In Burma, Apartheid Tactics against Minority Muslims

Waadulae, a 16-year-old Rohingya Muslim boy with severe symptoms of rabies, is comforted by family members at a local clinic at a camp for people displaced by violence near Sittwe, Arakan State. (Photo: Reuters)

SITTWE — A 16-year-old Muslim boy lay dying on a thin metal table. Bitten by a rabid dog a month ago, he convulsed and drooled as his parents wedged a stick between his teeth to stop him from biting off his tongue.

Swift treatment might have saved Waadulae. But there are no doctors, painkillers or vaccines in this primitive hospital near Sittwe, capital of Arakan State in western Burma. It is a lonely medical outpost that serves about 85,300 displaced people, almost all of them Muslims who lost their homes in fighting with Buddhist mobs last year.

“All we can give him is sedatives,” said Maung Maung Hla, a former health ministry official who, despite lacking a medical degree, treats about 150 patients a day. The two doctors who once worked there haven’t been seen in a month. Medical supplies stopped when they left, said Maung Maung Hla, a Muslim.

These trash-strewn camps represent the dark side of Burma’s celebrated transition to democracy: apartheid-like policies segregating minority Muslims from the Buddhist majority. As communal violence spreads, nowhere are these practices more brutally enforced than around Sittwe.

In an echo of what happened in the Balkans after the fall of communist Yugoslavia, the loosening of authoritarian control in Burma is giving freer rein to ethnic hatred.

President Thein Sein, a former general, said in a May 6 televised speech his government was committed to creating “a peaceful and harmonious society in Rakhine [Arakan] State.”

But the sand dunes and barren paddy fields outside Sittwe hold a different story. Here, emergency shelters set up for Rohingya Muslims last year have become permanent, prison-like ghettos. Muslims are stopped from leaving at gunpoint. Aid workers are threatened. Camps seethe with anger and disease.

In central Sittwe, ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and local officials exult in what they regard as a hard-won triumph: streets almost devoid of Muslims. Before last year’s violence, the city’s Muslims numbered about 73,000, nearly half its population. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 left.

Burma’s transformation from global pariah to budding democracy once seemed remarkably smooth. After nearly half a century of military dictatorship, the quasi-civilian government that took power in March 2011 astonished the world by releasing dissidents, relaxing censorship and re-engaging with the West.

Then came the worst sectarian violence for decades. Clashes between Arakanese Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims in June and October 2012 killed at least 192 people and displaced 140,000. Most of the dead and homeless were Muslims.

“Rakhine State is going through a profound crisis” that “has the potential to undermine the entire reform process,” said Tomás Ojea Quintana, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma.

Life here, he said, resembles junta-era Burma, with rampant human-rights abuses and a pervasive security apparatus. “What is happening in Rakhine State is following the pattern of what has happened in [Burma] during the military government,” he said in an interview.

The crisis poses the biggest domestic challenge yet for the reformist leaders of one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries. Muslims make up about 5 percent of its 60 million people. Minorities, such as the Kachin and the Shan, are watching closely after enduring persecution under the former junta.

As the first powerful storm of the monsoon season approached this week, the government and UN agencies began a chaotic evacuation from the camps, with a plan to move as many as 38,000 people to safer areas.

Many are resisting, fearing they would lose all they had left: their tarpaulin tents and makeshift huts. The UN relief agency said these would not withstand heavy rains or winds. More than 50 drowned in a botched government evacuation by sea, authorities said.

‘They All Tell Lies”

Sittwe’s last remaining Muslim-dominated quarter, Aung Mingalar, is locked down by police and soldiers who patrol all streets leading in and out. Muslims can’t leave without written permission from Buddhist local authorities, which Muslims say is almost impossible to secure.

Metal barricades, topped with razor wire, are opened only for Arakanese Buddhists. Despite a ban against foreign journalists, Reuters was able to enter Aung Mingalar. Near-deserted streets were flanked by shuttered shops. Some Muslims peered from doors or windows.

On the other side of the barricades, ethnic Arakanese revel in the segregation.

