SITTWE, Arakan State — A visitor would be forgiven for thinking not much happens in Sittwe, the regional capital with a small-town vibe in Arakan State on Burma’s northwest coast.
Tourists usually come between October and May, before the rains start, and typically spend no more than a night or two in the town before taking a boat trip to the old Arakanese kingdom’s capital of Mrauk U. There sits a spectacular panoply of temples and palaces, barely visible through the rain, mist-shrouded reminders of a long-lost, barely remembered glory ended by a 1784 Burmese invasion.
There are few cars on the water-logged, potholed streets, and aside from trishaws ferrying women from the market—clasping umbrellas in a futile attempt to block the rain sheeting in off the Bay of Bengal—the most noticeable presence are the platoons of Burmese police and soldiers.
From time to time, however, things do happen in this seaside town where the Kaladan River meets the Bay of Bengal and where India is funding a US $214 million port and dredging transport project, part of New Delhi’s attempts to boost its regional trade presence. In 2007, saffron-clad monks first took to the streets in Sittwe, in what spiraled into nationwide protests against military rule. Sittwe-born U Ottama was the first monk to rail against British rule, and the first Burmese political prisoner to die while under British arrest
Much less noble things have happened in Sittwe and nearby towns recently, however. After several days of communal murder, arson and property destruction in early June, Burmese President Thein Sein imposed a state of emergency in Burma’s western Arakan State on June 10, sending soldiers in to quell the violence which to date has left over 60 dead, according to the government.
Two weeks later the troops remain, there, the government says, to stop any recurrence of fighting between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslims. The latter include some of the around 800,000 Rohingya Muslims who are mostly—and controversially—denied citizenship by the Burmese government and are not classed as one of the country’s 135 listed ethnic groups.
Most Arakanese, along with the Burmese government and likely a majority of Burma’s citizens, see the Rohingya—deemed one of the world’s most oppressed minorities by human rights groups—as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Maybe it’s the weather, but despite the freshness of the violence and the grim significance of their duty, there’s a languid, nonchalant look to the troops and the cops. Along Sittwe’s main road, police stretch out under tarpaulins, their frames wedged into an ungainly arc across two garden chairs, chins tottering on hands and returning greetings with forced-looking half-smiles.
Further down the road, soldiers doze—legs and arms dangling over the edge of their green army truck—as the rain beats a soporific rattle on the canvas roof.
It doesn’t look much like martial law, but it is, and it seems to work—for now at least. Curfew runs from 6 pm to 6 am, and Aung Thein, an Arakanese who makes a living doing 1,000-2,000 kyat ($1.20-$2.40) trishaw runs around town, warns that “army come out, people cannot go around, or army boom-boom,” laughing and jack-knifing his frame into something meant to look like a gun-toting soldier.
“It is quiet here last few days, the army keeps both sides apart,” says Than Than, an Arakanese shop owner on Sittwe’s main road, who asked that his real name and workplace not be mentioned.
The riots had a gruesome trigger—the May 28 rape and killing of a young Buddhist Arakanese woman. Stomach-churning photos of the murdered woman were subsequently posted online, prompting an upsurge of venomous anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya online comments from Arakanese and other Burmese ethnic groups.
Three Rohingya men—one of whom apparently committed suicide while in custody—were arrested on May 29 in connection with the murder of the young woman the day before. Despite the arrests, 10 Muslims—who were not Rohingya and were returning to central Burma from a pilgrimage to the western Burmese region—were lynched by a group of around 300 Arakanese on June 3.
The other two Rohingya men have since been charged with the rape and murder and now face the death penalty, though it seems nobody has yet been charged with killing of the 10 Muslims.
After these two atrocities, machete-wielding gangs of Arakanese and Rohingya set upon each other in a series of tit-for-tat attacks in Sittwe and other towns in northern Arakan state. In Sittwe, the evidence of violence is clearly visible, and activists and analysts say that long-standing enmity between the Rohingya and Arakanese mean that Arakan State remains on edge.
