KUALA LUMPUR, April 24 ― Mahi Ramakrishnan’s connection to the Rohingyas was not just of documentary maker and subject, but one of blood: her grandmother is also a Rohingya.
A journey that was started to discover her grandmother’s roots eventually blossomed into a curiosity to learn about the oppressed Muslim minority in Myanmar (previously Burma).
“It is a love story. My grandmother was a Rohingya. My grandfather was with the British Indian army and met her in Burma, fell in love and eloped with her to Malaysia. My mother was born in Malaysia, a first-generation.
“The thing is, my mother does not know where her mother comes from, which village she was from, except for few photos. It is like the Rohingya community in Malaysia, who were raped, killed and murdered; anyone of them could be my relative,” Mahi said.
This same curiosity led to a nine-year effort to help the refugees from the Muslim minority community here, which then evolved into “Seeds of hatred”, a 30-minute documentary about their plight.
The documentary, which took almost two years to finish, tells the tale of the Rohingyas, starting with their escape from ethnic cleansing in their country to the false refuge they found in countries such as Malaysia.
It also recounts the 2012 Rakhine riots that were sparked by the gangrape of a Rakhine woman by Rohingya men triggered sectarian killings that forced a new wave of the Muslim community to flee to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.
The Buddhist-Muslim enmity is also believed to have been brought over to Malaysia, with dozens of murders involving Myanmars here prompting concern that the violence may spread locally.
Malaysia is home to a reported 40,000 Rohingyas, many of whom are barred from seeking employment due to their status as asylum seekers and refugees. This, in turn, makes them vulnerable to exploitation both by the authorities and those willing to employ them illegally.
Although making the documentary was another step in raising awareness on these issues, Mahi said she also wanted it to show other Myanmars the plight of their country’s minority.
“Initially, I only wanted to make a film on Rohingya. But after my trip on 2013 (for research), I was shocked at how divided they are and how a group of marginalised people could not sympathise or empathise with another group of marginalised people,” she said.
As for those seeking asylum in Malaysia, she said she hoped that the government would take faster initiatives to help the Rohingya refugees.
She said one of the few steps was for the government to ratify the United Nations’ (UN) Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR), which would help define who qualifies as a refugee as well as the rights and protections they would be accorded.
Mahi acknowledged it would take some time for the government to do that but “that does not mean we should not start working towards it”.
“At least the government should take the steps to register the refugees which they promised three years ago, and this would allow them to find work and feed their children,” she said.
In the meantime, she can only hold on to hope that things will get better for the community both in their home country and Malaysia, as she would like the Rohingya to be able to go home with “pride and dignity”.