“I don’t trust them. They are not honest,” said Khin Mya, 63, who owns a general store on Sittwe’s main street. “Muslims are hot-headed; they like to fight, either with us or among themselves.”

Ei Mon Kyaw, 19, who sells betel nut and chewing tobacco, said Muslims are “really dirty. It is better we live apart.”

State spokesman Win Myaing, a Buddhist, explained why Aung Mingalar’s besieged Muslims were forbidden from speaking to the media. “It’s because they all tell lies,” he said. He also denied the government had engaged in ethnic cleansing, a charge leveled most recently by New York-based Human Rights Watch in an April 22 report.

“How can it be ethnic cleansing? They are not an ethnic group,” he said from an office on Sittwe’s main street, overlooking an empty mosque guarded by soldiers and police.

His comments reflect a historic dispute over the origins of the country’s estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims, who claim a centuries-old lineage in Arakan State.

The government says they are Muslim migrants from northern neighbor Bangladesh who arrived during British rule from 1824. After independence in 1948, Burma’s new rulers tried to limit citizenship to those whose roots in the country predated British rule. A 1982 Citizenship Act excluded Rohingya from the country’s 135 recognized ethnic groups, denying them citizenship and rendering them stateless. Bangladesh also disowns them and has refused to grant them refugee status since 1992.

The United Nations calls them “virtually friendless” and among the world’s most persecuted people.

Boat People Exodus

The state government has shelved any plan to return the Rohingya Muslims to their villages on a technicality: for defying a state requirement that they identify themselves as “Bengali,” a term that suggests they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

All these factors are accelerating an exodus of Rohingya boat people emigrating in rickety fishing vessels to other Southeast Asian countries.

From October to March, between the monsoons, about 25,000 Rohingya left Burma on boats, according to new data from Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group. That was double the previous year, turning a problem affecting Arakan State into a region-wide one.

The cost of the one-way ticket is steep for an impoverished people—usually about 200,000 kyat, or $220, often paid for by remittances from family members who have already left.

Many who survive the perilous journeys wind up in majority-Muslim Malaysia. Some end up in UN camps, where they are denied permanent asylum. Others find illegal work on construction sites or other subsistence jobs. Tens of thousands are held in camps in Thailand. Growing numbers have been detained in Indonesia.

Mob Violence

Arakan State, one of the poorest regions of Southeast Asia’s poorest country, had high hopes for the reform era.

In Sittwe’s harbor, India is funding a $214 million port, river and road network that will carve a trade route into India’s landlocked northeast. From Kyaukphyu, a city 104 km (65 miles) southeast of Sittwe, gas and oil pipelines stretch to China’s energy-hungry northwest. Both projects capitalize on Burma’s growing importance at Asia’s crossroads.

That promise has been interrupted by communal tensions that flared into the open after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men in May last year. Six days later, in retribution, a Buddhist mob beat 10 Muslims to death. Violence then swept Maungdaw, one of the three Rohingya-majority districts bordering Bangladesh, on June 8. Rohingya mobs destroyed homes and killed an unknown number of ethnic Arakanese Buddhists.

The clashes spread to Sittwe. More than 2,500 homes and buildings went up in flames, as Rohingya and Arakanese mobs rampaged. When the smoke cleared, both suffered losses, though the official death toll for Rohingya—57—was nearly double that for Arakanese Buddhists. Entire Muslim districts were razed.

October saw more violence. This time, Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim villages across the state over five days, led in some cases by Arakanese nationalists tied to a powerful political party, incited by Buddhist monks and abetted at times by local security forces.

US President Barack Obama, on a groundbreaking visit in November, urged reconciliation. “The Rohingya … hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” he said. The week he visited, Thein Sein vowed to forge ethnic unity in a letter to the United Nations.

But the violence kept spreading. Anti-Muslim unrest, whipped up by Buddhist monks, killed at least 44 people in the central city of Meikhtila in March. In April and May, Buddhist mobs destroyed mosques and hundreds of Muslim homes just a few hours’ drive from Rangoon, the country’s largest city.

Thein Sein responded by sending troops to volatile areas and setting up an independent commission into the Arakan violence. Its recommendations, released on April 27, urged meetings of Muslim and Buddhist leaders to foster tolerance, Muslims to be moved to safer ground ahead of the storm season, and the continued segregation of the two communities “until the overt emotions subside.”

