Resentment Runs Deep in Arakan State

By Carlos Sardina Galache 22 November 2012

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SITTWE—Khin Mar Saw, a Muslim woman, arrived at Burma’s western coast near the Arakan State capital Sittwe late last month. She spent a grueling two-day journey on board a boat after escaping from the fishing town of Kyaukpyu on the evening of Oct. 23 as violence between Muslims and Buddhists engulfed the area.

Now the 42-year-old is one of the 40,000 or so people, the vast majority Muslim, displaced by the fighting. Khin Mar Saw now lives in her cousin’s house in a village in the Muslim area of town where tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) shelter alongside the local population.

Her husband was not so lucky. He left Kyuakpyu one day later and, after his boat reached the shore near Sittwe, was amongst a group that was not allowed to land by the authorities. They were left stranded on the beach, tightly controlled by the police. According to local sources, as many as 800 IDPs are still there, with precarious few shelters and not enough food or water.

Khin Mar Saw and her family are Muslim Kamans, one of the 135 ethnic groups that, in contrast with the Rohingya, are officially recognized as truly Burmese by the authorities. As such, she holds citizenship and even worked as a civil servant for 20 years.

The Kaman were largely spared during the first outburst of violence in June, which was concentrated on the Rohingya, but did not escape the October resurgence in places like Kyaukpyu, where they constitute a large section of the Muslim community.

She tells her story with a trembling voice and cannot repress tears when recalling the death of her son Ibrahim. She says that he was killed while trying to stop a fire in one of the mosques of East Pikesake, a Muslim majority quarter razed to the ground during the clashes. On the evening of Oct. 23, she was running to the boats with her other children when she was told that her son had been shot by the police.

Ahmed, a 31-year-old Rohingya fisherman from East Pikesake who has now taken refuge in Baw Dhu Pa Village, near Sittwe, was one of the men trying to stop the fire that night. He says that he saw his cousin Mohammed shot dead in the neck while throwing water onto the flames from the mosque’s roof. Three other men were shot and immediately taken to another building in the mosque compound, he claims, adding that the shooting came from where the police were deployed and nobody else had firearms.

According to these witnesses and many others in the Muslim camps and villages, Arakanese mobs attacked them in Kyaukpyu and other places after several days of threats. Many claim that all attackers, or at least what appeared to be the ringleaders, were outsiders hitherto unknown locally.

Rumors circulated regarding radical Arakanese mobs roaming the state inciting violence against Muslims. In one hotel in Kyaukpyu, The Irrawaddy was shown a video by a young local NGO worker that contained images of Buddhists training with sticks. “We have to protect ourselves,” said another member of the NGO, visibly unhappy because his colleague had let us see these images, before adding, “but this is just for show, it’s not real training.” Arakanese people interviewed in Kyaukpyu tell a very different story from that of the Muslims. All of them claim that the Muslims were the aggressors and that they simply defended themselves.

Aye Mya Thanda, a 24-year-old girl who teaches in a monastery nearby and lives at the edge of the destroyed area, says that three young Muslim men she had known for years invaded her home and set it ablaze just moments before the violence began.

Her house is now almost completely destroyed and she lives with her parents, a retired Burman policeman and Arakanese housewife, in a hutch without a proper roof within the family compound.

Another neighbor, a 36-year-old rickshaw driver called Soe Naing, said that he saw one of his friends hit by a jinglee (iron dart shot by catapult) launched from the Muslim side. When asked why only Muslim houses are now burnt if they launched the attack, while Arakanese homes remain largely intact, he said that the Muslims torched their own homes before fleeing to the boats. Regardless of who instigated the unrest, the fact remains that Kyaukpyu is now an ethnically cleansed town with its Muslim population virtually eliminated.

Soe Naing and other Arakanese witnesses in Kyaukpyu deny that the security forces shot against the Muslims or that they took sides with the Buddhists, but admitted that one hour after fighting commenced he saw 10 soldiers emerging from the Muslim ward who told them to go back to their houses.

Matthew Smith, a researcher for Human Rights Watch touring the violence-hit area, said that “there is evidence to suggest security forces were involved in killings and other abuses in this most recent round of violence, and that is especially concerning five months after the unrest began.”

Regardless of the role that the army and police played during the violence in October, it is clear that the authorities are dispensing a very different treatment to the IDPs of the two sides.

There are not only many fewer Arakanese IDPs, but they also enjoy a freedom of movement as well as facilities and services that the Rohingya can only dream of. For instance, there are two military doctors and two nurses to treat the 150 IDPs sheltered in the Than Pyu Monastery in Kyaukpyu.

Meanwhile, healthcare in the grim Rohingya camps is woefully inadequate. IDPs in the Baw Dhu Pa camp told The Irrawaddy that the government sends just a single doctor once a week who only provides paracetamol to cure any ailment. In Tat Kal Pyin Village there is a makeshift clinic staffed by seven volunteers from Rangoon who are overstretched attending hundreds of patients every day.

