The unending plight of Burma's unwanted Rohingyas
- 1 July 2013
- From the section Asia
It has been a year since sectarian fighting broke out in Burma's westernmost state, forcing 140,000 people from their homes and casting a dark shadow over the promising start made by the new reformist government.
Ugly anti-Muslim sentiment that was evident in those first clashes between Buddhists and the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state last June and October has now spread, setting off assaults on Muslim communities in several parts of the country.
Nearly all of those displaced in Rakhine state were Rohingyas, and their plight has drawn in substantial international assistance, channelled through major NGOs and UN agencies.
The Burmese government has become conscious of the negative publicity created by the long-standing discrimination against Rohingyas. It has authorised one official inquiry into the violence, and is co-operating with the international relief effort.
But, as I discovered on a recent visit to Rakhine state, not much has changed for the Rohingyas.
In fact, their already tenuous status in Burma, also known as Myanmar, appears to be weakening.
A combination of intense hostility from the Rakhine Buddhist majority, and an official policy of segregation which imposes restrictions on the Rohingyas alone, has forced them to the margins of this already poor region, unwanted and unrecognised.
My visit coincided with that of the UK International Development Minister Alan Duncan, who had come to see how British aid to Rakhine state totalling £6.4 million was being spent, and to assess the prospects for reconciliation between the two estranged communities.
It was a typically rushed affair, with little time in each of the camps he visited.
He was accompanied at all times by the jovial figure of Burma's Deputy Minister for Borders, Major-General Zaw Win, in full military uniform, and by squads of police and soldiers.
Nonetheless, the Rohingyas he met were unabashed in venting their frustration over their situation.
"We just want to go home," one woman shouted. "I want citizenship, and I want my old life back."
Her camp was just a few kilometres from the state capital Sittwe, but the inmates are not allowed to go there, either for supplies or to seek work.
Military checkpoints all around Sittwe block the Rohingyas from travelling, although the Buddhists are usually free to go where they want.
Some improvements have been made to the camps, but they are limited.
Enough food is supplied, and the government has made a start building elevated long-houses to protect the Rohingyas from the rain.
But these primitive barracks are a far cry from the neat, solid rows of individual houses already constructed for the small number of displaced Buddhists, who have been living in settlements far better made and situated than those housing the Rohingyas.
Their camps quickly become muddy quagmires every time it rains, which it does every day now.
And the ban on travel means Rohingyas cannot go to hospital for treatment, even to have babies.
Burmese officials justify these restrictions on grounds of security. But the way they are applied to just one group has uncomfortable echoes of apartheid in South Africa, or segregation in the southern USA.
One constant obsession is the high birth-rate.
Buddhists all over Burma believe Muslims are on track to become the majority because of the number of wives and children they have, even though official statistics put the Muslim population at around 4%.
But one exasperated international NGO worker pointed out to me that the attacks on Rohingyas and their subsequent isolation had disrupted a once-successful family planning programme.
The hostility felt by the local Buddhists to the Rohingyas is a real problem for the local and central government.
As I was told by a spokesman for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, now one of the largest in parliament and often accused of stirring up anti-Muslim feeling, even if the government wants Rohingyas to move back to their former homes in Sittwe, the people won't allow it.
In a grand old gym in the town I watched young men training hard.
Some have aspirations to represent their country when it hosts the South East Asian Games later this year, another milestone on Burma's journey away from its former isolation.
But they were unyielding in their attitude to the Rohingyas.
"It's not possible to live with them, and we don't want to", Kyaw Lyaw Win, a Taekwondo instructor told me.
"They invaded our country. It's not just me saying this. Ask any Rakhine Buddhist - they will say the same thing."
White ID cards
There is only one Muslim neighbourhood left in Sittwe, called Aung Mingala, sealed off by checkpoints. Travelling with the British minister, we were the first foreigners allowed in for several weeks.
I bumped into Aziz, a bright young man who helped me when I was there last November. Now he is trapped in what has become a Rohingya ghetto.
He told me a small delegation was allowed out twice a week, to visit Muslim districts outside the town.
Another man who helped me before is Aung Win, one of the most outspoken and respected Rohingya leaders. I had to negotiate with a police checkpoint to meet him in the Muslim neighbourhood of Bumay, where he escaped after being arrested in February for trying to meet the visiting UN Human Rights Rapporteur.
But this means he is now separated from his wife, children and 95-year-old father, who are still at his home in Aung Mingala.
He has repeatedly asked for permission to see them, and repeatedly been turned down.
The situation of those Rohingyas who were not driven from their villages during the violence is little better.
I travelled two hours north by boat to see the little hamlet of Ah Nauk Pyin, a Rohingya community entirely ringed by Buddhist villages.
Paths into Ah Nauk Pyin were guarded by Burmese soldiers - something the Muslims said they were grateful for.
But they can't leave. Even if they were allowed to, they fear attacks by their Buddhist neighbours, and in any case all their boats, along with their livestock, were taken during the unrest.
They told me the village dated back 200 years - we are not illegal Bengali immigrants, they said.
Yet none of them had citizenship. They pulled out the white ID cards they are issued.
"This is very important for us", said Ali Jofar, a young man who has been designated the village medical expert, although he is not a doctor. "If we try to travel outside our village with these cards, we get arrested."
So no one there can reach hospital either.
18-year-old Moryan sat, pale, shaking and weeping, in her in-laws' straw house. Her house was burned down, and her husband one of 170 men from the village still imprisoned after the conflict.
She has been seriously ill since she gave birth to her son six months ago. She cannot walk, nor can she breastfeed her baby.
The remaining men in Ah Nauk Pyin walk to the little blue mosque, washing in the village pond before going in to pray.
They've been given simple tractors by an NGO, so, after a year, they can start farming again.
But where would they sell their produce, in a country so hostile it has sealed them off from the outside world?