It sent a strong message, calling the Rohingya “Bengalis,” a term that suggests they belong in Bangladesh, and backing the 1982 citizenship law that rendered stateless even those Rohingya who had lived in Burma for generations.

The Rohingyas’ rapid population growth had fueled the clashes with Buddhists, it said, recommending voluntary family-planning education programs for them. It suggested doubling the number of soldiers and police in the region.

Rohingya responded angrily. “We completely reject this report,” said Fukan Ahmed, 54, a Rohingya elder who lost his home in Sittwe.

Local government officials, however, were already moving to impose policies in line with the report.

The Hated List

On the morning of April 26, a group of state officials entered the Theak Kae Pyin refugee camp. With them were three policemen and several Border Administration Force officers, known as the Nasaka, a word derived from the initials of its Burmese name. Unique to the region, the Nasaka consists of officers from the police, military, customs and immigration. They control every aspect of Rohingya life, and are much feared.

Documented human-rights abuses blamed on the Nasaka include rape, forced labor and extortion. Rohingya cannot travel or marry without the Nasaka’s permission, which is never secured without paying bribes, activists allege.

State spokesman Win Myaing said the Nasaka’s mission was to compile a list identifying where people had lived before the violence, a precondition for resettlement. They wanted to know who was from Sittwe and who was from more remote townships such as Pauktaw and Kyaukphyu, areas that saw a near-total expulsion of Muslims in October.

Many fled for what Win Myaing said were unregistered camps outside Sittwe, often in flood-prone areas. “We would like to move them back to where they came from in the next two months,” said Win Myaing. The list was the first step towards doing that.

The list, however, also required Muslims to identify themselves as Bengali. For Fukan Ahmed and other Rohingya leaders, it sent a chilling message: If they want to be resettled, they must deny their identity.

Agitated crowds gathered as the officials tried to compile the list, witnesses said. Women and children chanted “Rohingya! Rohingya!” As the police officers were leaving, one tumbled to the ground, struck by a stone to his head, according to Win Myaing. Rohingya witnesses said the officer tripped. Seven Rohingya were arrested and charged with causing grievous hurt to a public servant, criminal intimidation and rioting.

Compiling the list is on hold, said Win Myaing. So, too, is resettlement.

“If they trust us, then [resettlement] can happen immediately. If you won’t even accept us making a list, then how can we try and do other things?” he asked. The crisis could be defused if Rohingya accepted the 1982 Citizenship Law, he said.

But doing so would effectively confirm their statelessness. Official discrimination and lack of documentation meant many Rohingya have no hope of fulfilling the requirements.

Boshi Raman, 40, said he and other Rohingya would never sign a document calling themselves Bengali. “We would rather die,” he said.

Win Myaing blamed the Rohingya for their misfortune. “If you look back at the events that occurred, it wasn’t because the Rakhines were extreme. The problems were all started by them,” the Muslims, he said.

Scorched Earth

In Theak Kae Pyin camp, a sea of tarpaulin tents and fragile huts built of straw from the last rice harvest, there is an air of growing permanence. More than 11,000 live in this camp alone, according to UN data. Naked children bathe in a murky-brown pond and play on sewage-lined pathways.

A year ago, before the unrest, Haleda Somisian lived in Narzi, a Sittwe district of more than 10,000 people. Today, it is rubble and scorched earth. Somisian, 20, wants to return and rebuild. Her husband, she says, has started to beat her. In Narzi, he worked. Now he is jobless, restless and despondent.

“I want to leave this place,” she said.

Some of those confined to the camps are Kaman Muslims, who are recognized as one of Burma’s 135 official ethnic groups; they usually hold citizenship and can be hard to tell apart from Arakanese Buddhists. They fled after October’s violence when their homes were destroyed by Arakanese mobs in remote townships such as Kyaukphyu. They, too, are prevented from leaving.

Beyond Sittwe, another 50,000 people, mostly Rohingya, live in similar camps in other parts of the state destroyed in last year’s sectarian violence.

