Buddhist majority forces Muslims into apartheid-like ghettos
In May 2012, 27-year-old seamstress Ma Thida Htwe, a Buddhist, was making her way home to her village in Burma’s Rakhine state when she was raped and murdered by three Rohingya Muslims. A few days later, a mob of Buddhists retaliated, attacking a bus and killing 10 Muslim travelers. More than 18 months have passed, and persistent outbreaks of mob violence continue—though now it is nearly always the Rohinyga Muslims on the receiving end of the brutality, cornered by the ruling Buddhists into aggressively policed ghettos.
More than 200 people have been murdered (including a 94-year-old Muslim woman last month), many in mob attacks with crude weapons. Some 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, have been displaced to hellish refugee camps, most near the capital city of Sittwe. The United Nations considers the Rohingya among the most persecuted people in the world, and the Human Rights Watch (together with other activist organizations) has accused police and other local authorities of being complicit in the attacks on Muslims. The word for this systematic, state-tolerated policy of isolation is, of course, apartheid. Burmese see the Rohingya as illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh who pose a threat to the Buddhist majority.
The government, for the most part, does not allow journalists into Aung Mingalar, the last remaining Rohingya quarter in Sittwe. But after relentless bureaucratic navigating, I was admitted, along with a photographer.
The few willing to speak with us feared the government’s ubiquitous informers. The begrudging goodwill of the government didn’t prevent us from being trailed by uniformed police officers, who left only after repeated protests. At a local Rohingya mosque, we met Abu Riad, a village elder and the only man even remotely willing to risk being seen speaking with foreigners (he nonetheless declined to have his photo taken).
Peering around the corner of an alley, he ushered us inside the mosque quickly.
“Anyone who interviews with you is a target,” he says. “So now I am fearing in my heart. We are living at gunpoint with this government.”
The 7,000 Rohingya Muslim residents in Aung Mingalar live as prisoners. Security forces are everywhere, and police stand guard along barbed-wire checkpoints on every road in and out of the neighborhood. Jobs, food, medical treatment and education have been all but entirely severed. The Rohingya live amid these few dirt streets and alleys, restricted from venturing out among the Buddhist majority.
A Muslim minority concentrated in Rakhine state, the Rohingya’s roots reach back hundreds of years. Then, in 1982, the government of Myanmar passed a citizenship law effectively rendering them stateless. It has only gotten worse.
“The citizens in Aung Mingalar are completely isolated, surrounded by hostile communities intent on driving them out, and unable to access adequate humanitarian aid by design,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights International and the author of a lengthy Human Rights Watch report on the Rohingya. “It appears the authorities are giving them no option but to abandon their neighborhood, which would effectively clear out the last remaining Muslims in the central territory of the state capital city.”
Sitting in the mosque, Abu Riad agrees. “The suffering is so bad, with such intolerable situations, how can we live here?” he says. “They are trying to force us to leave. There is no chance of it getting better.“
“For the last 20 years, there have been restrictions imposed on the Rohingyas, such as free movement, marriage, higher learning, medical treatments, child policies and business, as well as social works,” says Abu Tahay, a Rohingya leader in Yangon and chairman of the Union Nations Development Party.
Those in Aung Mingalar say that while the government has promised attempts at reconciliation between the communities, no effort has been made. Ironically, the police who keep them locked in are also seen as providing necessary protection. “They [local Rakhine Buddhists] have tried so many times to attack us, but due to security, their efforts were in vain,” Abu Riad says.
Burma’s Buddhists feel otherwise, of course. A few miles down the road in a small Rakhine village, Kyaw Nay Min, a 25-year-old mushroom farmer, blames the Rohingya for the violence. “They always have aggression,” he says. “It will never be possible to stay near them, we will never trust them.”
Nay Min says that his village recently fought with a nearby Rohingya village. “They’ve tried to come here and set fires,” he says of his neighbors. He also fought against them and tried to set fire to what he calls “Bengali” villages, a reference to accusations that the Rohingya are all illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
The soft-spoken farmer repeated a rumor making the rounds and stoking more distrust and fear between the communities, that the Rohingya were stockpiling weapons being brought in from Bangladesh. “The government should take them [the Rohingya] away. As long as they are here, there will never be peace,” he says.
Shortly after our visit, UN Special Envoy Thomas Quintana visited Aung Mingalar on a tour of Sittwe, saying that the situation there had “serious consequences for fundamental human rights.” Quintana, who was met with protests accusing him of being an “agitator” and interfering in Burmese affairs, says, “My overriding concern is that the separation and segregation of communities in Rakhine state is becoming increasingly permanent, making the restoration of trust difficult.”
Aung Win, a well-connected Rohingya activist who lives in Aung Mingalar, used to travel back and forth between his home and the camps facilitating interviews for journalists. On Feb. 12, he got a stern warning from police. Unnerved by the pressure, he left Aung Mingalar that night to hide out for a few days.
When he tried to return a few days later, he was denied access. He has not been permitted inside since, and has not seen his family. “We want freedom of movement. We are citizens of this country. After the violence they separated us and they’re going to keep the separation here,” he says.
Desperate to help his family, Win recently paid a substantial bribe to security officers so that his eldest daughter could escape and flee to Yangon, where the Muslim population is not nearly as persecuted. He says he is happy she has left, and that he’s trying to do the same for his younger daughter, still stuck in Aung Mingalar. “I sent my daughter to Yangon for a better life,” he says.
Young Rohingya living in the slum grow more desperate and hopeless of any potential solution. Abu Riad says that many of the young men now talk of wanting to fight, but they have been told there will only be peaceful resistance.
Ami, a 17-year old resident, has already given up hope that things will get better. He says he is desperately looking for a way out. “In my opinion, if I stay here my life will go to the dogs,” he says. “It is a prison here.”