Rohingya Refugees Struggle to Recover Lost ‘Memories and Culture’ Longing for Peace | Dreaming of a Future With National Army Soldiers Who Burned Home Myanmar Villages | Courier Japon

Embroidery work made by Rohingya refugee women. It expresses a desire to coexist with soldiers and Buddhists who are feuding in their native Myanmar. Photo: Chihiro Masuho

Masuho Chihiro Composition

The destruction of cultural property in conflict has become a major international issue in recent years, with criticisms such as “cultural ethnic cleansing” damaging the history and identity of people.

In refugee camps in Bangladesh, where the Rohingya minority in Myanmar live as refugees, efforts have begun to preserve their endangered traditions and arts from long-term persecution and use them for mental health care and peacebuilding. We present this groundbreaking initiative launched by the International Organization for Migration (IOМ) in December 2022.

“Do you want to go to the center? Then I will take you there, follow me.”

Ahmad (14) whom I met in the Balukhali refugee camp said and started walking. After him, several Rohingya refugee boys followed with interest.

Meeting Ahmed was a coincidence. While I was interviewing in a refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh, I suddenly heard fast-paced music, accompanied by strings and bells. When I heard the melancholy melody and simple male voice, Ahmed came out of the house, showed me the screen of his smartphone and said yes please. The source of the music was a YouTube video he was watching of the traditional Rohingya music “tarana”.

When I told him I was going to meet Rohingya musicians at the Rohingya Cultural Memory Center (RCMC) in the camp, Ahmed volunteered to take me there. RCMC is his favorite place.

“There is a beautiful painting of my hometown over there. I often go there because I want to see it.”

The road to the refugee camp is cut through the mountains and is very steep. Panting up and down the steep hill, I managed to keep up with Ahmad, and after about 15 minutes, I reached RCMC on a small hill. Saying goodbye to Ahmed and walking through the central gate, I felt the atmosphere change. It was a quiet time, unlike the hustle and bustle of the refugee camp, home to some 943,000 people.

Amber wood is used in the spacious facility, which is softly lit and breezy. In some places, there is a yard-like space, where weeds are planted and the greenery is abundant. Inside it is bustling with Rohingya artisans, artists and children having fun doing woodwork, playing musical instruments and playing with wooden toys.


Inside RCMC. The idea is to create a space where refugees can relax, for example utilizing sunlight lighting and multiple internal gardens. Photo: Chihiro Masuho

The repeating history of “violence” and “scattering”

RCMC is an institution for the study and preservation of Rohingya culture and history, established in March 2022 by the International Organization for Migration (IOМ). The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim minority originating from Rakhine state in western Myanmar. Although they have lived in Myanmar for several generations, they have been persecuted as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh for many years, and most of them are stateless.

In August 2017, the Myanmar military and hardline Buddhists launched a massive crackdown on Rohingya villages. As a result, more than 700,000 people fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they are still living in refugee camps nearly six years later.


A refugee camp in Bangladesh, home to some 943,000 Rohingya. In recent years, there have been frequent fires and gang clashes, and there are concerns that public safety may deteriorate. Photography: Chihiro Masuho

Refugees are desperate for a February 2021 military coup in their native Myanmar, making safe return home even more remote. Recently, the deterioration of security in the refugee camp has become a problem. In March 2023, a fire broke out in the refugee camp. Some 15,000 people lost their homes. Life is tough for Rohingya refugees, even after fleeing persecution by the military.

IOM has been providing housing, water and sanitation management, and mental health care in refugee camps since the crisis began. I checked my health.

As a result, about 47 percent of Rohingya refugees experience constant grief from persecution in places such as Myanmar, and about 45 percent from mental anguish such as nightmares, loneliness and suicidal thoughts. About 50% fear they will face an identity crisis and that their culture will decline and eventually disappear.

The Rohingya, who have suffered years of discrimination and social isolation, have not had the opportunity to share their culture and history with the outside world.

In their native Myanmar, they are not Rohingya but derogatory terms “Bengali” and “Kara”, and the state denies their existence. In addition, many people live in poverty without access to public education, healthcare, and benefits due to their illegal immigrant status. In addition, since the late 1970s, the Rohingya have been repeatedly oppressed by force, and each time many people have become refugees abroad. Some 3 million Rohingya are said to have fled to the Middle East and Asia as a result of persecution in Myanmar.

In every crackdown by the military, not only houses in Rohingya settlements but also religious sites and historic buildings have been burned. When they evacuate, they often leave family history and memorabilia behind in their hometowns because they don’t have time to pack. Memories, people, things and places cherished by the Rohingya have been lost due to repeated violence and displacement, and they have come to fear that their existence will one day be erased.

The destruction of wartime cultural relics has become a major international issue in recent years. Ukraine’s Culture and Information Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko condemned the attacks as “ethnic cleansing of culture”.

Taking into account the mental state and needs of the refugees, IOM has launched the RCMC project to preserve the culture and history of the Rohingya and pass on their knowledge and skills to the next generation. He believes preserving their culture will help restore their identity, reduce stress and help them feel more stable.

First, Rohingya refugees were interviewed about lifestyle culture, history and art such as agriculture, fishing, cooking, games and folklore. Furthermore, in order to preserve these, artisans hold workshops and refugees make traditional handicrafts, daily necessities and artworks. RCMC was established to preserve their work and share their knowledge and techniques.


Edible plants and weeds familiar to the Rohingya grow in the courtyard of the facility Photo: Chihiro Masuho

Currently, about 200 Rohingya artisans, artists and volunteers are involved in RCMC activities. The center hosts various activities such as storytelling sessions and concerts that convey the history and traditions of the Rohingya people to children.