Across the state, the UN relief agency has provided about 4,000 tents and built about 300 bamboo homes, each of which can hold eight families. Another 500 bamboo homes are planned by year-end. None are designed to be permanent, said agency spokeswoman Vivian Tan. Tents can last six months to a year; bamboo homes about two years.

The agency wants to provide the temporary shelter that is badly needed. “But we don’t want in any way to create permanent shelters and to condone any kind of segregation,” Tan said.

Aid group Doctors Without Borders has accused hardline nationalists of threatening its staff, impairing its ability to deliver care. Mobile clinics have appeared in some camps, but a UN report describes most as “insufficient.”

Waadulae, suffering from rabies, was treated at Dar Paing hospital, whose lone worker, Maung Maung Hla, was overwhelmed. “We have run out of antibiotics,” he said. “There is no malaria medicine. There’s no medicine for tuberculosis or diabetes. No vaccines. There’s no equipment to check peoples’ condition. There are no drips for people suffering from acute diarrhea.”

State spokesman Win Myaing said Arakanese doctors feared entering the camps. “It’s reached a stage where they say they’d quit their jobs before they would go to these places,” he said.

The treatment of the Rohingya contrasts with that of some 4,080 displaced ethnic Arakanese Buddhists in central Sittwe. They can leave their camps freely, work in the city, move in with relatives in nearby villages and rebuild, helped by an outpouring of aid from Burmese business leaders.

Hset Hlaing, 33, who survives on handouts from aid agencies at Thae Chaung camp, recalls how he earned 10,000 kyat ($11 a day) from a general-goods stall in Sittwe before his business and home went up in flames last June. Like other Muslims, he refuses to accept the term Bengali.

“I don’t want to go to another country. I was born here,” he says, sipping tea in a bamboo shack. “But if the government won’t accept us, we will leave. We’ll go by boat. We’ll go to a country that can accept us.”

12 Responses to In Burma, Apartheid Tactics against Minority Muslims

  1. What’s the problem with irrawaddy news? Immigration, police, etc have to carry out their works for illegal immigrants in every country all over the world. Go and observe other country’s immigration forces how they are controlling illegal immigrants. Fed up of this kind of creative stories which is just to start the fire for our native people. The President sent the clear message to the world already that those illegal immigrants will be arranged to send to any country which can feed these illegal population explosion. These people cannot stand on their own, cannot feed themselves and cannot feed their children. They are only making babies and give the world problem. Who can stop this restless baby production and illegal movement from Bangladesh originally? The earth has limited space and food, etc are also limited.

    • The Irrawaddy is being even handed posting this I reckon. German Traveller is correct in saying there’s more to this than meets the eye.

      It’s the classic Arab and His Camel tale. So the backlash is hardly surprising. A colonial power letting in aliens across the border and badly managed by the independent state compounded by corrupt officials and unscrupulous politicians buying votes. Would that kind of thing ever happen across the Rio Grande?

  2. Mr. Jason Szep,
    Again: You do not understand the fundamental problem in Rakhine State with the “Rohingya”.They are Bengali and function as spearhead of (political-religious) Islamization in West Myanmar. All border areas to Bangladesh are populated with 94 % Moslems and only 6 % Buddhists. These figures outline clearly what happens there: Expansion of Islam and rolling back of the Buddhist natives who naturally are provoked to a counter reaction. It spoils nothing to say that the Buddhists have reacted in SELF DEFENCE. A natural reaction to a gradual Islamic expansion (starting from overpopulated neighbour country Bangladesh) and clearly to be seen in the context of political-religious strategies. The real wrongdoers are ambitious Islamic leaders in the background who misguide pitiful cohorts of their religious affiliation.

  3. “President Thein Sein, a former general, said in a May 6 televised speech his government was committed to creating “a peaceful and harmonious society in Rakhine [Arakan] State.”

    Dear Jason, there is no question about Government is trying to negotiate between Buddhist community and Muslim community for peaceful living side by side two community.
    However, it does not mean some of illegal Bengali migrants will be resettle permanent with local Buddhist Rakhine peoples because their immigration status and local Buddhist Rakhine peoples wish. If you resettle those illegal Bengali migrants near the local Rakhine peoples and then there will be another communal riot in Rakhine state.

