YANGON — Divided by hatred but united over the written word, Rohingya Muslim poets in Bangladeshi refugee camps joined Buddhist bards in Myanmar by video link as part of a groundbreaking poetry festival in a country reeling from genocide allegations.
Five Rohingya writers took part in the three-day “Poetry for Humanity” event in Yangon, with three speaking live by video link to a packed room while two had sent pre-recorded readings, fearing their stuttering connection would not hold up.
They drew applause for verses on the bloodshed that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee their homes in northern Rakhine State, and also for their resilience.
“My words are taller than the walls put between Buddhists and Muslims. My words are stronger than the hatred designed for me,” reads one verse from writer Mayyu Ali’s poem “My Words”.
He fled with his family to the Bangladeshi camps where he has helped bring together a group of around 150 refugees sharing a passion for poetry.
“I want to show Burmese people that the Rohingya are also Burmese. We also love Myanmar,” the 27-year-old told AFP.
Poets once vexed Myanmar’s censorship-obsessed former military junta.
Now younger writers are keeping the art form alive as a form of dissent under the civilian government of State Counseller Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, which has defended the crackdown against the Rohingya.
Embracing the ‘R’ word
The festival came in a week of heightened sensitivity over the crisis.
The International Court of Justice ruled Thursday there was enough evidence to pursue allegations that Myanmar committed genocide against the Rohingya, and ordered the country to comply with urgent measures to protect the minority.
Some 740,000 fled over the border to escape a bloody military crackdown in 2017 that is thought to have killed thousands.
Yet the minority evoke little sympathy in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where even the word “Rohingya” is taboo.
Many instead refer to them pejoratively as “Bengali”, suggesting they are interlopers from Bangladesh.
Festival organiser Maung Saungkha, who was jailed for six months in 2016 for writing a poem deemed defamatory to the former president, says acknowledging the word “Rohingya” is a first step towards preventing more human rights abuses.
“We hope people will learn about equal rights and about treating different people in a humane way.”
Forty poets from across Myanmar recite works in various languages including Burmese, but the focus is on re-connecting the estranged Muslim minority.
Ethnic Rakhine writer Won Roe travelled especially from his home state, where deep divisions prevail between the mainly Buddhist Rakhine and remaining Rohingya Muslim communities.
Rakhine mobs stand accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya alongside security forces.
But Won Roe is convinced poetry can act as a “bridge between communities” and worked closely, if virtually, with Mayyu Ali ahead of the event.
“I see him as a poet, a friend.”