Crossing the Farak River

Crossing the Farak River

By Michelle Aung Thin (Annick Press)
  • Fiction
  • Set in Myanmar

Keywords: war, resilience, refugees, family, coming-of-age

Fourteen-year-old Hasina is forced to flee everything she knows in this gripping account of the crisis in Myanmar.

For Hasina and her younger brother Araf, the constant threat of Sit Tat, the Myanmar Army, is a way of life in Rakhine province—just uttering the name is enough to send chills down their spines. As Rohingyas, they know that when they hear the wop wop wop of their helicopters there is one thing to do—run, and don’t stop. So when soldiers invade their village one night, and Hasina awakes to her aunt’s fearful voice, followed by smoke, and then a scream, run is what they do.

Hasina races deep into the Rakhine forest to hide with her cousin Ghadiya and Araf. When they emerge some days later, it is to a smouldering village. Their house is standing but where is the rest of her family? With so many Rohingyas driven out, Hasina must figure out who she can trust for help and summon the courage to fight for her family amid the escalating conflict that threatens her world and her identity.

Fast-paced and accessibly written, Crossing the Farak River tackles an important topic frequently in the news but little explored in fiction. It is a poignant and thought-provoking introduction for young readers to the military crackdown and ongoing persecution of Rohingya people, from the perspective of a brave and resilient protagonist.

Culture Notes PDF


Crossing the Farak River is a novel of survival that illustrates the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (pronounced: MYAN-mah). The central character is a fourteen-year-old girl named Hasina whose family are market sellers in a riverside village. The fictional Farak River (pronounced: fah-RAK) of the title divides the townbetween her Rohingya people (pronounced: row-HING-jah), a Muslim minority, and the Buddhist Arakanese.

Geographical and Political Background

 This story is set in the fictional river town of Taknadaung (pronounced: tak-nah-down), in southwestern Myanmar’s Arakan region (pronounced: AH-rah-kan). Arakan stretches from the Irrawaddy River Delta in the south to the Naf River, which forms the western border with Bangladesh. Separated from the central region of Myanmar by a range of low mountains and from India to the north by the Chin Hills, Arakan is riven by waterways that drain into the Bay of Bengal. It is easy to imagine the novel’s Farak River as one of these.

Due to its location, Arakan was for centuries an important contact zone between the Indian subcontinent and central Burma. The ancient Vaishali kingdom in Arakan is associated with the spread of Buddhism from India into Southeast Asia. The Mrauk-U kingdom ruled Arakan from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries andintegrated elements of Buddhist and Brahmanic court culture with Islamic elements that reflected its status as a vassal of the Bengal Sultanate. Under Mrauk-U, Arakan ports became important trading stops for Portuguese merchants, the Dutch East India Company, and later the English as they expanded into the Indian Ocean.

Before the eighteenth century, Arakan was politically distinct from the Burmese kingdoms. At times, it fell under the control of Bengal. At other times, it was ruled by its own kings, even extending its reach into Chittagong in modern Bangladesh. Arakan was first conquered bythe Burmese king Bayinnaung in 1784, when the Konbaung dynasty extended its political control into Arakanand the Indian states of Manipur and Assam. This provoked a territorial dispute with British India, leading to the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824–1826. The resulting Treaty of Yandabo (pronounced: YAN-dah-bow) ceded Arakan to British India, along with another coastal province, Tenasserim. Later, Arakan was administered as a colonial province of British Burma until the Union of Burma gained independence in 1947.

Rebels and Citizens in Independent Burma

After independence, the new Burmese central government tried to assert authority over the many ethnic minority groups, including the Shan, Karen, Kachin, and Rakhine (Arakanese), many of which sought self-rule or even separate independence under British protection. Wartime conflicts with the Japanese-trained Burma Independence Army prompted large numbers of ethnic minority troops in the colonial army to desert and form militias for self-defense. Many, including troops in Arakan, assisted Allied efforts to disrupt Japaneseoperations in Burma. After the war, some of these ethnic militias turned their guns on the new government, essentially fighting the same army they had resisted during the war. In Arakan in 1947, this took the form of a revolt led by the veteran Buddhist monk U Seinda, as well as the founding of the Mujahid movement among the Rohingya.

As successive Burmese regimes tried to weld these separatist groups together with military force and diplomacy, their approach to the Rohingya was always one of exclusion or, at best, limited recognition. In theory, Burma’s 1947 constitution provided the right to citizenship for all British subjects resident in Burma for a decade, but most Indians were associated with colonial labor migrations and became a target of Burmese nationalists. As a result, these Indians are widely considered by Burmese people to be illegal immigrants from the colonial period or after.[1] Instead of “Rohingya,” they are usually referred to as “Bengali,” “Muslim,” or “Kala”—a usually derogatory racial term for Indian. This is reflected in the book when Hasina is called “kalama” (pronounced: gulla-MAH), the feminine form of “kala” (pronounced: gul-LAH). Also, a radio announcer refers to Hasina’s people as “Chittagonian Bengali Muslims” (p. 37), pointedly avoiding the term Rohingya and associating them with territory across the border.

