Artist and human rights activist Ali MC recently travelled through camps for displaced people in Myanmar and Bangladesh, taking portraits of Rohingya refugees. His photo essay – Rohingya: Refugee Crisis in Colour – is currently being exhibited in Melbourne.
The Rohingya, described by the UN as “the most friendless people in the world”, are not recognised as citizens of any country and, unable to move freely, many have been forced into camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar has been accused of genocide against the Rohingya; Bangladesh of ethnic cleansing. Twice this year already, the UN human rights office has said that abuses suffered by the Rohingya could amount to crimes against humanity.
Growing up around Aboriginal communities was the catalyst for Australian photographer, writer, musician and human rights law professional Ali MC to devote his life and work to giving a voice to marginalised people. He has previously documented confronting sites and situations in places like Rwanda, Haiti and Ethiopia. In 2015 he released a punk rock travel book͛, The Eyeball End, about his experiences in forgotten parts of the globe.
He found the Rohingya more than willing to reveal their plight, despite the personal risk they faced by speaking out. “Many Rohingya want the world to know about their situation … in the hope that something might change for them,” Ali says.
Ali says he couldn’t even begin to adequately describe how Rohingya see their situation, though he recalls one man saying they “feel they are in the middle of a vast ocean”. That comparison stayed with him.
The Rohingya live in a state of fear and with a deep sense of despair. “Their families and communities are under constant attack, including rape, murder and the burning of villages and theft of land. The situation is awful,” Ali says. But like many marginalised peoples, he says they are “hugely resilient and survive despite the enormous adversity.
“There is a definite will to … keep their culture intact.”
While the Rohingya insist they are from Myanmar, the Myanmar government insists they are not and officially classifies them as illegal immigrants. Legislation introduced in 1982 denies them citizenship. It is even illegal to use the word “Rohingya”; instead they are referred to as “Bengali”.
“Their long history in the area is denied, yet the people I met were keen to show me their identity documents dating back to the 1950s, as proof of who they are”, Ali says.
“There are a number of other ethnic conflicts currently in Myanmar, yet Rohingya are the only ethnic group who are outright denied citizenship”, he says. “Myanmar needs to accept Rohingya as one of the many ethnic communities that make up that country.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, has been criticised for her response to violence against the Rohingya, her silence over the 2015 refugees crisis and towards the continuing persecution of the Rohingya by the military since 2016.
Ali believes Myanmar needs to repeal the legislation that denies the Rohingya citizenship, and the Australian government should be leveraging the amount of aid it provides to Myanmar as a means of pressuring it to do so. “However, there are minerals and natural resources there to be exploited, so, much like West Papua, Australia remains silent on human rights atrocities,” he says.
Of his personal response to this and other human rights tragedies he has witnessed, Ali says he “waivers between feeling ultimately grateful that I live in a safe, wealthy country and outright sadness about the people I’ve met and the situations I’ve experienced. Using my experiences to educate others seems to help though and hopefully some change will occur through things like my exhibition and book.”
The portraits for Rohingya: Refugee Crisis in Colour were shot on film, using a medium format camera. “I prefer to concentrate on making a film photo really work, as opposed to taking hundreds of digital photos,” he says.
Media are of course banned from the camps and at one point during the trip, Ali was arrested and his phone was searched for photos. “Fortunately, the Army guys didn’t really figure out my film camera.”
Of all the Rohingya people he met, Ali says the father whose son had polio stands out most in his mind. “Even though his son was in a destitute condition, his father still wanted to sit him up and take a dignified photo. I had to respect that, and that’s the photo that ended up in the exhibition.”
Ali aims to get the exhibition shown in as many places as possible and to continue to raise funds for Rohingya people, who are in desperate need of medical aid and education supplies.