A survivor of an Asian military dictatorship recalls his brutal childhood and, later, human rights activism.
Habiburahman was a boy when Myanmar outlawed his ethnic group, the Rohingya, stripping its members of citizenship and turning them into a stateless people. His book is a rare account of growing up during the subsequent catastrophe for the Rohingya, more than 700,000 of whom have since fled across the border to Bangladesh. Writing in a spare and unrelenting present tense—as if to emphasize that the disaster is ongoing—the author describes how he and other Rohingya were reviled as “black infidels,” sent into forced labor, and trapped in villages they couldn’t leave without a permit. As a young adult, writes Habiburahman, he had to use fake identity papers to study at a technical institute, where he worked with pro-democracy companions until someone betrayed the group and he was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. After a jailbreak, he fled to Thailand and Malaysia and then, via a smuggler’s boat, to Australia, where he spent more than 30 months in detention. Eventually, he lost faith that the needed help for the Rohingya would come from Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto head of state, and he became an activist. Written with French journalist Ansel, the book doesn’t explain how Habiburahman reconstructed his memories of events that occurred when he couldn’t have been taking notes; at times, the facts are open to question or appear to conflict with remarks he has made in interviews. Most notably, he writes in an afterword that he has cut ties to his mother, believing his family needed “to become self-sufficient,” a statement that’s hard to fathom after he’s shown repeatedly how hard it is even for a young Rohingya man to achieve self-sufficiency. Despite such inconsistencies, accounts by journalists and other observers support the broad outlines and some particulars of the moral outrages he describes, so his story is a useful addition to the literature of human rights abuses.
A refugee courageously recalls his persecution in a book with some iffy details.