Photography by Ryan Roco
Text by Natasja Sheriff
Audio editing by Nathan Schradle
Almost a year has passed since violent clashes erupted in Myanmar’s western Arakan state, with Burma’s Rohingya community bearing the brunt of the violence. Although not a new phenomenon—the Rohingya within Burmese borders have been denied citizenship and have suffered persecution for decades—the attacks of June 2012 represented the start of a new phase of violence that would eventually lead to the deaths of 167 people and the displacement of more than 120,000.
The conflict attracted international attention, not least because of the involvement of Arakanese Buddhists and Buddhist monks, so recently seen as heroes of Burma’s pro-democracy movement and the 2007 “Saffron Revolution.” Media reports pitted Buddhists against Muslims, creating a simple, dichotomous narrative of religious struggle and sectarian violence.
Yet witnesses inside Burma saw evidence to suggest a more complex crisis; struggles of nationalism and identity underpinning the persecution of the Rohingya community, and reports of Burma’s security forces complicit in the violence.
As Francis Wade noted in his November article for The Revealer:
“…the vehemence of Arakanese nationalism, born partly of antipathy towards the British colonial policy of bringing thousands of migrant workers into the state from India, and which has evolved over the decades to include resistance to attempts by the government to stamp a Burman identity on the state – has developed into an animosity toward all non-Buddhist there. “We are wedged between Islamisation and Burmanisation,” Thein Tun Aye, spokesperson for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, told the BBC recently.”
When photographer Ryan Roco travelled to Arakan in November, he set out to use photography as a means of investigation, to explore the reality on the ground. “I don’t want to set out to places like this to fulfill a checklist,” says Roco.
“I spent a lot of time in Arakan alongside a friend who was doing human rights research, so I had the opportunity to hear a lot of testimonies from both Rohingya and Rakhine; their words gave a penetrating look inside the conflict that I felt had yet to be understood by anyone who had covered it and certainly had yet to be interpreted visually.
“As a photographer, trying to interpret the reality of the situation, there’s a lot at stake. Many chose to offer highly stylized abstractions that load context within the caption and this can provide a bridge to the reality in those hidden places. But I think this is also dangerous in that it can feel contrived and even deceptive.
“I wanted to pursue a more honest approach with my time there. Accepting that there were going to be holes in my story; there were going to be things that were happening, that I was learning about, that I would not have visuals for. What I found in my edit, when I returned from Arakan State, was that the holes in my story spoke as much as the information I did present.
“With the images I am showing, with seemingly disjointed and disconnected photos, I can offer a nuanced interpretation of what’s happening there and address how there are gaps in the coverage, gaps in the access and large amounts of things we, the international community, don’t know and don’t understand about what’s happening there.”
Roco’s investigation revealed a multifaceted conflict, with unseen victims and unheard testimonies on both sides of the religious divide.
Since 2012, as attention shifted to conflict elsewhere in Burma—the ongoing civil war between Kachin rebels and the Burmese government and attacks on Muslims in Central Burma—news from Arakan has waned making it difficult to understand how the situation has evolved outside the refugee camps. Two publications released in April, one by Human Rights Watch and the other by the Burmese government’s Rakhine State Conflict Investigation Commission, have renewed interest in the region.
The situation for Rohingya refugees has not improved since Roco’s visit, and news emerges almost daily of attempts by Rohingya refugees to flee to neighbouring countries.
“I think we need to bring these things back into the spotlight,” says Roco. “I think that it’s an illusion in Burma that as we see media coverage fade that it means the situation has been resolved, and I think in Arakan state that’s far from true.”
In a series of 10 photographs, taken between October 30 and November 4, 2012, Ryan Roco shares his perspective on the crisis in Arakan State. The accompanying audio features a telephone conversation between Ryan Roco and Natasja Sheriff that took place on February 28, 2013.
Ryan Roco is a photographer and human rights researcher. He has been based on the Thailand-Burma border for the last two years covering issues of human rights, identity and conflict in Burma and its borderlands. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC Burmese, PBS Newshour, Human Security Gateway and Human Rights Watch among others.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.