    You can not compare Balkan with Rakhine state. In Balkan region, the Muslims are local peoples who were forcefully converted to Muslim by Ottoman emperor in 15 or 16 century. In Rakhine state, those illegal Bengali Migrants are from Bangladesh and they illegal entered and settle in Rakhine state recently.
    Last week, 8 Bengali men from Bangladesh who disguised as Buddhist monk were caught in Ann Township in Rakhine. They have paid 1.5 millions Kyat to human trafficker to go to Rangoon. Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh have been trying entering into Burma everyday via border with Bangladesh and India. Also Bengali Muslims using Burma as transit for many decades. Some Bengalis were illegally settled in Rakhine state and some Bengalis were gone to Thailand and Malaysia.
    If you believe Rohingya and Rohingya language is exist and then you should go to visit Chittagong. Rohingya language is in fact Chittagonian Bengali Language. It’s Chittagong dialect of Bengali language.

    The group of Bengali in overseas and inside Burma is inventing Rohingya story for many decades. First they said Rohingya ethnic is descendent of shipwreck Arab Merchants who were saved by local Rakhine peoples in unknown century and local Rakhine women. They have changed another story as Rohingya ethnic settled in Rakhine before Rakhine peoples arrived in Raklhine after first one was shot down by historians.

    You may want to know why illegal Bengali Migrants in Burma is inventing Rohingya story.
    Basic qualify for automatic (indigenous ethnic) Citizenship in both Union Citizenship ACT1948 and National Citizenship Law 1982 are same it said { “any of the indigenous races of Burma” shall mean the Arakanese, Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon or Shan race and such racial group as has settled in any of the territories included within the Union as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1823 A. D. (1185 B.E.). }
    That’s why illegal Bengali migrants are trying to prove they are indigenous of Burma by inventing difference Rohingya story.
    They can be one of indigenous ethnics of Burma. It means Bangladeshi Government needs to give back Chittagong and Chittagong Hill Tracts to original owner Rakhine peoples of Burma.
    That is only situation can change illegal Bengali migrants to becoming one of indigenous ethnics of Burma.
    Sittagong (in Burmese) or Chittagong (in Bengali) was built by Buddhist Lama in 5 century in Rakhine Kingdom. Muslim started trading with Sittagong in 9 century and they invaded in 15 century. However, Sittagong was changing hands between Muslim and Rakhine King until first Anglo – Burmese war in 19 century. Burmese king had successful defeated over British invasion in Assam state and Manipur state. Great Burmese General Maha Bandoola defeated Anglo – Indian Army in Panwa, Sittagong and British pulled back it army to Calcutta. In the end, Burma lost all three Wars to British because of we do not have modern weapons.
    British had colonized Burma but it does not mean British Colony Government has power to given away sovereignty land of Burma to India and today Bangladesh.

    Dear Jason, it’s my personal feeling as Burmese ethnic about lost of their sovereign land to other country. Rakhine peoples have strong feeling than I have because those lands are historically belonging to them.
    So illegal Bengali migrants ‘invasion into Rakhine is not easy to ignore for them.
    If you want to write about Rakhine and then you should write fairly and learn about Rakhine and Burmese history.

    Illegal Bengali Migrants issue is nothing to do with racist or oppression on minority ethnic group.
    I personally believe second generation of descendents of illegal Bengali Migrants should be given naturalized Burmese citizenship if they do not have committed any crimes in the past. To given all illegal Bengali migrants to citizenship is impossible in any country on the earth. However, to recognize Bengali ethnic as Rohingya new indigenous ethnic in Burma will not be happened in any Burmese Government. So President U Thein Sein Government will decide who is eligible and who is not eligible for naturalized citizenship on 1982 Burma Nationality Law.
    By the way, Burmese peoples and Burmese Government will not be tolerated for bully by OIC, HRW and Medias.
    Burmese is sovereignty country and it has Immigration Law.

