Divided Sittwe Threatens Burma’s Democracy Hopes

Rohingya Muslims, displaced by recent violence, carry wood on a road outside Sittwe. (Photo: Reuters)

SITTWE, Arakan State—There are no Muslim faithful in most of this crumbling town’s main mosques anymore, no Muslim students at its university.

They’re gone from the market, missing from the port, too terrified to walk on just about any street downtown.

Three-and-a-half months after some of the bloodiest clashes in a generation between Myanmar’s ethnic Arakanese (Rakhine) Buddhists and stateless Muslims known as Rohingya left the western town of Sittwe in flames, nobody is quite sure when—or even if—the Rohingya will be allowed to resume the lives they once lived here.

The conflict has fundamentally altered the demographic landscape of this coastal state capital, giving way to a disturbing policy of government-backed segregation that contrasts starkly with the democratic reforms Burma’s leadership has promised the world since half a century of military rule ended last year.

While the Arakanese can move freely, some 75,000 Rohingya have effectively been confined to a series of rural displaced camps outside Sittwe and a single downtown district they dare not leave for fear of being attacked.

For the town’s Muslim population, it’s a life of exclusion that’s separate, and anything but equal.

“We’re living like prisoners here,” said Thant Sin, a Rohingya shopkeeper who has been holed up since June in the last Rohingya-dominated quarter of central Sittwe that wasn’t burned down.

Too afraid to leave, the 47-year-old cannot work anyway. The blue wooden doors of his shuttered pharmaceutical stall sit abandoned inside the city’s main market—a place only Arakanese are now allowed to enter.

The crisis in western Burma goes back decades and is rooted in a highly controversial dispute over where the region’s Muslim inhabitants are really from. Although many Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, they are widely denigrated here as foreigners—intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.

The UN estimates their number at 800,000. But the government does not count them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and so—like Bangladesh—denies them citizenship. Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a distinct Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.

In late May, tensions boiled over after the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman, allegedly by three Rohingya, in a town south of Sittwe. By mid-June, skirmishes between rival mobs carrying swords, spears and iron rods erupted across the region. Conservative estimates put the death toll at around 100 statewide, with 5,000 homes burned along with dozens of mosques and monasteries.

Sittwe suffered more damage than most, and today blackened tracts of rubble-strewn land filled with knotted tree stumps are scattered everywhere. The largest tract, called Narzi, once was home to 10,000 Muslims.

Human Rights Watch accused security forces of colluding with Arakanese mobs at the height of the mayhem, opening fire on Rohingya even as they struggled to douse the flames of their burning homes.

Speaking to a delegation of visiting American diplomats earlier this month, Border Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Thein Htay described Sittwe’s new status quo. Drawing his finger across a city map, he said there are now “lines that cannot be crossed” by either side, or else “there will be aggression … there will be disputes.”

“It’s not what we want,” he added with a polite smile. “But this is the reality we face.”

While police and soldiers are protecting mosques and guarding Rohingya in camps, there is much they cannot control. One group of 300 local Buddhist leaders, for example, issued pamphlets urging the Arakanese not to do business with the Rohingya or even talk to them. It is the only way, they say, to avert violence.

Inside Sittwe’s once mixed municipal hospital, a separate ward has been established to serve Muslim patients only—on a recent day, it was filled with just four patients whose families said they could only get there with police escorts.

At the town’s university, only Arakanese now attend. And at the main market, plastic identity cards are needed to enter: pink for shopkeepers, yellow for customers, none for Rohingya.

The crisis has posed one of the most serious challenges yet to Thein Sein’s nascent government, which declared a state of emergency and warned the unrest could threaten the country’s nascent transition toward democracy if it spread.

Although the clashes have been contained and an independent commission has been appointed to study the conflict and recommend solutions, the government has shown little political will to go further.

The Rohingya are a deeply unpopular cause in Burma, where even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former political prisoners caged by the army have failed to speak out on their behalf. In July, Thein Sein himself suggested the Rohingya should be sent to any other country willing to take them.