The lack of food or clothes is not much of an issue in the Arakanese camps. And the freedom that the Buddhists enjoy allows them to continue their economic activities, so they can send donations to the IDPs. Thus a local NGO, Wan-Lark Foundation, delivered dozens of packages with clothes to the IDPs in Kyaukpyu and other places.

On the other hand, malnutrition and diseases like tuberculosis and diarrhea are rife in the Muslim camps. The madrasa of Tat Kal Pyin has been turned into a shelter for 1,400 IDPs. Residents complained to The Irrawaddy that they depend mostly on donations from impoverished local residents and sometimes go for up to five days without food.

Many adults and children show clear symptoms of malnutrition. In the Muslim area outside Sittwe, cases like that of Noor Kayis, a child suffering from severe malnutrition who was homeless even before her birth four months ago, are far from an exception.

Problems in the Muslim camps are compounded by the hostility that international agencies and NGOs are facing from the Arakanese community. An aid worker who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “After nine years of experience working in several countries under the most difficult circumstances, I have never felt so much hatred from the community.”

Thein Tun Aye, co-founder of the Wan-Lark Foundation, believes that international NGOs are biased in favor of the “Bengali Muslims.” He said that aid workers should renounce the name “Rohingya” and instead use “Kalar,” a term he claimed did not have any negative connotation yet is widely accepted to be a general insult for anyone with dark skin.

Thein Tun Aye said that his foundation would be ready to support international NGOs, but that they have to be transparent.To make his point, he claimed that a Rohingya working for Doctors Without Borders had ties with extremist groups.

The man in question was Kyaw Hla Aung, a veteran lawyer and activist for Rohingya rights who was detained by the Burmese authorities in June. He was cleared of any wrongdoing and released in August and is now an IDP living in the Muslim settlement near Sittwe.

His house was destroyed in June by a mob and he was detained shortly afterwards when the police claimed that an al-Qaeda-linked document was found among his belongings. He defends himself vehemently saying that the material was planted and denies any link with foreign extremist organizations.

The violence during recent months has deepened distrust between Muslims and Buddhists to such degree that a peaceful coexistence seems impossible. Aye Mya Thanda, the young teacher in one of Kyaukpyu’s monasteries, echoed a common mantra heard among many Arakanese when she says that it is not possible to live with Muslims anymore, including the Kamans, and that they should be sent far from Arakan State.

This sentiment finds its counterpart in the desire of many Muslims to leave the country. Khin Mar Saw, the Kaman mother of the boy who lost his life trying to stop the fire in the East Piksake, lamented that Muslims can no longer live in Burma and asked The Irrawaddy if applying for asylum in Europe was an option.

Nevertheless, there are some Arakanese who believe that a return to coexistence might be possible, but they cannot express themselves openly. Mahmood, a 73-year-old Rohingya IDP from a small fishing village near Kyaukpyu, confessed that he is in regular contact with an Arakanese elder and old friend from his village who secretly phoned to tell him that he will divulge when it is safe to return.

Both sides see themselves as victims of the other and the Burmese government. The local historian Aung Kyaw Zan complained that the Arakanese have been historically “squeezed between Burmanization and Islamization” and have to fight for their identity in the face of those “two powerful empires.” He supported his claims against the Rohingya with examples from history, citing an insurgency that fought for an independent Muslim state that disappeared five decades ago.

Aung Kyaw Zan blamed international media of paying more attention to the plight of the Rohingyas, a term he and most Arakanese do not accept. “After the coup in 1988, the foreign media accepted the term ‘Rohingya’ because they didn’t like the military regime, but they don’t know our history,” he said.

A member of a local NGO complained that “the Rohingya are stateless, but we the Rakhines are voiceless,” referring to a perceived lack of space for their grievances in the international media. He blamed the recent violence on the government who “uses the Rohingya as its dogs” to distract from Arakanese nationalist demands, especially now that some activists are opposing megaprojects planned for the region, and particularly in some areas hit by violence in October.

In any case, this absolute distrust between both communities is perhaps only new in its intensity. U Baddiya, the 69-year-old abbot of Than Pyu Monastery in Kyaukpyu, said there was never any communication between Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders. He said that Muslim leaders never tried to contact him, but recognized that he never tried to contact them either.

He said proudly that his monastery has a tradition of sheltering refugees, and that it housed 800 people during Cyclone Giri in 2010. When asked if he would consider giving shelter to Muslims on such occasions, he answered that he has given food to Muslims in the past but that he would not accept them in the monastery. He added that this situation would be impossible anyway, as Islam forbids Muslims to go to any non-Muslim temple or monastery. When asked, several Arakanese Muslims denied that such an injunction exists in the Islam they practice.

There is a deep ignorance within both communities regarding the other that the policy of absolute segregation applied by the authorities since June is doing nothing to remedy. Both Muslims and Buddhists consistently told The Irrawaddy that they lived peacefully and amiably before the violence first broke out in June.

But now there is no daily interaction between these estranged communities, and both are abuzz with rumors depicting the other people as little more than blood-thirsty monsters. It seems that each day of segregation will only make it more difficult for Buddhists and Muslims to live together ever again.

Some names and personal details in this article have been altered for security reasons.