Sittwe, Myanmar – Just over two years ago, minority Rohingya Muslims and majority Buddhists studied side by side in the capital of Rakhine state in western Myanmar.
This symbiotic relationship changed drastically after anti-Muslim violence erupted in the town of Sittwe in mid-2012, when authorities banned hundreds of the mostly darker-skinned Rohingya from returning to university, part of a system of racial segregation imposed in the name of keeping the peace.
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Today, members of the Muslim minority group cannot set foot on the campus of Sittwe University and a handful of armed police near the university’s main entrance, along with a civilian guard at the gate, make sure no one breaks the rule.
The rioting in 2012, which has since spread to other parts of the country, leaving as many as 280 dead, forced most of the Rohingya living in the downtown area to flee to makeshift camps on the rural outskirts. They have not been allowed to return, leaving central Sittwe dominated by Buddhists.
The government-owned university – the only one in Rakhine state – sits in the Rohingya area, which is now considered by many as a de facto open-air prison for hundreds of thousands of the ethnic minority group.
The barring of Rohingya students from Sittwe University comes from the government – with officials justifying the policy as a way to prevent violence. They claim that if the two religions mix, then clashes could erupt.
Khin Maung Myint, a Rohingya and former student, has to keep to his own side of the barbed wire barricades. He was in his third year studying botany before Buddhist rioters raided his neighbourhood and burned houses to the ground.
After fleeing to an internal displacement camp and realising he would not be returning home, he found out he wouldn’t be allowed to sit his final year at university either. He had wanted to be a pharmacist.
“I have no ambition now,” he told Al Jazeera. “I’ve lost everything.”
In contrast, Khain Nay Min, a Buddhist who is halfway through a law degree, passes freely through a checkpoint on his way to and from lectures.
“I don’t think after the violence the two different religions can study together again in the same class,” he said. “We don’t seem likely to have a good relationship with them in the future.”
Khain Nay Min plans to finish his law degree in 2016. He said he wants to help the Rakhine state government reform the legal system, long neglected under five decades of military dictatorship that ended in 2011.
It is part of an 'ethnic cleansing package' of restrictions and oppression to compel them to leave.
Western leaders have applauded President Thein Sein’s new, nominally civilian government for bringing in sweeping reforms that included releasing political prisoners and relaxing press censorship. But while large parts of Myanmar have become freer since 2011, the Rohingya’s suffering has intensified.
The minority are widely despised in the country, accused of being illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and mostly denied citizenship. Rights groups believe officials are stripping education rights from the Rohingya as part of a campaign of repression that includes severe limits on movement.
“It is part of an ‘ethnic cleansing package’ of restrictions and oppression to compel them to leave,” said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group based in Thailand.
More than 86,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar – many in overcrowded, flimsy boats – since mid-2012, according to the UN. Hundreds die every year during perilous journeys in the hope of reaching a country that will accept them.
After visiting the camps around Sittwe late last month, Yanghee Lee, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, said in a statement that restrictions on freedom of movement are having “a severe impact on basic rights, including access to livelihoods, food, water and sanitation, health services and education”.
Schools and universities across Myanmar crumble with neglect and a lack of funding, and rampant poverty means the Rohingya are by no means the only people denied an education.
But discrimination has deepened the crisis for the Rohingya, who live mostly in Rakhine. Teachers are predominantly Buddhist, and often shun working in Muslim-dominated areas.
Travel restrictions against Rohingya across the state also make it difficult for children to attend middle and high schools, which tend to be further away than village primary schools.
Even before they were barred from attending Sittwe University, the government barred Rohingya from earning degrees in certain subjects, including engineering and medicine. And many from remote areas found it impossible to get travel permits to attend the university.
Under the segregation imposed in Sittwe and elsewhere since 2012, Rohingya school children have seen their education deteriorate severely. The village of Thet Kay Pyin has the only government-designated school that Rohingya around Sittwe are allowed to attend. It is desperately overcrowded.
If they don't show up early, there's usually no room for them and they have to come home.
Zaw Zaw, an English teacher, said the school had about 700 pupils before the 2012 violence forced many to leave their schools in the downtown area. Now there are well over 2,000 from elementary to high school age, with up to 90 children cramming into each classroom.
Many of the rooms don’t have desks, just low wooden benches to perch on. And even the benches can’t fit everyone. “Some of the students have to sit on the floor,” Zaw Zaw said.
About two-thirds of the children at middle and high school age don’t have textbooks, he added. The only teaching materials available in the dilapidated classrooms are blackboards and the occasional hand drawn chart stuck to the wall. Now that monsoon season is here, rainwater drips through the classrooms’ shoddy roofs.
The school is made up of three small buildings surrounding a courtyard. Each child can only attend for half of the day; one group comes in the morning and another in the afternoon.
“I think they have no future,” said Zaw Zaw, who hasn’t received his government salary for two months. “They can pass the matriculation exam, but they cannot join the university.”
Despite these conditions, the children at this school are luckier than most young Rohingya. The Arakan Project said that more than 60 percent of Rohingya children aged 5 to 17 have never been to school, citing poverty and a lack of buildings as key reasons.
Ten-year-old Kamal Hussain spends his days swinging a hammer to break rocks and clumps of earth. He helps his father, Jamal, fill in a road that runs over a disused railway track. Jamal makes about two dollars each day in goodwill payments from people who use the road.
“I have no job now, so I need my son’s help,” Jamal said.
Anawar Naing, a Rohingya and another former student at Sittwe University, said his younger brothers and sisters often have to miss classes at the Thet Kay Pyin school due to overcrowding.
“If they don’t show up early there’s usually no room for them and they have to come home… It happens about once a week,” he said, adding that he studied chemistry when the riots broke out.
“I haven’t seen any of my Rakhine classmates since the violence,” he said. “They graduate this year … if there were equality and rights in this country I could also be graduating.”
Rohingya and Rakhines from Sittwe University said students from both religions studied together peacefully. But even there occasional conflicts, reflecting the long history of discrimination that Rohingya have faced in Rakhine, took place. In 2004 a group of students clashed, leaving several people injured, according to Burma Today.
“After the World Trade Centres were attacked the Rakhines got aggressive towards Rohingyas,” said Mohamed Gakid, a Rohingya who was studying at the university when the clash took place.
Follow Joshua Carroll on Twitter: @josecarroll