'Trauma Will Last Long Time': Ko Ko Gyi

By Lawi Weng 16 July 2012

It will take a long time to resolve the situation in Arakan State and to cure those who are now suffering from trauma and fear, said Ko Ko Gyi, the leader of the 88 Generation Students group, who was one of several representatives to visit the region last week to observe the situation on the ground and to provide food aid to victims of the violence.

“It might take a long time to treat all the victims,” he told The Irrawaddy on Monday. “Especially the Arakanese [Rakhine Buddhists] in Maungdaw Township. We found that they do not want to stay there any longer. They want to abandon their native towns and go to live somewhere else.”

Ko Ko Gyi said that his group only encountered displaced Arakanese Buddhists in shelters in the Maungdaw area, which was one of the major scenes of riots and the burning of houses over the past month.

“There are only Arakanese refugees in Maungdaw, unlike in Sittwe where both Bengalis [Rohingya Muslims] and Arakanese are staying in shelters,” he said. “We found that 97 percent of those still living in their own homes in Maungdaw are Bengalis.

“We visited Bengalis in camps in Sittwe and found they were living in poor and crowded conditions with a high population of children,” he said.

The 88 Generation Students leader said that his group discovered that every Arakanese Buddhist village in Maungdaw was burned down, as was every Buddhist temple.

According to Burma’s state press, at least 80 people were killed in the month-long violence and hundreds of houses were destroyed. The UNHCR said about 91,000 people have been made homeless, a majority of whom are currently sheltering in temporary camps.

“An old Arakanese man told me that he wanted to leave his native town because Buddhist people were a minority and the situation was too scary,” said Ko Ko Gyi. “This is despite the fact that the land and water of the area is Arakanese.”

Ko Ko Gyi told The Irrawaddy that his group’s surveillance of the situation in Arakan State left them with the impression that local authorities handled the conflict very poorly. He said the government must settle the issue of the citizenship law properly before the country can return to peace.

He said his organization will continue to provide aid to homeless people, both Buddhist and Muslim, in the region, and that it had hosted a public donation ceremony on Sunday in Rangoon.

In early June, Ko Ko Gyi accused “neighboring countries” of fueling the unrest in Arakan State, and stated categorically that the 88 Generation group will not recognize the Rohingyas as an ethnicity of Burma. He said that his organization and its followers are willing to take up arms alongside the military in order to fight back against “foreign invaders.”

Chris Lewa, the director of Arakan Project which works closely with the Rohingya community in Arakan State, responded to Ko Ko Gyi’s statement by saying, “It is regrettable that prominent Burmese human rights activists portray Muslim communities in Arakan State as foreign troublemakers, suggesting that they are the main perpetrators of such ethno-religious violence when they are actually the main victims. Minority rights are human rights, and should be recognised and respected to achieve true democracy in Burma.”

Burma’s presidential office released a statement on July 12, a day after Thein Sein held talks with UNHCR head Antonio Guterres. It said it could not accept illegal immigrants [such as the Rohingyas] and urged the UN to take responsibility for them.

Local authorities brought three UN aid workers before a court in Maungdaw last week, one of whom was charged with treason while another was released. A total of 12 local aid workers, a majority of whom work for international agencies such as the UN and Médecins Sans Frontières, were arrested and detained in June, accused of involvement in the unrest.

New York-based Human Rights Watch released a press statement on July 5 saying “local police, the military, and a border security force known as Nasaka have committed numerous abuses in predominantly Muslim townships.”

It urged the Burmese government to “end arbitrary and incommunicado detention, and redeploy and hold accountable security forces implicated in serious abuses.”

Elaine Pearson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, “The Burmese government needs to put an immediate end to the abusive sweeps by the security forces against Rohingya communities. Anyone being held should be promptly charged or released, and their relatives given access.”

Burma’s security forces have been implicated in killings and other abuses against Muslim civilians since the sectarian violence in northern Arakan State began in early June, said Human Rights Watch, urging the Burmese authorities to ensure safe access to the area to the UN and independent humanitarian organizations.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the president of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, Eva Kusuma Sundari, slammed Burmese President Thein Sein in a press release for failing to respond to the sectarian violence in Arakan State, and said the Rohingya who have lived in Burma for generations must be recognised and granted citizenship. “I feel it is important to express my deep regret for the failure of the world to react appropriately to the killing and persecution of Muslim ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State,” she said.