James T Davies offers a first-hand account of the ongoing persecution against Myanmar’s Muslim minority.
In the early morning of Sunday 9 October 2016, hundreds of Rohingya men attacked a series of police camps near the Bangladeshi border in Mynamar’s northern Rakhine State. A newly formed insurgency soon claimed responsibility, and subsequently clashed with the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw. Since then, however, military operations have morphed into a collective punishment of the entire Rohingya community in northern Rakhine.
A damning United Nations Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) report this month detailed disturbing accounts of gang rapes, murders, disappearances, public sexual humiliation and torture of innocent men, women and children that it says are “very likely” to amount to crimes against humanity. Other UN officials have suggested that over 1,000 people have been killed in the crackdown.
Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, is south of the affected area. It is now a predominantly Buddhist town. The large Muslim population that formerly resided here was displaced after violence between communities in 2012. There remain two Muslim neighbourhoods in Sittwe, with police guards at each entry and exit, enforcing segregation. In some villages outside the town, communities live side-by-side. For the most part, Muslims are confined to displaced persons camps on the coast just outside the state capital.
Days after the 9 October attack, rumours circulated in Sittwe that insurgents had the town surrounded, although no one really seemed to take these claims seriously. There were no extra security forces in the town. Even the Muslim neighbourhoods had no extra security. At the large military base just outside Sittwe, in contrast, I saw large numbers of Tatmadaw vehicles and soldiers, preparing helicopters, presumably to be sent to Maungdaw, the centre of operations.
In Sittwe, like Rakhine State generally, all Muslims face severe travel restrictions. Travel out of the township is out of the question, and travel to Sittwe is only possible under police guard — usually for healthcare. Even those who identify as Kaman – a predominantly Muslim ethnic group recognised as indigenous by the government – cannot fly to Yangon. They are told by immigration officers that they cannot leave, “because of your religion”, despite holding citizenship. In Rakhine State, your religion determines the rules and restrictions that apply to you and the opportunities you will have – regardless of what citizenship you may hold.
Passing through the Muslim neighbourhoods and camps, the differences with Sittwe town were stark. Although the paddy fields were well tended and green, children’s stomachs were bloated, and arms stick-thin. The eyes of both adults and children were empty of hope, full of both boredom and despair. They boarded the train surrounded by scowling police with firearms. I recalled arriving here in 2015, when I encountered children whose only entertainment seemed to be collectively, and hazardously, frustrating the security guards before attempting to escape without being hit.
Walking through a Rakhine village near a displaced persons camp the group I was travelling with stopped for a tea and were welcomed by the village leader, who sported a patriotic Rakhine tattoo on his forearm. He liked Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, but voted for the Arakan National Party in 2015, “because I am ethnic Rakhine”. We visited the monastery at the edge of the village, and found that it was highly militarised. Soldiers were camping inside the religious compound, and monitoring the activities of the Muslims nearby. A minder of the monastery was happy to see some visitors. He showed us around and introduced us to the Sayardaw, or head monk. Eventually we were told to leave by a Tatmadaw officer, concerned by the attacks in the north.
Back in Sittwe, celebrations were underway for the Buddhist full moon festival of Thadingyut, and a band was covering Justin Beiber. Ferris wheels and foods were abundant. Even for a short-term visitor, however, the hopelessness and harsh realities of life in Sittwe are evident. The sense of excitement in Yangon and Mandalay is difficult to find here. Unemployment and poverty are high. Alcoholism and violence are serious social problems. Buddhist Rakhine and others living in Sittwe certainly do have many more opportunities than Muslim communities. They can travel interstate or internationally for employment, and have far much more access to education and healthcare. Yet, life for everyone in Sittwe is one or another shade of bleak. Rakhine State remains one of the poorest in the country, and the economy has been further damaged by the violence since 2012.
On the bus out of Rakhine some weeks later, we were called into the immigration office at the state border to check our documents, a standard procedure here, but uncommon elsewhere in Myanmar. We unexpectedly ran into a friend travelling in the other direction. He had also been pulled off his bus to be quizzed by immigration officials — and the only Myanmar citizen from his bus that this happened to. He is a religious convert, and suggested that his facial appearance was related to the harassment. Although religious communities continue to live alongside each other in his hometown in southern Rakhine, bus companies have been prohibited from selling tickets to Muslims. He tells us there have been preventable deaths, as people were unable to travel for healthcare.
There are no simple solutions to the deeply entrenched problems in Rakhine State. Tensions remain high. Contrary to what appears to be believed in Rakhine State, however, the rights and opportunities of one community do not have to come at the expense of the other. Meanwhile, the status-quo of state-enforced segregation only reinforces suspicions and fears. Nationalists are emboldened and fears of the other are promoted. The status-quo benefits neither community. It is in fact a barrier to badly needed progress and development for both communities. The recent disturbances in northern Rakhine State are just the latest proof of that. Furthermore, treating one community as a second-class will continue to legitimise the profoundly disturbing abuses by security forces reported by the OHCHR.
James T Davies is a PhD Candidate at UNSW, Canberra. He has recently returned from fieldwork in Myanmar.