Maung Sawyeddollah is one of the 2023 Young Activist Summit winners.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people — a persecuted minority in Myanmar — were forced to flee Rakhine State in August 2017, when the country's military carried out a series of brutally violent attacks.

At least 1 million children, women, and men have been displaced internally since 2017, according to the United Nations.

While Myanmar recognises 135 ethnic groups, Rohingya Muslims do not have the same recognition and, as a result, are considered stateless.

Recognition of the citizenship of the Rohingya people, as well as the guarantee of other rights, is a core issue for the return of the Rohingya to Myanmar. Civic space in Myanmar is considered closed as the jailing and sentencing of journalists and activists is common in the country. The country’s military junta is accused of numerous civic freedom violations, including attacks on children.

More than 750,000 people left to find safety in Bangladesh in 2017, including Maung Sawyeddollah, who founded the Rohingya Student Network. Here he talks about his goal of ensuring the Rohingya can safely return to their home.

My name is Maung Sawyeddollah. I'm a Rohingya and I left my country of Myanmar in 2017.

I'm [currently living] in Bangladesh, in a refugee camp as a Forcibly Displaced Myanmar National (FDMN). As a FDMN, l I have been fighting for the life, liberty, and security of [other] FDMN. We say FDMN instead of refugees because it is recognised by the government of Bangladesh. Since I became a FDMN, I have been fighting to bring a positive change for my community.

I left Myanmar during the military operation in 2017 when I was 16 years old, and there is a very long history behind why [the Rohingya] people left the country. This is because of the discrimination and the suffering that the Rohingya faced from the government of Myanmar.

We can say that there are separate laws, especially for the Rohingya people, that make Rohingya people suffer more than other ethnic groups living in Myanmar. Rohingya people have been suffering from those things for many decades. In 2017, we heard that there was an operation [where the military was] killing Rohingya people. We were also seeing [news of the operation] on social media. We started to hear from other people that the military was killing. We saw the activities of the military that we had never seen before, even in our village. That military came to the villages, arrested people, and forced almost all our villagers to leave the village, until we finally reached Bangladesh.

Growing up, I didn't even understand that we [lived under] discriminatory laws. In my understanding, life was just like that. Others had power, the right to travel everywhere, the right to higher education, and maybe it was just not for the Rohingya people. I did not understand that Rohingya people had been suffering, and it was not only me.

Today, I can see how Rohingya people didn't understand that they were suffering because that is how the authorities structurally made the people feel. After arriving in Bangladesh, I realised that everything we have suffered were violations of human rights and the rule of law. For example, they did not allow Rohingya people to travel from one township to another. They didn't allow Rohingya people to get higher education. They set restrictions for the Rohingya people to get proper medical care.

After arriving in Bangladesh, I thought maybe we could return to our home again very soon. I believe every Rohingya had that hope, that expectation — that we would be staying for one, two, or three months. That there would be a solution for the Rohingya and we could return home. Unfortunately, that didn't happen and now it's been more than six years.

The Rohingya Student Network started when we commemorated the first anniversary of the genocide, Remembrance Day [observed on Aug. 25], here in the camps. I directly participated in organising it with some of my friends, colleagues, teachers, and elderly people. I played a very important role in the organising committee and we organised a big commemoration. That’s when I realised that I could really do something if I tried.

Image: Courtesy of Maung Sawyeddollah

In Myanmar, my dream was to become a doctor. But after coming to Bangladesh, my dream changed to wanting to become a lawyer.

I want to be a lawyer because to improve the treatment of the entire Rohingya community, I can only go the legal way and I need to understand the law. I really need to do something to bring change because it is not really good for Rohingya people to live in the country of others. We really have to return to our home. We have to enjoy all our denied rights.

When I came to understand all these things, that is when the idea of founding the Rohingya Student Network came to mind. Our main goal is returning to our home and living there in peace. So the main objective that we have right now is empowering our community. The second one is advocacy — and doing advocacy for justice for our community.

The main challenge preventing us from returning to our own country is that the government of Myanmar systematically revoked the right of citizenship from the Rohingya people.

The second challenge is extremist politicians in our country who speak against the Rohingya. In every aspect [of my work] there are challenges, threats, and safety issues. I play a very diplomatic role to manage all those things.

[Some] Rohingya people do not understand what is happening to them and that is also a challenge. The restriction to higher education is used as a tool to destroy our community.

When we say one of our objectives is empowering our community, that includes raising awareness among our people. We [do this by] conducting workshops for our people so that they understand what human rights are, what peace is, and how they can speak up for their own rights.

Despite the challenges, we have had some achievements. For instance,an internet restriction was imposed on the camps by the authorities in Bangladesh, so we had no access to internet connection in the camp — so we started doing campaigns.

Firstly, we sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh saying how it is important to have access to the internet in the camp, but we received no response. Then, we conducted advocacy meetings with local government authorities, and we started campaigning internationally. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released a report, and I also wrote in many magazines about how the internet is important and how the restriction to internet in the camp can be quite a consequence for the people. Finally, the internet restriction ended and that was our first achievement as the Rohingya Student Network.

The international community can support us. As I have already shared, our main goal is going back to our home and living there peacefully. To do that, we need to ensure the safety of and citizenship rights for the Rohingya people and to build social harmony among Rohingya people and the people living in Rakhine. The international community can stand with the Rohingya people by calling on governments to side with the Rohingya people in justice processes. The international community can also call for the right to education for the Rohingya people.

There are many individuals and states working for the Rohingya people, but they must speak out and stand in solidarity to say that the inclusion of Rohingya also matters in every way. People are making decisions related to the crisis of the Rohingya, but no Rohingya are involved in making those decisions — and that is really not a good thing. Inclusion of the Rohingya is very important.

As told to Gugulethu Mhlungu; this article was edited for clarity and length.

The 2023-2024 In My Own Words series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

I Was Forced to Leave Myanmar When I Was 16. Today, I Fight for the Safe Return of the Rohingya People.

By Maung Sawyeddollah