RANGOON — It’s a modest life, but it’s a lot better than what came before.
Father-of-two U Khin Maung Shwe works as a motorcycle taxi driver outside Rangoon. His wife, Daw Ni La, runs a small shop.
They get by mainly on their own efforts, and that’s important to the Kaman Muslim family who came to Htauk Kyan village in Mingaladon Township three years ago, hoping to escape the tough conditions they experienced in the Ramree camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Arakan State for three years.
“It was very restrictive there. We had to rely on food from donors. And we couldn’t move about freely like we can here.”
By contrast, life in Rangoon feels safe, and free, he said. The couple can see a future. They hope to save money, and to send their children to school.
The sudden eruption of violence between members of the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Arakan State in 2012 resulted in around 112 deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of whom were Muslims who identify as Rohingyas.
The Muslim Kaman community were also deeply affected, with thousands placed in camps in Ramree, Kyaukphyu and Sittwe townships, for their “safety” according to authorities.
The Kaman are classified as one of Burma’s 135 official ethnic groups and one of seven ethnic subgroups of Arakan State. The total community numbers only around 45,000 people, according to estimates of the Kaman National Progressive Party (KNPP).
Most come from Thandwe, Kyaukphyu, Ramree, Sittwe and Myaybon townships in Arakan State and there are significant communities in Rangoon and Mandalay. Around 12,000 lived in Rangoon prior to 2012, according to the KNPP.
After the 2012 violence, the community increasingly found itself isolated and in an uneasy relationship with elements of both the Buddhist community and the Muslim Rohingya community.
Some 4,000 Kaman fled from camps or other locations to Mandalay and Rangoon in the immediate aftermath of the initial communal violence, the KNPP estimates.
Since then, another 2,000 joined them in the flight to Burma’s two largest cities, according to the party. Among them were a number in 2015 who were granted National Verification Cards and allowed to travel, Kyaukphyu Township administrator U Nyi Nyi Lin told The Irrawaddy.
No Way Home?
Promises from both the previous government and the current administration that the Kaman could return to their former homes in Ramree, Kyaukphyu, and Sittwe have failed to materialize.
Hundreds of families from Kyauktalone camp in Kyaukphyu owned properties in the western part of the township, including in the Thanpan Chaung, Myitnartan, Ahyarchi quarters.
Some properties were destroyed during the violence of 2012. Other homes and properties remain intact, but authorities have discouraged the owners from returning, saying they could not guarantee returnees’ safety. A number of properties have been taken over by squatters.
“I went secretly a few times to find out the condition of my house in Ahyarchi quarter and saw that strangers were staying there. But I can’t say anything against them because I am an IDP,” said U Tin Maung Shwe who is living in Kyauktalone camp.
“I am really dissatisfied, but what can I do?” he said.
Over the years some Kaman IDPs have also leased their land or sold their houses, often at below-market rates to unscrupulous buyers who took advantage of their vulnerable positions.
“It should not be that way—authorities have a responsibility to oversee such problems and enforce the law on the ground,” said Kyaukphyu Rural Development Association coordinator U Tun Kyi.
Last week, authorities from Kyaukphyu did act to remove squatters from a previously burnt out area of eastern Pike Seik ward, locally known as a Muslim quarter. But any future return home of the original residents would be handled by the Union government, U Nyi Nyi Lin said.
Kaman representatives have been in talks with the government about relocation since the previous administration, with little result.
Last month they met Union Social Welfare minister Dr. Win Myat Aye who was on a visit to Arakan State.
According to U Tun Ngwe, Dr. Win Myat Aye and chief minister U Nyi Pu suggested during the meeting that authorities would return lost land and houses to Kaman.
“But the problem is that now there is no one remaining in Ramree except some civil servants, and a few people in Kyaukphyu,” said U Tun Ngwe of the Kaman Social Network.
Distrust Between Communities
U Tun Ngwe recalled a recent discussion between Arakan State’s border affairs minister U Htein Lin and Kaman political party and civil society representatives in which the minister said that relocation to places like downtown Kyaukphyu would “take time.”
Relations between the majority Buddhist community and the Kaman have soured since 2012, with some Buddhist community members accusing Kaman of assisting Rohingya Muslims to obtain “pink cards,” denoting full citizenship of Burma. U Tun Ngwe told The Irrawaddy that the issue was a result of “malpractice of some government officials”.
Relations also took a turn for the worse last year after two IDPs were accused of the rape of a Buddhist woman. The accusation occurred around the same time as the government was negotiating a resettlement project for Kaman.
U Tun Kyi remains positive still about future relocation prospects. “Many of the old relationships [in the community] remain stable,” the Kyaukphyu rural development coordinator said.
“It’s fair enough that they demand to be relocated to their place of origin,” he said, adding that most Kaman from Kyaukphyu worked as laborers and could not survive in areas where fishing is the main source of livelihoods.
But in reality, in the immediate term the authorities are looking to rehouse Kaman in new, yet to be determined locations, according to township administrator U Nyi Nyi Lin.
Meanwhile, Kaman still languishing in camps after five years are continuing to seek the best of a poor set of options, and the camps are gradually emptying.
Kyauktalone camp now houses around 1,100 people, down from a former 1,900 with around 800 having left for Rangoon in the last five years, U Nyi Nyi Lin said.
Only four or five families remain in the Ramree camp, which once housed 800 people, according to KNPP secretary U Tin Hlaing Win.
In April, around 130 people from Ramree camp arrived in Rangoon, with some having received financial assistance from the Arakan State government, said U Tun Ngwe. According to one new arrival, the assistance included air tickets, cash assistance of 500,000 kyat for each family and an additional 100,000 kyat per family member.
Some of the Rangoon arrivals are living in Hlaing Thayar Township and in downtown areas where they seek to find work as casual laborers.
Others have received support from the Kaman Social Network and U Tun Ngwe, who has provided many families with homes and jobs on five acres of his livestock farm in Htauk Kyant.
In April, Kaman in Htauk Kyant celebrated the Arakanese traditional water festival alongside local Buddhist residents, U Tun Nge said.
Residents of Htauk Kyant have given a warm welcome to the fresh faces, ethnic Bamar U Khin Maung Than told The Irrawaddy.
Buddhists and Kaman were living happily together, he said.
The Kaman buy goods from the Buddhists’ shops and Buddhists buy traditional Arakanese food from small Kaman stores, he added.
But U Tun Ngwe worries that other Kaman need assistance, while his farm and the KSN lack the capacity to help many more.
“In the future, the state government should provide them with land in Rangoon. They have lost everything in Arakan State.”