Myanmar Has Forced Thousands of Rohingya Into a Virtual Prison
Camps lack food, medicine, schools
Myanmar’s Kaladan River widens as my ship nears the great Bay of Bengal, the horizons reaching out in every direction while seabirds swoop to snatch bread thrown by the passengers. I embarked on New Year’s Day 2016 from the medieval town of Mrauk U, a place known for its beautiful pagodas and rolling hills, to reach the coastal town of Sittwe. Thrust into the global spotlight in 2012 due to murder and destruction brought on by an ethnic and religious conflict between the Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, Sittwe is a place that has gained notoriety for all the wrong reasons.
Sittwe is located near the Bengali boarder in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on the country’s western coast. Tensions in the city have simmered for the last four years, ever since a reciprocal cycle of violence that began in June 2012. That was when a Rakhine Buddhist woman was allegedly raped and murdered by three Rohingya Muslim men. Revenge killings and rioting followed, and rioters put the torch to Rohingya neighborhoods. Scores died, beaten and hacked to death.
Animosity had existed between both groups for some time. The Rakhine view the Rohingya as “Bengali” migrants, an opinion echoed by many in Myanmar despite the Rohingya’s presence in the country for centuries. The Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship rights in 1982 by the then military-led government. And in the November 2015 election, Muslims — Rohingya and otherwise — were barred from voting or running for office, a black mark on an election that many outsiders viewed as the first free and fair ballot Myanmar has had in decades.
The majority of the dead and displaced from the 2012 conflict were Rohingya, though at the time they made up only 40 percent of the local population. Members of both groups who lost their homes relocated to segregated camps, but the conditions each group met in their new settlements were hardly equal. The Rohingya were forced into the rural undeveloped areas west of Sittwe or allowed stay in their old neighborhood of Aung Mingalar among the Rakhine, surrounded by armed checkpoints in each area, ostensibly for their own protection but in reality to ensure that they stayed contained.
The Rohingya in the camps are allowed to travel only between the two closed zones on transports operated by armed security forces. The Rohingya are an imprisoned people. Businesses and properties once owned by Rohingya were appropriated by their former Rakhine neighbors, and the Rohingya are unable to access what funds they do have in their bank accounts due to all of Sittwe’s banks being within the town.
By contrast, the displaced Rakhine Buddhists resettled within the town itself and faced no restrictions on their daily life. Their camps have electricity and the government has provided funding for new roads, one of which is being constructed when I visit the Set Yone Su camp.
A Rohingya boy walks over an open sewage ditch in the Sithmagi IDP camp. All photos by Adryel Talamantes
As NGOs and charity organizations came into Sittwe to aid the Rohingya, resentment built up among the Rakhine. The ill will sparked an anti-NGO riot in 2014 and led Myanmar’s government to further restrict aid activities. With the passing of time, Sittwe’s brand of religious and ethnic apartheid has begun to resemble normalcy in this town which used to see Rakhine and Rohingya homes and businesses nestled side by side. Many Rohingya have fled the camps by boat. Some have died on the journey. Others have fallen into the hands of human traffickers and slavers.
The Myanmar government at one point called for any willing country to take the entire Rohingya population, but the only nations so far willing to accept them in earnest have been Malaysia and Indonesia. In the meantime, it’s possible that the government intends for the Rohingya camp areas to turn into villages and towns, permanently cementing the division of Buddhists and Muslims.
The Rohingya internment zone is vast and covers approximately 15 square miles of land hugging the western coast of the Sittwe peninsula. After we clear security, my local Rakhine driver leaves me near the Bumay railroad junction and I meet my Rohingya guide, who I will call Mr. Begum.
Mr. Begum lost two of his brothers-in-law during the violence in 2013 and was unable to recover their bodies to give them a proper Muslim burial, but he says he holds no ill will toward the Rakhine today. He managed to pay the $700 per-person bribe to Rakhine State’s border and immigration officials in order to send his family to Yangon under the pretext of seeking medical care, but he decided to stay in order to help tell the world about the suffering of his people.
There is no electricity in the entire displace-persons zone except for what can be produced by the rare solar panel. The poorest areas amount to little more than poorly-built thatch huts covered with tarps, surrounded by small children and babies wandering naked and dirty on dusty paths. In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counted approximately 140,000 registered people in the camps, but the figure is low, as there are an estimated 100,000 unregistered Rohingya.
Many people failed to register in the camps because the only nationality the form offers is Bengali, and many Rohingya reject the descriptor because Myanmar is the country of their birth and the only place they have ever known. Only registered residents of the camp can get aid from the U.N. World Food Program, so malnutrition a growing problem. For the unregistered residents, aid comes from the Myanmar Muslim Association as well as other Muslim charities from Yangon, although this often must come in clandestinely.
Medical care is insufficient in the zone. The Thet Kay Pyin clinic is the only facility serving the camp residents, and its staff includes just two doctors who work from Monday to Friday and can provide only the most basic care. Patients can request a transfer to Sittwe hospital, but the care there is of a low quality and Rohingya patients are wary of the Rakhine staff.
In any event, those seeking treatment in Yangon must pay a bribe of $700 to leave the camp and must return within 45 days. Very few are able to come up with such a huge sum of money. Those with the means have used this avenue to escape the camps.
Malnutrition is rampant among camp residents, especially affecting children whose growth is often stunted as a result. Sethara, 16, has been confined to her family’s hut in the Theychung camp for a year due to the acute effects of malnutrition. Her movements are jittery and slow when she opens the small door to let me inside the small thatch home. I also met 11-year-old Rukimodin, who is so starved that his mother must carry him to the That Kay Pyin clinic.
Sittwe contains two worlds, one for the Rakhine and the other for the Rohingya, and the disparity between them will only increase with time. The generation of Rohingya children growing up in the camps will face even more hardships than their parents did if the current policies of the authorities remain in place. Sittwe University no longer allows Rohingya students to attend classes and this perhaps more than any other form of discrimination will have long-term consequences for the Rohingya.
A survivor of the violence, who gave his name as Jack, is 18 years old and a student at Thet Kan Pyin School, the only high school in the camps. His father Ukalu worked as a driver and was killed by Rakhine mobs in June 2012 near Bumay village in Sittwe. Despite everything, he says he has high hopes for the future. “I wish to become a math or physics teacher like my favorite instructor Mr. Sialjo,” he says with a smile, though with no access higher education his dream is unlikely.
For those supporting the aid effort, the situation feels bleak. “This is worse than anything I have seen in my previous assignments,” one senior aid worker tells me. “Everyone is on edge here and we have to tread lightly in order to maintain our activities.”
The scars from the violence of 2012 are still visible. Camp residents tell stories of murdered family members. Mohamed Ismail, 28, has been a resident of West Sempia camp since his home was destroyed by Rakhine mobs during the first outbreak of violence. Two of his brothers, 16-year-old Goza Ali and 11-year-old Hutakiya, and his 16-year-old sister Anoa all returned to check on their home … and never returned.
Ismail asked a military officer he knew to find out what happened to his siblings. “He told me they were dead,” Ismail recalls. “There was nothing I could do after that.”