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s some tension between the gangs that are here. A lot of fight between young guys, over whose territory and who gets to collect protection money. Indian boys, but not like you, educated, smart. They are thugs, who ride around on motorbikes, carrying sticks and spend their time standing around, smoking and not doing anything productive…”
“Do they ever threaten you?”
“No, they don’t disturb us… mostly it’s between them and the Burma boys. But sometimes, I do worry about safety, for my daughter especially. She is still young, and you know how boys are. Sometimes they get rough and can’t be controlled, and I always tell my daughter to make sure she avoids them. There are a lot of stories about these Indian boys kidnapping young girls from here, or taking them as girlfriends and wives. I personally don’t know any of this happening, but it’s not uncommon to hear. And, I know, it’s definitely not all Indians. I actually know a lot of good Indian people who come to the market to buy groceries, and they are very friendly and peaceful. It’s just these boys…”
“Have you ever experienced or seen trouble with Immigration or the police in this area?”
“No, me? Never… I always just show my card when Immigration conducts raids. They leave you alone when you’re a verified refugee. But I have seen them chase and round up those without documents. Sometimes, when there’s a raid at the pasar, people would hear about it. Then, all of a sudden, you’ll see half the place become empty very quickly, because all the ones without legal documents will escape! And it would be right before the Immigration and police arrive to check for PATI (illegal immigrants).”