According to Kazumasa Ishikawa, a historian who specializes in the history of Burmese architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries and is well versed in the culture of Rakhine State and Chittagong, such large-scale cultural research and protection is no surprise. It has been carried out in refugee relief, but it is said that there are not many examples. Mr. Ishikawa described the significance of this project in this way.

“I think there will be more initiatives like this in the future, aimed at rehabilitating refugees and providing them with psychological care. In this case, I think the RCMC project will be a case in point.”

Soothe your grief with creative activity

As he built the facility, he spoke not only with artisans, but with refugees of all backgrounds, men, women and children. Rohingya traditions and the best techniques are concentrated in the expansive 501 square meter site.

For example, the nipa palm used for the roof of RCMC is a building material found in almost all Rohingya houses in Rakhine State. They are not very well known in Bangladesh, but they are specially ordered from areas near the camps to meet the needs of the refugees. RCMC’s walls are mostly made of bamboo, with intricate patterns like parquet floors. Natural light streams in through slits in the screen doors, gently illuminating the artifacts on display within the facility.

The floor is covered with handmade tiles in various patterns. Coming from Japan, where people usually spend time in inorganic concrete buildings, just being in this warm space made with lots of natural materials will bring you peace of mind.

When I entered the facility, I saw a familiar watercolor painting of a landscape. This is a stunning urban landscape in northern Rakhine State, which I visited to report on in the summer of 2019. The impressive clock tower standing in the center of the city remains in my memory. The long tunnels and city gates built during the British colonial period to trade with China are also common sights in books and literature related to the Rohingya. The hometown paintings that Ahmed refers to probably refer to these.


A beautiful landscape painting in a small town in northern Rakhine State. From left, the tunnel built during the British colonial period, the gate at the gate of the city, and the clock tower in the center Photo: Chihiro Masuho

While I was photographing a watercolor painting, a tall young Rohingya man approached me. The author of the painting is Ali (23 years old). He was good at drawing since he was a child, but after being evacuated to a refugee camp, he felt uneasy and stopped drawing for a while. However, an RCMC staff member encouraged me to draw, so I picked up the brush again. At that time, the nostalgic scenery of my hometown appeared in my mind.

“When I first started living in a refugee camp, it was difficult because I missed my hometown. He now goes to the center five days a week and works on projects in addition to his own creations.

Many refugees started their creative activities after being approached by RCMC. Volunteer San Taixin (25 years old) also started writing poetry after participating in RCMC activities. He explains why:

“When I was in Myanmar, I was unable to freely perform cultural activities and religious ceremonies due to pressure from the government and the military. When I wrote poetry about my memories and life in the camp, the worries and sorrows of my daily life melted away.”

“Memory” of Cultural Inheritance

Going further inside, you will find household items and handicrafts such as small models of houses, agricultural products, pottery, wooden toys and musical instruments, boats and fishing gear crowded together.

The most striking of these is a 1.5m wooden map of Rakhine State. Above are models of landmark buildings in 17 counties of the state, such as parliaments, mosques, clock towers, etc., all built during the British rule. Some of them are said to no longer exist.


Rakhine State map with 17 district landmarks. This map is used to tell children about the history of the Rohingya people Photo: Chihiro Masuho

Muhammad, 63, who made the map, was a skilled carpenter. At RCMC, he imparted skills and knowledge to younger generations and his own children while working as a construction site and craft production supervisor.

“By passing on technology, we can pass on history and knowledge from generation to generation. It’s a very important activity,” he said.


A model of a mosque built about 300 years ago in Latidong County. According to Shin Samtae, a volunteer worker, it had been burned and nothing was left. Photo: Chihiro Masuho

The inheritance of culture is also the inheritance of memory.

Yasmin, 55, sings Tarana, a traditional Rohingya song. Tarana tackles a wide range of subjects, including personal memories, social conditions and religious teachings, but in recent years many of her songs have addressed the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

When Yasmin was young, she learned to play the harmonica and sing from her musician cousin. When I first started living in the refugee camp, I could barely feed my young children, but I saved money by selling firewood I collected in the mountains and buying an organ. Music is an integral part of her life and she says it heals her soul during tough and sad times.


Yasmin standing by the organ Photo: Chihiro Masuho

I asked her to sing Tarana and she chose a song called “Mandalay”. Mandalay remains a large city in central Myanmar. As she began to sing, Yasmin kept a friendly smile on her face, which turned into a praying expression. The song is a nostalgic melody, and her relaxed voice echoes from the ceiling.

“Mandalay” song

After singing, I asked about the content of the lyrics, and was told that they were written before the independence of Myanmar in 1948. It’s like a Rohingya version of cotton handkerchiefs. According to Yasmin, many Rakhine people went to Mandalay to work at that time.

It’s a sad song, but it’s also a testament to the fact that the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for a long time and used to move freely across the land. The tradition of songs also leads to their history being handed down.

Towards the end of the exhibition, embroidery works made by women are displayed. A large tapestry about two meters on a side is embroidered with particularly delicate patterns. The work, titled “Future,” depicts the homeland of the Rohingya people.

Green rice fields, children playing football, livestock grazing, fishermen by the river. In addition to schools and mosque-like buildings, there is a military base where Muslims and Buddhists sit balanced on chairs that look like scales. In the colorful world, everyone’s expression is calm.


An embroidery work titled “Future”. In the center are nationalist soldiers and statues of Muslims and Buddhists sitting side by side on scales. Photography: Chihiro Masuho

The pattern was designed by 11 Rohingya women who participated in the production, who hope for a peaceful future where they can live in harmony with feuding soldiers and seems

Even if countries and powers deny existence and history, human technology and memory cannot be erased. A peaceful wish is transformed into beautiful art and continues to convey this thought to people.

*Some names in the text are tentative.

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