Wed 27 Aug 2014
Filed under: Human Rights,Opinion
There was a time when ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims in western Burma lived and worked together. They were once neighbors, albeit uneasy ones, sharing a tense but relatively stable existence.
Then in June 2012, religious clashes between the two groups drove them apart and forced 140,000 people—mostly Rohingya—from their homes.
When I first met the displaced Rohingya in May 2013 in makeshift camps outside the Arakan State capital Sittwe, I thought their displacement would be temporary, the conflict somehow eventually resolved. But when I went again two months ago, I was struck by how these camps—home to two-thirds of those displaced by the violence—had started to look like permanent segregated ghettos.
Houses, clinics and schools were larger, sturdier. There were newly opened shops and pharmacies, where the displaced—whose movements are tightly restricted and who have lost all property and any means for making a living—sold their aid rations to buy medicines and other goods.
There is little sign of reconciliation or effort to bring the two communities together again: More than two years after they were driven out, Muslims who used to live and work in Sittwe are still barred from entering the city, and thousands of Rohingya may spend the rest of their lives in prison-like displacement camps, with no hope of going home and a perilous voyage by sea as the only way out.
“We’re concerned that segregation is becoming permanent and not enough is being done to change it, let alone protect the fundamental rights of the displaced,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a group that monitors Rohingya issues.
“Members of government at all levels still feel as though the Rohingya don’t belong in the country, and that’s part of the reason why the Rohingya remain segregated in ghettos.”
Further deteriorating the situation, Arakanese leaders have proposed a plan that would make the segregation permanent—on paper—and force all undocumented Rohingya to live in detention camps.
Local leaders are organizing a public meeting this week to drum up support for the plan, which would apply to Rohingya who were driven from Sittwe into displacement camps, as well as those who were not forced from their homes and still live in nearby villages, according to Than Tun, a Sittwe resident and member of the government’s Emergency Coordination Committee set up to scrutinize humanitarian aid workers.
This would basically mean detention for all Rohingya—a minority group of around 1.3 million who are stateless despite living in Burma for generations. Critics say Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law makes it almost impossible for them to become citizens.
As Arakanese leaders push the segregation plan, the government is conducting a “verification process” to determine the citizenship status of Rohingya, but this is more or less a pointless exercise that forces Rohingya to identify themselves as Bengalis—a label that many Rohingya reject because it amounts to an admission that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
In another sign I spotted of the Rohingya settling in for the long haul at the displacement camps, there were small, dusty shops selling snacks and plastic bags of milk powder, pharmacies with shelves full of medicines with faded labels, mobile phone charging stations and people selling fresh fruit, vegetables and fish.
Some analysts see optimism in such commerce because it points to the resumption of small-scale trade between the Rohingya and the Arakanese, who are the main source of goods from the outside world.
Others say it underscores the irreconcilable differences that may separate them forever.
“As long as Rakhine [Arakanese] extremists continue to monitor and target anyone in their community who reaches out to the Rohingya, it’s going to be hard to see how reconciliation can get started,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
In the meantime, their lives are precarious.
While at The Chaung camp outside Sittwe in June, I met Sayed Hussain, who used to work as manual laborer in Sittwe market and now lives with his wife and four children in a displacement camp outside town. Their mud-floored hut was a patchwork of walls made of sodden cardboard and old rice sacks, and a roof of ragged plastic and thatch.
“My wife has kidney problems and my children have coughs and diarrhea, but we have no money to go to the hospital,” 60-year-old Hussain told me.
As the early monsoon drizzle turned into a downpour, I wondered if his ramshackle shelter—and for that matter, his family—would survive the most ferocious rains of the monsoon season.
Additional reporting by Min Zayar Oo and Paul Mooney.