Friday, November 2, 2012
In Corner of Myanmar, Muslims Seek Relief
SITTWE, Myanmar—A Muslim enclave in this scrappy port town on the Bay of Bengal is quickly turning into a prison-like ghetto, highlighting the risk that Myanmar's dramatic democratic revival could unleash centuries-old ethnic hatreds that had partly been held in check by nearly 50 years of military rule.
Sittwe, a town of around 250,000 people, is supposed to be one of Myanmar's new boomtowns. The main drag is dotted with brand-new banks and India is funding a $214 million new port to open up a route up the Kaladan River to its eastern border, with an eye to turning this strip of Myanmar's coastline into an international trading hub.
But a couple of hundred meters back from where the river empties into the ocean, 7,000 Muslim Rohingyas are crammed into a steadily shrinking neighborhood called Aung Min Glar.
Just a few months ago the Rohingyas in Sittwe moved around freely and often traded with the area's majority Buddhist Rakhine population. Now, the Rohingyas homes are ring-fenced by burnt-out buildings and military checkpoints, which, while protecting them from attack, also restrict their movements. Spasms of conflict in June and again last week have left more than 170 dead in clashes between the Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines, swelling the population of Aung Min Glar and threatening the country's recent democratic and economic gains, analysts say.
"We can't work, we can't go out, and we're running low on food," said Habib Bullah, 52 years old, a village elder. When people fall ill, they are often unable or afraid to go to hospitals and sometimes die, he says, gesturing to four freshly-dug graves around the back of one of the three remaining mosques as fruit bats careen through the dusk sky, a world away from the bustling streets nearby.
An hour or so's drive from Sittwe, up to 100,000 more Rohingyas displaced by the clashes are living in a series of sweltering refugee camps where malnourishment and disease are rife and where security forces and local Rakhine activists impede aid workers from operating freely.
More are arriving every day. "There's no more fishing for Rohingyas in Kyaukpyu any more," said one new arrival, 28-year-old Aung Hla, referring to a fishing port further down the coast where 600 Rohingya homes and 200 Rohingya fishing boats were set ablaze last month. "It's all gone."
Other Rohingyas are speeding up a seasonal migration to seek work in nearby countries, especially Malaysia. The United Nations' refugee agency expressed concern Thursday that a boat with an estimated 130 people on board, possibly including some Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state, sank off the coast of Bangladesh.
The growing divides in Rakhine state are also now focusing international attention on what could be Myanmar's biggest dilemma: How to nurture the growth of a functioning democracy while keeping the lid on ethnic tensions. Loosened reins on expression have opened the door for more inflammatory rhetoric that might not have been tolerated under the military regime, which handed power to a new, quasicivilian government last year.
The U.S. and the European Union, among other trade partners, are watching Myanmar's response closely. While freer elections and a more open media encouraged Western countries to lift many of their sanctions against Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, the measures were only suspended, not removed. Both Washington and Brussels have warned authorities that sanctions could be reimposed if ethnic conflicts worsen.
Myanmar's borders today were set by its former British colonial rulers. It encompasses a wide range of territory, from the flat delta of the Irrawaddy River to the rugged mountains of the north and northeast. There are 135 different ethnic groups recognized by the government, with the majority Bamar, or Burman, making up 58% of Myanmar's total population of 64 million. President Thein Sein's government has signed cease-fire pacts with large insurgent groups, including the Karen in the east, but conflicts continue with another large group, the Kachin, in the north.
The Rohingyas, which number around 800,000, comprise less than 1% of Myanmar's total population, but around a fifth of the people in Rakhine state, where tensions with local Buddhists run deep. Since 1982, the government don't classify the Rohingyas as citizens, considering them to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh despite many Rohingya families having lived in the area for several generations. Border police restrict the movement of many Rohingyas, including determining whether or not they can marry, Rohingya activists say. Beyond Rakhine state, Rohingyas often encounter widespread discrimination for their generally darker skin color.
This year's violence began in June after the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman was blamed on local Muslims. Tit-for-tat clashes quickly escalated into widespread rioting, leaving 75,000 Rohingyas to seek safety in squalid relief camps. Most are still there. The most recent wave of violence began in October and has so far claimed 89 lives and made another 32,000 people homeless, according to the government.
Animosity toward the Rohingyas is being driven on in part by nationalist-minded Buddhist monks who say they fear the Islamization of large parts of Myanmar. Among other things, monks led by senior cleric Wiseitta Biwuntha, known as the Venerable Wirathu, successfully rallied against the government to stop the opening of a liaison office for the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference which was designed to help channel aid from the Muslim world to Rohingyas living in relief camps. The Venerable Wirathu previously has been jailed for his role for allegedly instigating anti-Muslim riots in Mandalay in 2003. He was released in a prisoner amnesty earlier this year, and the monastery where he teaches in Mandalay is a hotbed of anti-Muslim sentiment. Protesters there regularly carry banners urging the army to stop shooting at Rakhines attempting to remove Muslim settlers, and describe Rohingyas as illegal immigrants who must be forced out of Myanmar.
