“They say I can’t go through because I am Muslim,” mutters Aung Win, a local Rohingya interpreter from Sittwe. “But I am not afraid – I am a Burmese citizen,” he says, pulling out a pink identity card.
Sittwe’s Muslim quarter, Aung Mingalar, has been cordoned off from the rest of the town since June last year, when the region was swept by its first wave of vicious sectarian clashes that destroyed thousands of homes. Since then, over 7,000 Muslims – mostly from the stateless Rohingya minority – have been trapped inside.
“I’ve lost everything,” says Mohammed Rafi, whose house was torched to the ground on the same day that his father-in-law was hacked to death with machetes. A few days later the police evicted him from his pharmacy in downtown Sittwe market.
“They just told me to leave. I didn’t even have the time to gather all my things,” explains the 49-year-old. “Now I have no earnings.”
Isolated from the economic hub of downtown Sittwe, Aung Mingalar is facing a growing humanitarian crisis. Food supplies are short and prices soaring; the only healthcare facility in the area is barred shut because there are no supplies. Despite fresh pledges of government and international aid, locals insist that the ongoing policy of segregation is a much bigger problem.
“If they gave us the security and allowed us to go the market, then I think that could easily solve the problem,” says Rafi. “The Rakhine [Arakanese] can go to the market and they can go to the hospital, but we cannot.”
The government claims that segregation aims to protect both communities, yet Buddhists and Hindus are able to travel freely. Even Kaman Muslims, who are Burmese citizens, but share cultural commonalities with the Rohingya community, face restrictions. One Kaman woman told DVB that her brother was arrested and beaten by policemen for trying to leave Aung Mingalar.
The Rohingya have been described as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. They have lived in limbo along the border with neighbouring Bangladesh since 1982, when former military dictator Ne Win stripped them of their Burmese citizenship. Although they have been denied basic rights for decades, locals say they have become increasingly ostracised since last year’s violence.
Many nationalists, who consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, have urged Buddhists not to associate with the group and called on the government to enforce permanent segregation. The Rakhine Nationalities Development Party has declared it “impossible” for the two communities to coexist again. Many Arakanese locals, who lost houses or family in the clashes, are equally sceptical, with some suggesting Rohingyas should be relocated to a third country.
But Buddhist communities have suffered under segregation, too. Ma Thein Nu, a local Arakanese woman who trades with Muslims, told DVB that she lives in constant fear of radical nationalists, who don’t want the two groups to trade. It follows news that extremists have targeted so-called “Rohingya sympathiser” by publicly shunning or abusing them.
“Twice [a group of monks] stopped me and took over 200 dollars worth of food,” she explains. “I am afraid, but I have no other choice. I have to feed my family.”
She now trades at Tè Chaung market on the outskirts of the city, where 75,000 uprooted Rohingyas are crammed into makeshift camps – many without toilets or clean water supplies – and survive on small portions of plain rice. They are not allowed to enter downtown Sittwe and very little aid trickles through. Without trade they would struggle to survive.
“Segregation affects both communities economically, but its impact on the Muslim communities is absolutely disastrous,” says Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project. “It curtails their livelihoods, confines them to squalid camps or ghettos making them dependent on humanitarian aid whose delivery is hampered by security threats on aid workers. [Seven] months on – this is outrageous, unsustainable and inhumane.”
A local doctor explains that they have only recently been able to refer ill patients from the camps to Sittwe hospital, after an aggressive lobbying campaign by the Red Cross. “But it is still completely impossible outside the Sittwe area,” he says, adding that maternal deaths and stillborn children are commonplace.
According to government figures, an additional 50,000 predominantly Muslim people across Arakan state have lost their livelihoods because they can’t travel to work. The fishery sector, which provides jobs for many locals, has been particularly affected. But only those people who lost homes in the violence qualify for aid.
“IDPs [internally displaced persons] are getting some food from the World Food Programme, but the host communities are not getting any assistance from any agencies because they are not registered by the government,” explains Abdul, a former electrical engineer, who has been unemployed for nearly seven months.
“I have no job to get money for food,” he says. “But I have a brother who is an IDP from downtown Sittwe. He gets enough food for his family, so I have to ask him to provide some for me.”
Despite public pledges to improve stability in the conflict-torn state, the government has failed to set a timeline for reintegration. According to Refugees International, they have indicated that it could take up to three years before displaced communities can return. The group warned that separation could become permanent if donors fail to vocalise their objections.
The UN insists that reintegration must form a fundamental part of any rehabilitation strategy in the devastated region. “We need the opportunity for these communities to trade with each other and eventually coexist with each as they have done in the past for many years,” says Ashok Nigam, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Burma.
“Clearly security and rule of law is paramount for the government at this point, but it should be implemented in a manner that does not constrain people from moving and earning livelihoods.”
The UN Refugee Agency recently warned that over 2,000 Rohingyas have fled Arakan state since the start of 2013 – and more than 13,000 last year. Activists say this number is likely to rise as segregation continues into its seventh month.
“The union government is not interested in reconciling Rohingya and Rakhine people,” sighs Aung Win. “They want to divide us for a long time.”