“In that context, we’re seeing them segregated into squalid camps, fleeing the country, and in some cases being rounded up and imprisoned,” said Matthew Smith, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who authored a recent report for the New York-based group on the latest unrest.

In places like Sittwe, “there is a risk of permanent segregation,” Smith said. “None of this bodes well for the prospects of a multi-ethnic democracy.”

In the meantime, the government’s own statistics indicate the crisis is worsening—at least for the Rohingya.

While the total number of displaced Arakanese statewide has declined from about 24,000 at the start of the crisis to 5,600 today, the number of displaced Rohingya has risen from 52,000 to 70,000, mostly in camps just outside Sittwe.

The government has blamed the rise on Rohingya it says didn’t lose homes but who are eager to gain access to aid handouts. Insecurity is also likely a factor, though. Amnesty International has accused authorities of detaining hundreds of Rohingya in a post-conflict crackdown aimed almost exclusively at Muslims. And in August, 3,500 people were displaced after new clashes saw nearly 600 homes burned in the town of Kyauktaw, according to the UN.

Elsewhere in Arakan State, the army has resumed forced labor against Muslims, ordering villagers to cultivate the military’s paddy fields, act as porters and rebuild destroyed homes, according to a report by the Arakan Project, an activist group.

In Sittwe, mutual fear and distrust runs so high that most of the 7,000 Rohingya crammed inside a dilapidated quarter called Aung Mingalar have not set foot outside it since June. It’s the last Muslim-inhabited block downtown, a tiny place that takes about five minutes to cross by foot.

Thant Sin, the Rohingya shopkeeper who lives in Aung Mingalar, said the government delivers rice but getting almost everything else requires exorbitant bribes and connections. There is just one mosque. There are no clinics, medical care or schools, and Thant Sin is worried his savings will run out in weeks.

The married father-of-five has been unable to open his market stall since authorities ordered it shut three months ago. One told him, “This for the Rakhine now,” he recalled.

“All we want to do is go back to work,” he said. “The government is doing nothing to help us get our lives back.”

All four roads into Aung Mingalar are guarded by police, and outside, past the roadblocks of barbed wire and wood that divide the district from the rest of town, Rakhine walk freely—sometimes yelling racial slurs or hurling stones from slingshots.

Across the street, a 57-year-old Arakanese, Aye Myint, leaned back in a rusted metal chair and peered at a group of bearded Muslim men in Aung Mingalar.

“I feel nothing for those people now,” he said. “After what happened … they cannot be trusted anymore. To tell the truth, we want them out of here.”

Hla Thain, the attorney general of Arakan State, denied there was any official policy of forced segregation, saying security forces are deployed to protect both sides, not keep them apart. But he acknowledged that there were not enough police or soldiers to make the two communities feel safe, and that huge obstacles to reconciliation remain.

“We want them to live together, that is our goal, but we can’t force people to change,” he said. “Anger is still running high. Neither side can forget that they lost family members, their homes.”

For now, he said, the government is studying every possibility to make life “normal” again. For example: having Arakanese students attend university in the morning, while Rohingya go each afternoon.

Thein Htay, the border minister, was more blunt.

“We may have to build another market center, another trading center, another port” for the Rohingya, he said, because it will be “very difficult otherwise.”

4 Responses to Divided Sittwe Threatens Burma’s Democracy Hopes

  1. This is like carrying gun powder over fire walking on


    It appears people are not really clued on about the
    gravity of the situation needing ever so bland Ban to point that out.


    Unlike the usual judges and opinion makers, the decision
    maker here is unknown.  Any one, any time
    can trigger some chain reaction of immense magnitude.


    It is not enough to appeal to all famous really powerful
    or pretending to be powerful people. There is urgent ground work required to
    find a peaceful, mutually acceptable solution with help from both sides as well
    as any help that can be garnered.


    It appears Ban Ki-mon is not the only anxious one.