While Burma’s first prime minister, U Nu, issued identity cards to Rohingya to allow them to vote in his election, this right was later revoked. Under his government and for a time afterward, Rohingya student groups were officially recognized in the university and several members of parliament self-identified as Rohingya. After the 1962 coup by military strongman Ne Win, people of Indian descent were deported in large numbers. The 1970s ushered in a war of independence in neighboring Bangladesh, causing a flow of refugees into Arakan. Some may have been returning to areas from which they had been forced into Bangladesh in previous decades. The same decade produced a wave of revolutionary and reactionary Islamic movements worldwide. Echoes of this appeared in the Rohingya area, creating further backlash, along with more restrictive citizenship tests in 1974.

A 1978 counterinsurgency operation dubbed Nagamin (Dragon King; pronounced: nah-gah-MIN) resulted in a quarter of a million refugees fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. A new law in 1982 restricted citizenship to a particular list of “national races” who could trace their ancestry to Konbaung Burma. In effect, this rendered the entire Rohingya population stateless with no possibility of acquiring or inheriting Myanmar citizenship. Few among the Rohingya could prove their residency even back to the colonial era due to poverty, the disruptions of war, and a general lack of documentation—a reality illustrated powerfully in the novel. The inability to provide proof reinforced the idea that the Rohingya as a group were illegal and foreign, and that they did not belong in Myanmar.

The 1980s and 1990s led to further discrimination against the Rohingya population, including restrictions on their movements, attacks by Buddhist vigilantes, the burning of mosques and villages, and ultimately mass deportations that amounted to genocide. A brief glimmer of democratic hope followed Ne Win’s abdication in 1988 but led to several more decades of military rule and civil conflict. In 2008, a new constitution guaranteeing military control was proposed by the military government, and in 2010, an elected government was seated for the first time since 1962. But democratic reforms and a freer press did nothing to reverse the categorization of Rohingya as illegal residents.

The immediate context of Crossing the Farak River is the 2017 forced mass deportation of Rohingya people from Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in northern Arakan, which focused international attention on their plight.

Key Cultural Themes in the Novel

Tea Shops: The Burmese tea shop, like the French café, is a cultural icon. The local tea shop is a low-cost eatery and a meeting place—part of life’s daily rhythm for many. Burmese-style tea makes heavy use of sweetened condensed milk. Plain green tea can also be found, usually in a thermos at the table, to be used for chasing the sweetness and rinsing cups. Most tea shops serve snacks like Chinese-style fried dough sticks, Indian flatbreads with chickpeas, and samosas (savory Indian stuffed pastries). Although the menu reflects Indian and Chinese influences that date to the period of British colonialism, tea culture has deep roots in Myanmar. In fact, the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is native to the mountainous region that includes northern Myanmar and southwest China. As described in the book, child workers, usually boys, are a constant presence in tea shops, where they yell orders, serve tables, and clean cups.

Here are some resources for exploring Burmese tea shops:

Child Labor and Human Trafficking: Child labor in Myanmar is not confined to tea shop boys or to the Rohingya population, though Rohingya children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation as laborers, child soldiers, and sex workers. The novel does a good job of illustrating the gravity of this issue without getting too dark. The malevolent but buffoonish U gets his due at the hands of the children. In real life, most children are not so lucky, of course. Here are some resources that might be useful for exploring child labor in Myanmar:

Chinlone: Chinlone is a popular sport described on p. 34. It involves kicking a cane ball with knees and feet, like playing with a footbag (e.g., a Hacky Sack, a small beanbag). One version involves a high net as in badminton or volleyball. Videos of chinlone in action can be found online. Here is an article about the sport being brought to Australia by refugees from Myanmar:

Author: Will Womack, Department of History, University of Alabama at Birmingham

July 2021

[1] For one example, see Aye Kyaw, “An Historian Looks at Rohingya” interview in The Irrawaddy, Wednesday, October 7, 2009.

Curriculum Connections PDF

Appropriate Age/Grade Level

Crossing the Farak River is most appropriate for students in middle grades, grades 6–8.

Contextualizing Curriculum Connections

While a significant amount of nonfiction literature has been published about Myanmar, the history of Burma, and the Rohingya crisis, only a few books on these subjects have been written for young people—and even fewer for students in middle grades. Crossing the Farak River stands out because it is specifically for middle-grade students. The book addresses complex topics of ethnic tensions and violence in important yet nuanced ways. Rather than hitting the reader with the graphic realities of Myanmar’s genocide, it takes the perspective of its young protagonist, Hasina, who describes her personal experience of what goes on around her. It’s not that the realities are not there, but just as Hasina does not understand all she sees and hears, some youth will read past the traumas while others who are ready to see them will be more open to what is described. Additionally, the reading experience can and should be guided by sensitive and experienced educators who can support students in understanding the text, as well as provide more detail if students are interested to learn more.

