A Boat Trip to Maungdaw

A young woman works at a fish market in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State. (Photo: Sanay Lin / The Irrawaddy)

ARAKAN STATE — It’s a five-hour boat ride and then a short drive from the Arakan State capital to Maungdaw, a predominately Muslim township in the country’s west that became a major concern for the Burmese government following allegations that dozens of people were killed there last month.

Setting off from Sittwe early in the morning, a boat winds north along Kaladan river, packed with hundreds of passengers, and then connects with Mayou River as it heads west. Most passengers are Arakan State natives, traveling to a destination where foreign tourists are banned, and where international NGOs have sought access in recent weeks but have largely been denied.

For entertainment on a journey earlier this month, a video played from a television on board. The program of choice was a Buddhist dhamma talk, featuring a senior monk who was a member of the nationalist 969 movement, which opposes interfaith marriage and urges people in Buddhist-majority Burma to shun Muslim businesses.

Passengers listened as the monk spread messages of fear, warning that Muslim men were trying to bolster their numbers in the country, in part by marrying multiple wives and having many children. “Look at Pakistan, which was Buddhist in the past. It has become a Muslim country because the Muslims have such a large population. Our people need to be careful,” the monk said.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric has become common in Arakan State, especially since 2012, when two bouts of inter-communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims left scores dead and about 140,000 people displaced. The majority of victims were Rohingya, a Muslim minority that faces severe discrimination because local Buddhists allege that they came illegally from neighboring Bangladesh, although many trace their roots in Burma back generations.

“We feel we are going to have a war with them. We heard their armed groups have been active along the border, and that this will spread,” says Thein Tun Aye, an Arakanese Buddhist in Sittwe, referring to government claims that the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), an Islamist militant group, was involved in the killing of a policeman in Maungdaw last month.

In Sittwe, a coastal town of some 180,000 people, Buddhists and Muslims have been segregated since the violence in 2012, with many Muslims confined to a ghetto-like neighborhood known as Aung Mingalar. That’s where Rohingya rights activist Aung Win must go whenever he wants to visit his parents, offering money to officials in order to enter. “I pay security forces a bribe of 20,000 kyats [US$20] every time,” he tells The Irrawaddy, adding that his own home is in Bume Quarter, also in Sittwe.

About an hour’s drive from the town, thousands of people continue to take shelter in camps after being displaced by the violence. They have received limited assistance from the government and international humanitarian organizations, but some say they struggle to feed their families.

“We do not have enough food here. I’m especially worried for my children,” says Zohra, a 30-year-old Muslim woman who lives in Thetkepyin camp. She says she is afraid to return to her home in Sittwe and will continue to live in the camp, despite the poor conditions.

In many ways, Sittwe seems a world away from Maungdaw, where Buddhists are a small minority compared with Muslims. The township is known in the state as the “western gate,” with Buddhists claiming that it is the entry point for illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

A river demarcates the two countries, and Rohingya fishermen work on boats to haul in their daily catch with nets.

During The Irrawaddy’s visit earlier this month, a teenage boy said he earns about 2,000 kyats ($2) per day but can sometimes make about 5,000 kyats if he’s lucky. In a group of about 20 people, only two fishermen spoke Burmese.

The Burmese government built a fence to block illegal immigrants from entering the country. The fence included barbed wire at a security compound, but not far away the wire had been removed, with large gaps between the poles in the ground. A police officer with the border guard security force, speaking on condition of anonymity and requesting not to be photographed, said the fence stretched for almost 5 kilometers.

About 15 minutes away from the river by motorbike is the town of Maungdaw, home to 23,000 people, of whom about 20,000 are Muslim. At the call to prayer, bearded men in long white tunics walk together to a mosque, while women wear black niqabs that leave only their eyes visible. Earlier this month, the town appeared busy but peaceful during the day. At night, however, the roads were quiet. After dark, Buddhists could be found walking the streets, but most Muslim residents remained inside.

Tensions have lingered after allegations of violence in Du Chee Yar Tan village, about 45 minutes away from Maungdaw town by motorbike. The village in southern Maungdaw Township was allegedly where more than 40 Rohingyas were killed by a Buddhist mob last month, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Burma government has vehemently denied these killings, but Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a medical humanitarian organization, says it treated 22 wounded people in the village in the days following the alleged attack.

Security officials warn outsiders not to enter Du Chee Yar Tan alone.

“They do not trust other people except Muslims. So, if you are going inside the village, it will be dangerous for you,” police lieutenant Wai Phyo Zaw told The Irrawaddy, adding that he would send no less than 10 well-armed officers into the area for any operation.

The Irrawaddy went ahead and investigated the situation in Du Chee Yar Tan. Read more here.

6 Responses to A Boat Trip to Maungdaw

  1. Who said there are illegal immigrants in the area of Maungdaw and Buthidung? It is ilogical. Non of Bangladeshi peoples stays here because Bangladesh is more advance than Arakan also have foreign investment and develop. Arakan is under develop and no Bangladeshi wants to stay there.

    Undeniable fact is that Arakan was once upon a time influenced by Mogul Empire of present day India. Lack of historical knowledge and studies can not provide productive result. hatred can not get development. Muslims of Arakan are the native sons of Arakan from the time of Narameikhla, the Arakanese King. Who can deny the fact? Please read Saya U San Tha Aung’s Danyawaddy History and Sauadaw U Nyana written the history of Arakan.

  2. The Irrawaddy brings the real truth to the world. We Rohingyas appreciate your reports because they are always unbiased and truthful, dedicated and selfless devoted to duty according to the media ethics.
    We Rohingyas will never turn ourselves away from Hope, courage and confidence. We know we must accept infinite disappointment, but never lose infinite Hope. Because Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.

  3. In recent days we have seen a good number of Bangladeshis with the illegal rohingyas arrested in Malaysia and Thailand and elsewhere. If the Bangladeshis didn’t intrude illegally and if they don’t have a nexus with the rohingyas, how could they be found together? Besides during the old days of the Rakhine kingdom there were Bengalis, Pathan, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch anDo you know why? It is because rohingya is a Bengali word meaning the Rakhaing, and such great Bengali literary figures as Alaol in his poems again and again reiterated it. So even if these rohingyas are Bengalis, why are they not identify themselves as such? The indigenous Muslims are there – the Kamans and many others. Rohinyga is a political name used by illegal Bengali intruders to claim a fictitious history and land of Rakhaing. Though a Bengali I support this theory, and sorry you rohingyas, you are like a black crow in peacock’s feathers!

  4. I read the 1st part of your narrative “A boat trip to Maungdaw” with great interest but the next part was not visible due to “Proxy publisher failure – decompression failed”. Is this a true technical problem or the result of some censorship?

    • jacqueline, for reasons unknown, the Irrawaddy has not finished translating this article, which was published in Burmese. In the Burmese version there is a mention of the villagers responding to the call in Arabic for a meet with their reporter. Answering only to an Arabic call has many implications: one is, whether the villagers are mixed with Arabic speaking islamists from elsewhere, say, Middle East. Because the Rohingya language is basically a Bengali dialect of Chittagong area. Though Bengali consists of many Arabic words, borrowed through the study of the Quran by the Muslims, there are many dialectal variations. Another implication is the Bengalis of Bangladesh who infiltrated into the area, as they speak Bengali, their vocabulary may have become mixed with some Arabic words.

    • I also can’t read the second part, without reading details report it is difficult to comments on it.

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