Land confiscation and mounting pressures in Buthitaung
Zahid is from Firhadi, a rural part of Buthitaung, and has extensive knowledge of the Rohingya people’s modern history in Buthitaung. Zahid honed this expertise throughout a long career as a civil servant, when he worked as a village secretary during the period of Na Sa Ka [a border military force that established a presence in many Rohingya areas from 1992 to 2013].
Zahid described his perspective on the seizure of Rohingya families’ assets that began occurring in northern Rakhine State during this time. At that point, he recalled, “People’s properties were removed from their family lists. There was a policy in some places where two-thirds of people’s land was seized by Na Sa Ka and they were permitted to keep one-third to farm for themselves. Na Sa Ka told us, ‘You are Bengali, this land is not yours. You can only work the land. You cannot own it.’ There was a big economic impact. Business was restricted and it became more difficult to survive.”
Forced to abet forced labor
Zahid believes that this seizure of assets was one component of a broader strategy against the Rohingya that included harassing affluent and educated persons while forcibly conscripting the poor as laborers. “Myanmar had a long plan to drive us out of the country, especially educated youths. They started to migrate out of the country. So Myanmar’s strategy was effective. Meanwhile, the poor and uneducated people were forced to labor for Na Sa Ka every day. Every day, each village tract was ordered to send 100 coolies [a South Asian term used to refer to unskilled, sometimes indentured laborers]. They received no pay at all for this, it was forced labor.”
Previously, Zahid says, the poor relied on the rich for employment as farm laborers, and this was a harmonious arrangement. Under Na Sa Ka, coolies did construction, built houses, cleaned, did digging and clearing of land, and farmed for Na Sa Ka. Rich people used to pay coolie laborers 300 to 500 Myanmar kyat per day before, which at the time was normal for unskilled workers in Myanmar.
“When we first asked people to go as forced laborers, they went willingly. Later they tried to avoid it. But if someone was absent, Na Sa Ka went to his shelter and dragged out the women. This was a common practice. People didn’t want this to happen, so they went in order to keep the women safe. The forced coolies had to work five or six days a week for years on end. They farmed their own land on the other days. In big village tracts, people rotated working for Na Sa Ka, but in small ones there were not many working men, so the same people always went. And rich people could pay a poor person to go in their place.” Zahid says that the forced coolie labor started in 1995 and continued until three or four years ago, when Na Sa Ka was reorganized into a number of different agencies.
After quitting his secretary job, Zahid continued farming his remaining land, two-thirds of which had been confiscated by Na Sa Ka. He lifts his shirt and points to his abdomen. “The commander ordered me to send 100 laborers to them every day. But one day I sent only 97 instead of 100, and they beat me brutally. Until now I feel the pain from the tortured I endured. They were trained to be cruel. I became a victim of torture. I need surgery for my chronic pain, but the cost is 100,000 taka (1,171 USD), so I need to find financial support for it.”