The Venerable Wirathu didn't immediately respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
Around Sittwe, Rakhine activists also post stickers objecting to the presence of United Nations and aid workers in the area.
Some Rakhines say they also have been victims of violence, blaming Muslims for building settlements near public markets and accusing the security forces of shooting into peaceful demonstrations with little or no provocation. "We were only saying that we don't want Muslims here," said one Rakhine man in his 30s.
Local government officials in Rakhine state didn't respond to requests for comment. Myanmar's national government, meanwhile, has accused unidentified foreign groups of assisting Rohingyas, whom they accuse of launching terrorist attacks in Rakhine state. This week, the government ordered all communities in the area to hand over weapons such as spears, machetes and homemade firearms to the security forces by Sunday.
"It is obvious…that some local and foreign [groups] are on the side of [Rohyingya activists] involved in the incidents," the government said in a statement reported by state-run media.
Some Rohingyas fear that such language paves the way for massacres and the kind of ethnic cleansing that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. "There is a slow genocide under way here. The other groups want to clear out the Muslims," said Saw Moe Kyaw, who is now living in the Takebi refugee camp near Sittwe. Kyaw Hla Aung, a former aid worker and court stenographer also living in the camps, worries that the next generation of children are growing up without access to government schools. Instead, they must resort to Islamic schools which, where they are present, focus on Arabic and Islamic instruction rather than Myanmar languages or English.
"We are being cut off from the rest of Myanmar. It is as if the government is trying to turn us into foreigners, which is what they say we are," Mr. Kyaw Hla Aung said.
Other Rohingyas are more hopeful that the government will slowly respond to international pressure and broaden its definition of what it means to be a Myanmar citizen. The United Nations' special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana last month urged Myanmar's leaders to do more to alleviate the root causes of the conflict, especially the issue of the Rohingyas' citizenship.
Either way, political analysts suggest that the government will likely move cautiously in dealing with the Rohingya question, largely because the group is so unpopular among the wider Myanmar population and national elections are approaching in 2015.
The opposition National League for Democracy led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, normally a vocal supporter of human rights, has been noticeably quiet on the issue. Earlier this year, Ms. Suu Kyi said she "didn't know" if Rohingyas should be considered Myanmar citizens. A spokesman for her party, Nyan Win, said it is now urging the government to provide more security for all communities in Rakhine state.
Jan Zalewski at IHS Global Insight in London predicts the government will move only slowly to respond to growing international pressure on the fate of the Rohingyas. "There will be lots of committees and hearings, but little real action," Mr. Zalewski says.
Meanwhile, Sittwe's economic promise is beginning to falter. Swe Htay, a local fish trader, says many fishermen are afraid to venture out to sea because of the threat of more violence on shore. As a result, the output of one of Sittwe's main industries is faltering. Cross-border trade with Bangladesh and India's northeastern states is also dwindling as traders hold off on making the trek to border crossings.
In addition, some of the Rohingya middle class has now been displaced from their once-thriving businesses in Sittwe. Fresh transplants to the relief camps often talk about the shocking conditions they see among the teeming tents and stifling dormitories. "People are dying for no reason because they don't have access to proper health care," said Maung Phyu, a physician who says he used to run a medical clinic in Sittwe until it was burned down by rioters last June.
The conflict is also threatening important foreign investments. The fishing port of Kyaukpyu, where many Rohingyas escaped apparent arson attacks in boats, is also the starting point of an oil-and-gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to China. Asked about the Rohyingya situation last month, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China hoped that Myanmar can remain stable, according to Chinese state media.
Essar Group, the Indian company constructing the new Sittwe port project, meanwhile describes the situation in Rakhine state as "critical." The project envisions building a deep-water port at Sittwe and dredging 225 kilometers upriver to the town of Paletwa, where cargo will be transferred to trucks plying a planned 140-kilometer highway to the Indian border, and, in theory, opening up an alternative route to the rest of the India by sea and bypassing the difficult land crossing squeezing past Bhutan and Bangladesh.
So far, there has been no serious impact on construction, an Essar spokesman said, but "we hope that normalcy is quickly resumed."
"For us, democracy only seems to make things worse," says Mr. Kyaw Hla Aung, the former aid worker. "It seems the only thing our politicians can agree on is that the Rohingyas must be trod down."
Write to James Hookway at email@example.com
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