May Sitt Paing: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the safety and rehabilitation of women who are facing difficulty since violence broke out in Rakhine State on August 25. Writer Thway (Sagaing) and The Irrawaddy English edition senior reporter Nyein Nyein will join me for the discussion. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese edition senior reporter May Sitt Paing.
Violence broke out in Rakhine State on August 25, and Ma Nyein Nyein, you went there to cover the issue. Can you recount your experience?
Nyein Nyein: I did not arrive there immediately after the conflict began, but four or five days later. My arrival [in Rakhine State] coincided with the government’s guided tour for reporters to Maungdaw. One of my colleagues from The Irrawaddy was on that tour, so I stayed in Sittwe. I saw displaced persons from Maungdaw and Buthidaung flocking into Sittwe. Most of them were women, pregnant women, the elderly and children. They are still taking shelter at monasteries and relief camps [in Sittwe].
MSP: It is women and children who bear the brunt of the conflict in Rakhine State. They suffer not only from severe mental trauma but also physical assault. What is your view on this and what are your suggestions, Ma Thway?
Thway: First, we should take a humanitarian point of view and see them as victims regardless of race or religion. There are victims in both communities [Buddhist and Muslim], especially women and children. Schools in Maungdaw were closed due to the conflict, so children have been out of school. And people were forced to leave behind their livelihoods, such as farms. Those experiences will haunt them for a long time, especially the children. Childhood mental trauma can persist into adulthood. So it is important that they deal with this trauma.
As for the physical assaults … ethnic people dare not return to live in their villages now. The government needs to help guarantee security, for children to go to school and women to work in farms or elsewhere. There is also a need for compensation for people who lost their homes in fires. The government should perhaps seek international assistance to rebuild these homes.
It must also consider how to prevent future clashes. This is important. For now, both the government and civil society organizations [CSOs] are providing help. This is just a short-term solution, and the government needs to think about long-term solutions. The government must take a systematic approach to rehabilitation, and have long-term plans for the rehabilitation of women and children.
More importantly, it must take steps to address the deep-seated fear in the two communities. Local people must be able to access education. Only then will the tendency to buy into rumors or adopt extremist attitudes gradually decline. When society is educated and long-term rehabilitation programs are carried out, the per capita income of women will increase. There must also be family planning and birth control so that mothers are choosing to have children and they can be well taken care of.
MSP: Women at relief camps and stranded in some villages live in fear. What have you heard from them?
NN: I managed to talk to women from both communities, both Buddhists and Muslims from Maungdaw, at relief camps. Both sides are afraid. It is, however, very difficult to verify their statements. When reporters conducted interviews at the camps, others gathered around as well to ask questions. Volunteers doing relief work listened, and villagers from various locations gathered around to hear. There were people who had fled from ethnic villages and Na Ta La villages [villages established by the former Minister of Progress of Border Affairs and National Races Department known by the Burmese acronym Na Ta La].
They were curious about what had happened in other villages. But outside of those who were curious, there might be others who came to listen to find fault. Nobody really knows. It seemed as though people were concerned that they would be harmed by security forces if they spoke carelessly. I found that the two communities blamed each other, so I can’t guarantee that either sides’ statements were 100 percent true. I can’t know. But, what is true is that they are in trouble.
They were forced to flee when militants attacked security forces. They are afraid. This attack was bad. There were coordinated attacks on security outposts carried out simultaneously. So, ethnic people, themselves being minorities in that region, are scared. They are afraid of being attacked and don’t even know who to fear. According to some accounts, perpetrators had their faces covered with black cloth. So, they assumed they were from the other community but they don’t know exactly who they were.
Because they fear for their lives and safety, some have decided to stay in Sittwe even if starting over is difficult there. Some women said the government forced them to return to their homes when things started to return to normalcy after incidents in 2012 and 2016. And they went back. But nobody can guarantee their security. Unless and until authorities and security forces stabilize the region and guarantee that people can live without fear, women live in fear of being killed, attacked or harassed. They have fear because they are a minority, and that fear can be exploited.
MSP: What do you think of the health situation, food supplies and security for women at the camps?
NN: In the first few camps, I saw that they were segregated. Most of them had left behind all their possessions and had only the clothes on their backs. It is good for displaced persons talking shelter at camps in urban areas that philanthropic organizations can come and help them. They receive help to some extent.
Regarding health care, the rural development department of the government surveyed the number of displaced persons last week and provided relief supplies in Sittwe. But according to the accounts of most of the interviewees either from relief camps or stranded villages, what the government mostly gives first is a carton of MaMa brand instant noodles. The women say they don’t want noodles, they want a guarantee of safety. They don’t want the government to come and try to appease them with noodles.
MSP: According to what Ma Nyein Nyein has said, women at the camps are feeling downhearted and afraid. What they need is real assistance from the government. I’ve read in news reports that some of the displaced persons in camps have lost one or more of their family members in the violence. Ma Thway, what measures should be taken to revive their spirits?
Thway: They will only pour their hearts out to those who they trust. I think that counselling should be provided for them. The government should seek the help of professional psychiatrists and ask them to talk to and comfort displaced women taking shelter at camps as if they were their mothers and sisters in order to develop intimacy with them. This will relieve their trauma to some extent.
Another thing is that they feel unsafe and overwhelmed by fear because of the conflict. The most important thing is—let me quote State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi here—a society is overwhelmed by fear because there is no rule of law. Therefore, perpetrators of the violence must be given suitable punishment.
It is also necessary for the government to provide legal protection for children – who are the country’s future – and mothers, regardless of race and religion. The law is not only about punishing perpetrators but also providing legal protection for victims. Only then will rule of law be realized. If so, people will be free from fear and worry, and the lives of women will improve. Then, Rakhine State will develop. The government should take correct and sustainable approaches in establishing rule of law. The government should consult with psychiatrists who can provide counselling and take necessary action. Then, I believe that fear could be dispelled.
MSP: Ma Nyein Nyein, what do you think the government should do?
NN: Many people have been displaced. According to UN figures, there are more than 290,000 [now estimates are around 400,000] displaced persons. They have been fleeing continuously. Speaking of people trapped in villages, last week, entire villages left their homes and stayed together in different villages. They dared not stay alone, as they thought it would be safer to stay in a group in case something happened. But they couldn’t leave.
Some who phoned me from there said they were afraid of mines that have not been cleared away. They said they wanted to go back home but couldn’t because of the mines. Most of them are civil servants. Some come from other areas of Rakhine State or other parts of the country. The government could not evacuate most of them, even though they were able to evacuate some with helicopters. But, most of them remain in their villages but no security plan in place.
The government can only provide limited security in the villages. So, locals asked where security forces were. They had heard that there were large military deployments in the area. They questioned why security forces couldn’t at least clear mines if they could not provide security for them. I heard that mines were cleared in morning. These mines planted by militants are said to be improvised mines. If security forces were afraid of clearing those improvised mines, what would happen if those mines were heavy explosive mines? The government should listen to the villagers’ fears in order to ease their worry.
MSP: Thank you for your contributions!