In exile in Bangladesh, a bittersweet revival of Rohingya culture
Updated : 2019-05-08 10:00:28
Chain-smoking singer Gudar Mia, who recently turned 80 in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, lit another cigarette, closed his eyes, and crooned the opening words of a Rohingya folk song. "Sorry, my throat is not good," he said, taking a puff as he sat cross-legged in the home of his lifelong friend, Amir Ali, a violinist in his mid-seventies. As young men, back in Myanmar, they had played together in a wedding band, touring their native Rakhine state on the western border performing on moonlit nights beside the rice fields. Now their venue is a bamboo shelter in a Bangladeshi camp on the edge of a trash-filled swamp, their audience a curious crowd of fellow refugees. But for the first time in decades, they are free to play music. In recent years Myanmar imposed debilitating restrictions on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority demonised as immigrants from Bangladesh. They were prevented from travelling, gathering in groups, and expressing their ethnicity. Getting permission to perform was nearly impossible, refugees said. It had been a long time since the band's last wedding when, in August 2017, soldiers arrived in their quiet village in northern Rakhine State and burned it to the ground. The sweeping crackdown, which the United Nations has said was executed with genocidal intent, drove 730,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. Now home to close to a million people, including those who fled previous waves of violence, the camps comprise the world's largest refugee settlement. There, Rohingya society is re-forming. While life in the camp is bleak and monotonous, refugees say Bangladesh offers relative freedom compared with the apartheid-like conditions they endured in northern Rakhine.