 Concepts and Entry Points: Middle School (6–8)

Each of the following concepts can reinforce understanding, open discussion, or serve as a jumping-off point into a portion of the book or research connected to the novel.

Arakan: a long, narrow southern coastal region in western Myanmar that is now known as Rakhine State. The Rohingya are said to be descendants of the Arakanese people from this region. The eastern border is formed by a mountain range that isolates it from the rest of Myanmar and the western border lies along the Bay of Bengal.

Aung San Suu Kyi: a pro-democracy leader from Burma who founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) and has been held under house arrest on and off by Myanmar’s military leaders since 1989.[1] In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar after the military coup. Since 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for not denouncing the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Rakhine State.

Bangladesh: a Muslim country to the west of Myanmar that gained independence from British India in 1947 as East Pakistan. In 1971 the country became independent from Pakistan as Bangladesh. Many Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar seek refuge in Bangladesh.

Burma: the name of the country under British colonial rule. Burma achieved independence from the UK in 1948. The country was renamed Myanmar after a military coup in 1989.

Ethnic groups: Myanmar’s government “claims 135 ‘national races,’” though no census data exists.[2]It is generally accepted that more than a hundred different ethnic groups—which vary in language, culture, and religion—live in the country The majority of the population is Burman, approximately 67%. Three minority ethnic groups that are mentioned in Crossing the Farak River are the following:

  • Karen: the second largest minority at 7% (second to the Shan at 9%). They have origins in Tibet and Central Asia. Most are Buddhist, but as many as 33% of Karen people converted to Christianity under British rule.
  • Mro: a sub-ethnic group of the Chin whose ancestors came from Bangladesh. The Mro are also experiencing human rights abuses at the hands of the government.
  • Rohingya: a Muslim group of people from Arakan/Rakhine State who have been victims of government discrimination since independence and of targeted ethnic cleansing and genocide since 2016. Some speak Rohingya, which is similar to a dialect from Bangladesh. Others, Arakanese Muslims, speak the same language as Buddhist Burmans.

Myanmar: the name chosen by the new regime after a military coup in 1989.[3] There has been international resistance to recognizing the military regime or using the name Myanmar.  Most nations currently accept the name Myanmar; the United States and the UK do not.

Rakhine State: the western state of Myanmar that was formerly known as Arakan.

Sit Tat: a term for the Myanmar army.[4] Some believe this term to be more neutral than tatmadaw, which has been the traditional word used for Burma’s military. People believe sit tat removes the connotation of glorification from (the daw in) tatmadaw.  However, given the acts of violence by the current military, sit tat has become a preferred term by those who do not want to give reverence to the military.

Sittwe: The capital city of Rakhine.

Literary Themes: Middle School (6–8)

Ethnicity, ethnic tension, political division, family, resilience


CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-WRITING STANDARDS FOR LITERACY IN HISTORY.WHST.6-8.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

CCSS.ELA-WRITING STANDARDS FOR LITERACY IN HISTORY.WHST.6-8.9: Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis reflection, and research.

CCSS.ELA-WRITING STANDARDS FOR LITERACY IN HISTORY.WHST.6-8.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Guiding Questions

  1. Why do you think that the author opened the narrative with helicopters?
  2. What role do smartphones and social media play in the book and the broader political landscape of Myanmar and Rakhine?
  3. What purpose does the Cat Girl serve in this story? Why do you think she leaves Hasina’s grandmother to live with the Mro?
  4. What role did the lawyer play in finding and saving Araf?
  5. Ultimately, what factors keep Hasina and Araf safe?

Suggested Learning Activity/Evaluation/Assessment

  1. The narrative provides many examples of the dangers that Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Arakan face. Identify at least two of these dangers, along with a specific example from the text (including supporting quote and page number).
  2. The narrative also provides many examples of the good in people—the kind of compassion and courage that can save another person from a dangerous outcome. Identify at least two examples, along with a specific example from the text (including supporting quote and page number).
  3. Go to the United States Holocaust Museum website ( to learn more about the stories of Rohingya in Myanmar. Read at least three stories and note the commonalities in the following areas so that you can discuss your responses in small groups and as a class: a) Challenges, b) Hopes and Dreams, c) Values.

 Selected Resources

Author:  Michael-Ann Cerniglia, Upper School History Teacher, Winchester Thurston,


[1] Kenneth Pletcher, ed., “Aung San Suu Kyi,” Encyclopædia Britannica, January 25, 2024,

[2] Chizom Ekeh and Martin Smith, “Minorities in Burma,” Minority Rights Group, October 30, 2007,

[3] Tong-Hyung, Kim, and Hyung-Jin Kim. “Myanmar, Burma and Why the Different Names Matter.” AP News, May 15, 2023.

[4] Myat, Aung Kaung. “Sit-Tat or Tatmadaw? Debates on What to Call the Most Powerful Institution in Burma.” Tea Circle, September 29, 2022.