The Stateless Rohingyas: An Interview with John Carlin

by    /  July 14, 2010  / No comments


Journalist John Carlin has heard stories of poverty, injustice, and hope from people in countries such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and South Africa. However, it is the story of the Rohingyas of Burma that he finds the most tragic. In this interview he explains why.

From 1989-1995 Carlin was bureau chief for the London Independent in South Africa. There he witnessed the country’s first democratic elections and wrote vividly about the obstacles along the long road to end apartheid. He walked the path to equality and integration lead by Nelson Mandela, eventually becoming his friend.

Carlin’s 2008 Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation told the story of the historic rugby match that—thanks to Mandela’s vision of reconciliation—unified the nation even though blacks and whites still flew different flags. Carlin’s book became the basis of the 2009 film Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela.

Photo: ©

Before the movie even came out, Carlin was on to his next story. He flew to Bangladesh and Malaysia to write about the Rohingyas, Burmese Muslims desperately seeking refuge from persecution in their own land.

On November 24, 2009, Carlin wrote in the London Independent, “[The Rohingyas] are discriminated against because they are Muslims in a Buddhist country; because they tend to have darker skin …They cannot move from one village to another…marry or have children without permission; they are helpless to resist as their land is confiscated … They find themselves stateless slaves in the country where they were born… After nightfall, when their religion demands that they go to the mosque and pray, they are not allowed to leave their homes.”

Carlin first went to Bangladesh to visit the Kutupalong Refugee Camp where 30 thousand people leave in miserable conditions; 10 thousand of whom are children under the age of 10. For young Rohingya men, the promised land is Malaysia, where they believe their “future can be brighter than the best that Bangladesh has to offer them.” However, if they survive the treacherous journey to Malaysia, they find themselves hopelessly in debt to the traffickers who arranged their passage.

In this email interview, Carlin discussed writing about the Rohingyas, his experience as a journalist, and his book Playing the Enemy.


How did you end up reporting on the situation of the Rohingyas?

Through Médicines Sans Frontiéres (MSF) —or Doctor without Borders— who thought the attention off the world should be drawn to the plight of these forgotten people (assuming anyone knew who they were in the first place).

Through the years, you have reported on many countries and seen sadness around the world. However when your article about the Rohingyas was published in El País last November, its Spanish title was “The Saddest People in the World.” Where did the title come from?

The title was my idea. I have spent much of my life covering stories of human suffering, but I do not recall having encountered a set of people whose predicament seemed so hopeless. In Africa you see poverty and you see injustice, but you can usually imagine how things might improve, how different circumstances might change things for the better. I saw no such possibility for the Rohingyas.

According to Doctors without Borders since you wrote the article in 2009, more than 6,000 Rohingyas have arrived in Bangladesh; 2,000 of whom did so only in January. What is needed to improve the situation?

I see little prospect of change. Obviously democracy in Burma would help, but the sense I had was that the Rohingyas do not have much chance of happiness or much peace; that they are doomed to be discriminated against for historical reasons (they sided with the British in World War II instead of the Japanese, whom the majority of Burmese favoured.) Now, yes, their condition of quasi-slavery would presumably end with a democratic government, but I suspect they are going to have it very tough for a very long time. I hope I am wrong.

Were you able to assist any of the Rohingyas that you interviewed beyond publicising their plight?

I wanted to give them some money, but was advised not to by people who knew their circumstances much better than I. I still wonder whether they were right.

The military regime in Burma is characterized by its violations of human rights and its suppression of pro-democracy activities, among other repressive policies. What could Burma learn from the story of Mandela and South Africa as told in Playing the Enemy?

The military would learn nothing from it. They would not understand it, or would they have any wish to do so. A future democratic government in Burma would find lessons in Mandela’s story, as all governments everywhere would.

Were you surprised by the success of Playing the Enemy?

Yes, I was especially surprised that it was made into a Hollywood film.

Clint Eastwood directed the movie Invictus, based on Playing the Enemy. How did this project start?

In a chance meeting I had with Morgan Freeman —Eastwood’s friend and collaborator—in Mississippi. I discovered that he had spent ten years looking for a Mandela script. Here he found one.

Most people want to know about Mandela, but many of them can’t even find Burma on a map. What can a journalist do to spread information about tragedies occurring in Burma?

Find out about Burma and write about it well.

Have you ever felt like a voyeur in the places you have visited?

Obviously, yes.

Read more about the struggle of the Burmese people in our special issue on Burma coming next week. Click here to join our mailing list and receive a notice when the Burma issue is published.

Read Silvia’s bio.

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