In Burma, Hell in a Very Small Place
By David Scott Mathieson 1 October 2015
There is no starker evidence of the ethnic cleansing that rocked the Arakan State capital, Sittwe, in Burma in 2012 than the Rohingya Muslim enclave of Aung Mingalar.
Crammed into a couple short blocks in the town center, ringed by police and army checkpoints, Aung Mingalar was a middle-class neighborhood of traders and shop owners with Buddhist and Hindu neighbors before the communal violence that killed hundreds and displaced over 140,000.
One village elder told me the people of Aung Mingalar defended the perimeter from Arakanese Buddhist attackers “and the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] arrived in time and we worked together to save our area.”
Since then, Aung Mingalar has been closed off from the rest of the city—and essentially the rest of the world. With the population down from 8,000 in 2012, it now contains 4,500 residents who live in almost total isolation.
Many children look malnourished. There are open sewers. Many residents, who might smile at the few foreigners granted permission to visit, look scared and haunted. Many expressed fear of being attacked again by their Buddhist neighbors living just streets away.
Government officials appear genuine in guaranteeing the safety of the people here, and there have been no attacks since 2012. But that approach is clearly operating in parallel to a scheme to make life so miserable that residents will leave for rural camps or join the maritime exodus of Rohingya that dramatically increased in 2015.
The enclave has a primary school and some rudimentary shops. A couple of times a week, residents can visit markets to buy food in the camp zone for internally displaced people that rings Sittwe, where 95,000 Rohingya live—but they have to pay for a police security escort.
The government has presented the people of Aung Mingalar with a cruel Catch-22 in what passes for citizenship policy in Burma. After being granted voting rights in the 2008 referendum and the 2010 elections, many Rohingya were this year stripped of their temporary ID cards, a mass disenfranchisement.
They have been urged to enter a verification process to determine their citizenship eligibility, but can succeed only as long as they identify themselves as “Bengali,” not Rohingya, and can miraculously qualify under the draconian 1982 Citizenship Law. Even if some get full citizenship, this is unlikely to guarantee full respect for their rights as anti-Muslim ultra-nationalism grows in Burma.
As the people of Sittwe head to vote in the national elections on November 8, the people of Aung Mingalar, in their isolation and squalor, will look out and see clearly the government’s intention to deny them their basic freedoms.
David Scott Mathieson is Senior Researcher, Asia Division, with Human Rights Watch. This article first appeared here as one of HRW’s “dispatches.”