    For the first time U Tun Khin has come out with the most
    sensible solution to try for the whole affair. Fact is success or not will be
    dependent on many factors inside and outside the country. But trying one must.


    Neither the current situation, conduct of affairs, actors
    on the ground are proving to be right.

    Unless local leaders on both sides wise up, all will lose.This is shaping up quickly to be a lose-lose situation.

  2. The Burmese Freedom Fighter

    This inflammatory article against the harsh reality of Rakhine people in their own homeland will surely promote the hatred over the communal riots. This article clearly sides with the evil over good in this Burma’s fight for tolerance. I would suggest the author Todd Pitman to try to find way to get rid of his fear from losing his job as journalist. 

    The fear factor is the only effective way for those ill-indented low journalist and media in making their profit out of human tragedy. The coverage of media on slanderous accusation by Bengali sympathizers has already slow down the speed of reform process to democracy in Burma completely. Irrawaddy should have its own journalist on the ground to confirm the claim of this article rather than just covering it without any inputs of Irrawaddy on the matter.

    The gut need to be there for those media who cover their own finding on the very sensitive issue in their coverage rather than using some scapegoats. The shells of hatred article on Burma like this one has got to stop should we want tolerance to grow in the infant stage of Burma thrive to its tolerated democratic society.

    The Burmese Freedom Fighter

  3. The reporter miss the the most important points. Why Rakhine are so reluctant to stay with Muslim again?? Muslims start riot at Maung Daw and burnt all Rakhine villages, the same case in Kyauk Taw. There is no Muslim refugees for these towns. In Maung Daw and Bothe Taung, 97% are Muslim. So, police arrested rioters in those towns are Muslim but more than 600 Rakhine are also arrested. No all Muslim are rioters but to get trust from community, Muslim leaders should led them not to start riots again and not to exaggerate the situation.

    If reporters want to cover the news or accidents, they should investigate or dig enough why it happened rather than based on random interviews that not reflecting the view of the whole community. 

  4. Dear Todd Pitmam,
    Bengali Rohingya peoples are not stateless. They are Bengali ethnic from Bangladesh. I’m sick of hearing of some of you journalists deaf and blind reporting about Bengali Rohingya as world most persecuted peoples in world. You have to learn about Rakhine and Burmese history before reporting. How about Palestinian peoples? Palestinian peoples are brutally oppressing by Israeli Government in their homeland.
    Rakhine peoples can go freely. Of course, the land of Rakhine  is belonging to Rakhine peoples.
    The problem started by these illegal migrant Bengali so called Rohingya peoples.
    They come and live in Rakhine  land without invited and they burned down their host houses, Buddhist Temples and destroys peoples livelihood. They are not good guest to host in Rakhine land. Muslim country must take them and resettle in their country.
    Did you know Chittagong region and Chittagong Hill Tracts was historically belonging to Rakhine peoples? Mughal Muslim invaded Chittagong and expelled Rakhine peoples from Chittagong region in 17 century. Of course, no Rakhine peoples  do not want to lose their homeland to another illegal Muslim Migrants. 
    The journalists are silence about Bengali and Bengali Rohingya terrorizing in Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Muslim burned down total 18 Buddhist Temples and destroy Indigenous Jumma tribal homes and businesses. 
    Where’s ICO? Where’s a western journalists? Why they don’t report it in international media?
    Burma does not have Rohingya ethnic. Bengali enter illegally into Rakhine state and they becoming Rohingya.
    Daw Aung San Su Kyi has nothing to speak out about Rohingya peoples problem. No one has abuse their human right in Burma. The communal riot is happened because those illegal migrant Bengali started.
    To given Citizenship to illegal Bengali migrants, even US does not give Citizenship to illegal migrant from Latin America.  Burma has its immigration law and every one in country must obey the law.
    If these Bengalis can prove they are descendents of legal migrant Bengali and then Government will think about given Citizenship to those who are genuine. 

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