The charred remains of a market near the waterfront sit just 20 meters from the main road, and a 5 minute walk from the now-gated Jama mosque. Elsewhere in the city, burned and dismantled remains of houses can be seen, both Arakanese and Muslim, and it seems that most of the city’s Muslims have fled, for now at least.
A local Muslim, who says he is half-Rohingya, half-Arakanese, and—for security reasons—gives his name only as Bilal, which he says is a pseudonym, says that his parents are staying at a temporary shelter in a mosque outside the town. “It is not safe for them to come back to town,” he says. “It’s not safe for my real name to be published either,” he implores.
Most people in the town say that the situation is quiet, but others demur. UN agencies say that around 90,000 people have been affected by the violence and may need sustained humanitarian assistance. “Still fighting, still problems,” chimes a group of Arakanese sheltering at the Shwe Zayde monastery in Sittwe.
In the meantime, aid agencies such as the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) are scrambling to meet immediate needs. WFP spokesperson Marcus Prior told The Irrawaddy that it “continues to expand its emergency response to people affected by recent violence in [Arakan State], reaching over 87,000 affected people with food assistance by the end of last week.”
Making matters more complicated is the poor state of roads in the area, which has slowed down efforts to take full stock of the needs of people displaced by the violence. “Several locations can only be reached using light trucks. We will have a clearer picture of the full needs on the completion of an assessment, which is currently being prepared,” said Prior.
Even here at the Shwe Zayde monastery, where around 500 of the displaced have taken shelter, the situation looks grim enough. A night’s downpour left Sittwe a half-flooded mess, and several dozen drenched, homeless Arakanese sat in wringing-wet clothes on the monastery floor.
It was from this same monastery that the monks who started the Saffron Revolution marched in August 2007, and it was from this monastery—which was visited by Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in between periods of house arrest from 1989-2010—that Ottama launched his campaign against colonial rule.
Suu Kyi might not receive much of a welcome if she returns to Sittwe anytime soon, however. “Most Arakanese people are quite angry at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Shwe Maung, a teacher in Sittwe and central committee member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, which has 16 representatives in Burma’s national-level parliament houses.
He was referring to the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader’s comments on June 6, when she spoke with Muslim leaders in Rangoon and called on Buddhists to “have sympathy for minorities.” “This was a mistake of hers,” says Shwe Maung, who nonetheless uses the honorific ‘Daw’ when referring to Suu Kyi.
At the same time, however, Suu Kyi has been criticized by ethnic minority activists and human rights groups for not speaking out strongly enough on behalf of the Rohingya. Asked last week in Ireland whether the Rohingya were entitled to Burmese citizenship, Suu Kyi answered, “I don’t know.”
Most Arakanese are bluntly decisive about this question, however. During a 30 minute run-through of Arakanese history, listing aggression by invading Burmese and alleging historical atrocities carried out by “Bengali Muslims” on Arakanese, Shwe Maung let rip at Burmese authorities, saying that “because of bribes and corruption by immigration officials, Muslim Bengalis have been allowed to settle here.”
Pointing to what Arakanese regard as a double standard, he says “the Burmese government does not allow them [Rohingya] into other parts of Burma.”
Asked his views on what will happen now in Arakan State, and on possible ways to solve communal tensions, Shwe Maung says “there will be riots again and again,” adding “I don’t know the solution to this, but it would be better if they go to a third country.”
Some Muslims fear the worst, amid calls in Arakan State and elsewhere in Burma for Rohingya to be driven from the region. Bilal says “they like to remove Muslims, it is not just Rohingya they attack, the Kaman Muslims, too, they kill them,” the latter referring to one of the Muslim groups living in Sittwe.
Back in Burma’s main city Rangoon, work continues at NLD party headquarters, while leader Aung San Suu Kyi continues her European tour.
Nine Nine, an NLD central committee member and former political prisoner, says his party’s view is that the Arakan violence “might not be on the religion,” but is “a problem of immigration.”
“There are many infiltrators,” he adds, without elaborating.
Asked about his party’s assessment of the violence in the region and allegations of discrimination against Rohingya, he says, “We don’t stand on any side,” but states that “all applicants to citizenship have the right to present their documents.”