  4. It is not just to the Bengali people, the Burmese junta has been practicing apartheid to ethnics. Maybe even worse. Ethnic cleansing happens to the Karens and to the Kachins for the last 60 years. They demanded for democracy and federal system but they got death from the Burmese junta. The Union of Burma was formed for Federal System but the Burmese cheated and they ruled the Union with unitary system. The current regime is closely watched where it is leading the Union. So far, it is going nowhere near to federal Union which members of the Union, ethnics want to see.

  5. Irrawaddy has become Bengalis’ media always sympathizing with them and presenting their feelings and opinions but never in favour of the suffering native Arakanese. Shame on you, Irawaddy. Actually you should call yourself Huseinwaddy.

  6. I wonder how much Jason was paid to write this. Shame!

  7. This article has some useful facts and so, commendable.
    But apartheid is a wrong word, It was not the Arakanese who segregated the so-named-themselves Rohangya. It was them who have been living in a separate and distinct community, distinguishing themselves as non-Arakan or non-Burman. See, 99% of them do not speak the local Arakanese. And they are 96-98% majority where they thrive and breed fast. And Some of them have money, or substantive financial assistance from their religious organizations overseas as well as relatives, to buy land and estates. From looks, language and human relationship, they are not Arakanese, and they like it that way, not the other way round. The araqkanese themselves traditionally are a reserved sort of race, but can mix well with others, like the Burman majority.
    Just please try to ask this subjective question to a so-called Rohangya. “Is there a way you can be socially adaptable with the other local communities?”
    You must speak Bangali to listen to a Bangali in Burma. A translation can be tempered with.
    We have our own bad people. They can be as violent as any other race in the world. But that is not the way we would like to be in. The local immigration and other authorities were said to be at fault in the past 50 years or so. But the law is there for every one to abide by.
    The hospital mentioned in the article is just like those in rural Burma. Hospitals in Yangon could be just as bad if you do not have enough money. It isn’t apartheid.
    When two persons (or communities) quarrel, theoretically at least, both sides are at fault. But all must live within bounds of the local law.
    Overseas agencies, particularly the HRW (you may be well meaning), please understand that. We will be grateful if you can relax in your one-sided views and help settle the local hardships with a responsibility you bear as media and humanitarian agencies. Because if you side with one, the other side is hurt.

  8. Rohingyas are native of northern Arakan. They are NOT illegal immigrants from Bangladesh(BD). The people of BD are more fortunate than Rohingya. So, no people from BD migrate to poor Burma. History can prove that Rohingya have been there since Burma exists.

  9. Spots-on comments. I agree with them.
    I wrote a comment from the e-mail news letter. But it appears not posted.
    Never mind, I am content with the comments above. Thank you.
    But please do not apply the word “apartheid” to the Rakhine situation.
    There may be some racism, but it is not an official policy or not what is in the minds of ordinary Myanmar citizens (nor the politicians). Apartheid was the policy and practice of the minority Caucasian government of South Africa in the earlier part of the 20th century and earlier.
    Kindly see the difference.

  10. what happening today in rakhine with rohingya ethnic can compare-able with balkan kosovo and Rwanda.rohingya ethnic status was stripped by mad dictator,every consecutive ruler destroyed whatever left for rohingya in rakhine and branded them by mad dictator version of Bengali.with magh rakhine chauvinist gang support many more radical extremist joint hand in the country for dehumanized,humiliate rohingya ethnic in rakhine,Myanmar Muslim in the country. true history cannot change by any extremist, radical, mad historian and politician, truth is rohingya ethnic are not Bengali,rohingya are ethnic of Union Once reorganized by democratic government until 1962.extremist in the country,government of the day,Nazi RNDP party,followers of violent monks must stop ethnic cleansing,genocide against rohingya,Myanmar Muslim in the country.

  11. Proud Citizen of Myanmar

    Angry Man,
    (indigenous) Ethnic People were not alone. Burmese were also oppressed by the regime for decades. The whole Burma demonstrated and demanded for Democracy Reform in 1988 and they were rewarded being shot to death. Burmese always spearhead the revolution in history (learn the history !) . They did, are doing and will always. They unitedly stand to stop Myit Sone dam in Kachin State and support Rakhine community in Crisis. Don’t show your ego, it’s a shameful act.

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