‘We can all stand proud in the world’: interview with Rohingya activist Shawfikul Islam

It’s a chilly Thursday morning in Melbourne, and more than 100 Rohingyas and their supporters are protesting in the so-called Paris End of Collins Street. Our aim is to highlight the rapidly escalating genocide of Rohingyas in Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Across the street, the cloudy protest-proof plastic windows of the elite Melbourne Club still reflect the slogans on our placards: “Stop the genocide of Rohingya in Burma now!”, and “We are not allowed to live because we are Rohingya Muslim”.

Our chants blast through the imposing foyer of Collins Place:

“Stop killing Rohingya – right now, right now!”

“Stop killing our parents – right now, right now!”

“We want justice – right now, right now!”

But one of the most popular chants is surprising:

“When I say union, you say power: Union – Power! Union – Power!”

The Rohingya workers chant this with such force it seems the Melbourne Club could be blown away like a house of straw. Alongside our banners, and taking pride of place, a slogan on a red flag: “NUW – every worker counts”.

It’s a testament to the efforts of organisers from the National Union of Workers. Their commitment to organising migrant workers in the farms around the city’s south-east is demonstrating to the Rohingyas of Melbourne that the workers’ movement is the way forward, not just for winning improved pay and working conditions, but for forging solidarity across racial divides, fighting oppression and even resisting genocide.

The activist leading our protest is Shawfikul Islam. He is the chairperson of the Australian Burmese Rohingya Organisation, and part of the NUW’s farm worker organising team. A few days earlier, Shawfikul spoke with Red Flag about the issues facing Rohingyas and the positive role played by the union.

“I left Burma in 2012, and arrived here in Australia”, he said. “We moved to escape the systematic, ongoing ethnic cleansing that began in 1962. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country over five decades.”

The situation worsened dramatically on 25 August, when hundreds of government troops were airlifted into Rakhine state, the centre of the Rohingya territory.

“In the one week since then”, Shawfikul explained, “more than 20,000 people have fled to Bangladesh, and more than 30,000 people have been internally displaced. At least 52 villages have been burned down, and thousands of people have died.”

I ask Shawfikul what the Rohingya protesters are demanding of the Australian government. Without hesitating, he raises a central theme in this country’s history: “We’ve never seen the Australian government push in the interests of oppressed minorities.

“They say, ‘We don’t welcome refugees’. We put our lives at risk, and we came here, and after we arrive it’s the same – we’re still struggling. The Australian government is not standing with us … they’re not pushing the Burmese government, or telling the facts about the people coming here as refugees.”

In fact, at a subsequent rally for Rohingyas organised by the Islamic Council of Victoria, the Liberal Party apparently sent a statement blaming “Islamic extremism” in Rakhine. Organisers rightly refused to read it out.

In contrast to the lies of the Australian government, the NUW has offered Rohingyas solidarity and strength. Shawfikul explains this has been electrifying:

“In the Rohingya communities, most of us have never been to school or had a proper education in our lives, and we have a lot of difficulties finding jobs. Sometimes our bridging visa limits or totally denies our right to work, which forces us to work cash in hand.

“One large group of Rohingya worked for a contractor as cash in hand workers, but after one and a half months they still hadn’t been paid. It was about $40,000 in total. The contractors understand all these visa restrictions and take advantage of them. But the union pushed really hard, we spent a lot of hours doing it, and finally the contractor had to give them back pay.”

Shawfikul points to the example of Coolibah Farms, where last year migrant workers, including about 30 Rohingyas, were being paid just $12 per hour until the union intervened and forced their hourly rate up to $19.60, converting many from casual into full time jobs in the process. “Now they have a really good union power in the workplace”, he says.

Shawfikul concludes our interview with a call to all unionists:

“We shouldn’t be treated differently because of our race, our religion, our identity. The union is a big tradition in Australia, and they’re powerful in a collective way. I’ve found that myself in nine months with the union now. We can raise issues, and if the union gets involved with us, we feel very strong. The refugees here in Australia are still facing a lot of difficulties … and every organisation, every Australian, should involve themselves as the unions do in helping refugees. And in that way, we can all stand proud in the world.”