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Myanmar's Buddhist-Rohingya ethnic divide

Displaced Rohingya Muslims struggle with persecution and Buddhist resentment.

Last updated: 04 Feb 2014 13:09
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Sittwe, Myanmar - A checkpoint guarded by three bored-looking policemen in the middle of a narrow road separates two very different worlds.

On one side in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, people lead a common life: They're free to go wherever they please, marry whomever they want, and to attend religious ceremonies in their Buddhist temple of choice.

Behind barbed wire on the other side, nearly 150,000 people are crowded into a dozen or so camps for internally displaced people. They are the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group not recognised among the 134 official ethnicities of the country, and considered by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

They can't leave the camps, they can't marry without permission, most are unemployed and have no source of income, and they rely on the rations given by the World Food Programme to survive. A law passed in 1982 denies them citizenship and makes them stateless because they are considered immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, who came along with British imperial troops in the 1800s.

"It's just plain apartheid and genocide," Aung Win, a prominent Rohingya leader in the camps, told Al Jazeera.

The so-called Rohingya are just illegal immigrants. We allowed them to settle down here because we are generous people and we thought they would just stay a while.

- U Shwe Mg, Rakhine Nationalities Development Party

The only way to get out is to bribe policemen who demand large amounts of money. The rest try to escape in rudimentary fishing boats such as the one that sank in the Indian Ocean on November 3, 2013, killing at least 70 people. Many of those who do manage to make their way into Thailand or Malaysia end up trafficked as slave labour by the mafias in those countries.

"Still, many think that it's worth taking the risk," Aung Win said.

The reason for the segregation of these two groups that have coexisted in relative peace for centuries lies in the unrest sparked on May 28, 2012 by the alleged rape and killing of a young Buddhist woman by Rohingya men.

Six days later, 10 Muslims travelling on a bus were beaten to death by angry Buddhists, and long dormant ethnic hatred exploded. Thousands of houses were burnt down and, since then, close to 300 people - mostly Rohingya - have died in a conflict that has spread to other parts of the country, and is currently threatening social stability and the ongoing democratisation process.

The 969 movement

In Mandalay, a city roughly 300 kilometres northeast of Sittwe, Ashin Wirathu is the abbot of the Masoeyein monastery and one of the Buddhist monks who led the 969 movement, which many blame for the spread of violence against Muslims.

Wirathu called himself the "Burmese bin Laden" and Time magazine put his face on the front cover under the headline "The face of Buddhist terror". He denied inciting violence, but told Al Jazeera that Muslims are trying to establish an Islamic state in Myanmar by 2100, and that the Rohingya are fighting in Rakhine state with that target in mind.

He described 969 as a defensive movement. "We want to protect the country against the Muslim invasion," Wirathu said. Other monks attending the interview - which they videotaped - nodded along in agreement.

"First of all, they are not an ethnic group and neither are they our citizens. Secondly, if the neighbouring countries want to accept them, we will be happy to send them there. Finally, if they have to remain in our territory we will take care of them as refugees with the help of the UN, as we are doing now."

Back in Sittwe, most Rakhines agree with Wirathu's words. Many also support the influential Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

"You just need to go to our ancient capital, Mrauk U, to see that there is nothing Muslim there, only Buddhist ancient ruins can be found," said the party's U Shwe Mg. "That shows the so-called Rohingya are just illegal immigrants. We allowed them to settle down here because we are generous people and we thought they would just stay a while. But the Bengali had a lot of children, paid Buddhist women to convert to Islam and marry them, stole our land, squeezed our resources, and now they demand equal rights and citizenship. It can't be."

Ethnic connections

In Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, Kyaw Min told a very different story. He is one of the few Rohingya politicians, and was elected as a member of parliament in the 1990 elections that were won by Aung San Suu Kyi, but was never accepted by the junta who ruled the country until 2010.

Kyaw Min is the president of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, and showed Al Jazeera many old documents to prove the existence of the Rohingya in the country, known also as Burma, before British colonisation.

"We have an ethnic connection with India, because we have always lived in the border, and it's true that there are some similarities with the people of today's Bangladesh. But in 785, Burma occupied what is now Rakhine state, formerly known as Arakan, and we've lived there since then," Kyaw Min explained.

Rohingya women look out from their home in the Aung Mingalar quarter in Sittwe [Reuters]

But in the displacement camps around Sittwe, Rohingyas deny any connection with Bangladesh. "All my ancestors were born in Burma, and I have no relatives whatsoever in that country. Why should I be sent there?" said a 60-year-old woman who only uses her first name, Amina.

She lives in a small bamboo hut along with her husband, five children and 12 grandchildren.

"We are beggars here. But I'd rather be a beggar than signing those documents the government is pressing onto us to allow our resettlement, because in those papers they state that we are Bengali," Amina said. Around her, other displaced people started to shout, "Rohingya! Rohingya."

Aung Win, who lost family members during the 2012 unrest, described how the authorities had to give up their proposed census because of opposition from the inhabitants of the camps, who wouldn't agree to anything which called them Bengali.

"There were even some deadly riots inside, and tension remains high due to the inhumane living conditions," he said.

Squalid conditions

Desperation abounds in the camps and in the ghetto of Aung Mingalar, an area in central Sittwe where several thousand Rohingya live.

Rice and vegetables are what people eat two times a day, if they're lucky. Children suffering from malnutrition have distended abdomens, medical facilities are insufficient and ill-equipped, and medicine is in short supply. Most of the doctors are ethnic Rakhine, and patients complain about their lack of interest in treating them.

I'm afraid that even if these kids are eventually able to live freely, they won't be able to build themselves a good future, because they've been neglected too long.

- U Khin Maung, principal of Thet Kay Pyin school

One of the doctors, who refused to answer Al Jazeera's questions, shouted that both foreign journalists and NGOs are biased and only interested in portraying Rohingya's suffering, while failing to note there are also displaced Rakhine in camps.

At the nearby mosque, the body of 12-year-old Ahmed is brought in. According to his parents, he came down with a fever a few days before his death, but doctors said it was nothing to worry about. When his condition worsened, he was transferred to the hospital outside the camps, where no other relatives were allowed, and died two days later.

"He's been killed," his mother screamed, her face covered in tears. "They injected him with poison like the others."

Aung Win said he doesn't think her allegations were plausible, but added that Ahmed's case is another one of medical negligence that ends up tragically every week.

Schools in the camps aren't in much better shape. "Children come here for free, but they are not getting a good education," said U Khin Maung, principal of Thet Kay Pyin school, where 2,600 Rohingya pupils aged between five and 15 go to class. There are 49 teachers, but only six receive a salary.

"We don't have money for the rest, so they volunteer," Maung said. "I'm afraid that even if these kids are eventually able to live freely, they won't be able to build themselves a good future, because they've been neglected too long."

Government officials contacted for comment declined to be interviewed for this story.

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Al Jazeera
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