Malaysia has become one of the most popular destinations for the Rohingya people driven from their homelands in Myanmar. They are often smuggled into Kuala Lumpur, where they arrive with hopes as high as the megacity’s glass-and-steel towers. Muhammad Noor knows all too well the bill of goods human traffickers have sold his brethren. They are told that the United Nations will resettle them in the United States or Europe and that while in a Muslim-majority country like Malaysia, they will be welcomed. “But,” Noor says, “the reality is quite different.”
Noor is one of the fortunate ones. Born and raised in Saudi Arabia after his family fled the Burmese state of Rakhine in the 1970s, he came to Malaysia 18 years ago and earned a degree in information technology as a systems analyst. His vocation now is to minister to the 150,000 Rohingya in Malaysia — and the millions beyond, who have been expelled from western Myanmar by government-backed forces. He’s building a network and preserving a cultural identity for what he calls a “forgotten people,” through digital innovation and old-fashioned broadcasting. With this week’s national elections marking a potential turning point in how Malaysia treats its refugees, Noor is focused not on politicking, but on giving his people a voice.
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“I want to make life easier for someone else,” Noor says at his office in Kuala Lumpur. For a man who has devoted his life to combating genocide and horror, he’s surprisingly affable, quick to smile and charming. At the offices of Rohingya Vision, a Rohingya-focused news network he started in 2010 with branches all over the world and broadcasts in English, Arabic and the Rohingya language, his desk is neat, but his office is littered with papers and books. A copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, which he has just finished, peeks out from under a binder.
Noor calls Rohingya Vision “a way to put our nation back together.” With a population scattered across the planet and a concentrated effort to erase it, a satellite TV and online media source focused on the issues concerning the Rohingya and using their language is validating. Since the Myanmar government has restricted international journalists’ access to Rakhine state, Rohingya Vision relies on a network of citizens turned journalists inside Rakhine to get the word out. The reporting has a clear slant, and it’s proved controversial, with the Burmese government and its backers sometimes accusing Rohingya Vision of stretching the truth.
Another part of Noor’s unification effort is the blockchain-powered Rohingya Project, which Noor co-founded and leads as managing director. Utilizing Noor’s background in IT, the project acts as a grass-roots initiative to free Rohingya from the “limbo of statelessness” by building a secure and transparent virtual community via blockchain. Rohingya with a “digital ID” would be able to engage in financial transactions and escape the restrictive cash-only “dark economy,” allowing them to connect with other members of their 3.5 million-strong diaspora. According to Noor, blockchain has the power to give the Rohingya and other stateless peoples decentralized ownership of their identities, free from any traditional attempts to erase them. “For a lot of people, blockchain is sexy right now,” he says. “For us, it is about survival.”
Noor is also part of the team that has worked for 25 years to preserve and digitize the Rohingya language, which will be included in the 2018 unicode update, so computers worldwide can type in Rohingya at last. Saqib Sheikh, a Pakistani-American who only had a passing familiarity with the Rohingya issue before becoming part of Noor’s team last year, calls Noor a “visionary” who gave him “a much deeper understanding of the plight of the Rohingya and how they face an almost existential crisis as a people.”
Their struggles in Malaysia have become a political football. While charities and nongovernmental organizations help Rohingya refugees survive where they can, Noor says, Malaysia itself is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. This means that Rohingya and other refugees have extremely limited options when it comes to basic necessities like education, health care or even finding a job.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has given voice to the Rohingya’s plight on many occasions, including during a visit with President Donald Trump. Najib called for action on the Rohingya issue at a special summit of Southeast Asian nations while sharing a stage with Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi — who refuses to even use the word Rohingya. But whether there is substance behind the rhetoric by a prime minister battling a massive corruption scandal is another question.
Take a look at the election manifestos released by the major Malaysian political parties: Najib’s own Barisan Nasional and the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan. According to Melissa Wong, senior research analyst at Malaysia’s Centre for Public Policy Studies, PH has promised to make serious attempts at resolving the Rohingya crisis, including giving refugees the same right to work as any Malaysian. “PH has stated in the manifesto that allowing refugees to work will reduce Malaysia’s reliance on foreign workers and remove the risk of refugees being involved in criminal activity,” Wong says. PH also promises to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention. “In contrast,” Wong says, “there has been no mention of refugees in Barisan Nasional’s manifesto.”
But when asked about the disconnect, Noor replies: “We are not in a position to criticize anybody.” The Rohingya are a people in “survival mode,” he says. While opposition voices say the Rohingya are being used as pawns in Najib’s political manipulations, “all [many Rohingya] know is that the PM of Malaysia is on TV talking about the issues, and they are extremely happy about that,” Noor says. Having survived atrocity after atrocity, the Rohingya are living on a knife’s edge, and Noor knows his people’s worries go far beyond one election.