Disowned by Burma, consigned to refugee camps and caught up in ethnic violence, they tell Andrew Buncombe why they will not give up the fight to win back their communities
What difference does a simple name make? For Mohammad Ali, a resident of this town’s last Muslim neighbourhood, a ghetto cut off by barbed wire and military checkpoints, it matters to his very core. “Look here. It asks ‘race’ and then says ‘Rohingya’,” the 68-year-old says, touching his chest with one hand, while pointing with the other to a photocopied identity card dating from 1974. “We have been here for a long time. My father, my grandfather, they were born here.”
For Shwe Maung, a member of a political party with links to the Buddhist clergy which wants to force Muslims from the state, the matter of a name is equally important. These people are not Rohingya Muslims, he angrily insists, but Bengalis. “They are trying to deceive the world,” he adds. “They want the world to think they are natives of Rakhine.”
Burma’s western Rakhine state has for months been gripped by ethnic violence that has left scores dead and driven up to 100,000 people, the majority of them Rohingya Muslims, into refugee camps. The Buddhist community claims they are at risk of being “swallowed up by outsiders” who they say migrated from Bangladesh, while the Rohingyas, who say they have lived here for centuries, claim they are the victims of ethnic cleansing.
To glimpse the scale of what has happened while the world largely looked away, take the airport road towards the village of Bumay. From there, a rutted track leads to a series of tented camps in which thousands of Muslims are living, having been driven from their communities.
The largest is Borouda, home to 15,000 people. Many here fled here after their properties in Sittwe were attacked in June. Moniyan Khata, a 38-year-old woman, said their neighbourhood had been surrounded by Buddhists and police. “We had to hide in the lake,” she said.
And why were they attacked? “We don’t know,” she replied. “They want our land, they want our properties. They want us to leave the country.”
At another camp, Te Chaung, were those who fled more recent violence, both Rohingyas and Kaman Muslims who had escaped by sea from Kyauktaw, 50 miles away. Human Rights Watch released satellite images that revealed Muslim neighbourhoods there had been destroyed on the night of 22 October. Some who escaped spent six days at sea in fishing boats containing 100 people.
“I came in one boat, my husband in another and our children were in a different one,” said Chu Kiri, 35, hugging her four children. “At the time I did not know if my husband and children were dead or alive. It was only when we reached here we met up.”
The trigger for the clashes this summer was the rape of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men. But tension has existed between the communities for decades.
The Buddhists of Rakhine, Burma’s second-poorest state, have always felt neglected by the central authorities. They say their history as an independent kingdom, known as Arakan, has been overlooked. Such bitterness has been seized on by the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), a hardline group established to contest elections in 2010 and which holds 18 seats in the state assembly and 15 in the national parliament. While it says it supports democracy, the RNDP also backs a 1982 law passed by the junta which says the Rohingyas are not citizens, and says they should leave.
In their office on Sittwe’s main street, members of the party’s central committee claimed the Rohingyas were trying to increase their population. Asked where the Rohingyas should go, one member, Shwe Maung, swept his palms backwards, as if he were brushing away a fly. Asked if the party was racist, one member insisted: “We are not anti-Muslim.”
While the RNDP says it is secular, it has links to the Buddhist clergy which has been vocal in its condemnation of the Rohingyas. Abbot Ariyawantha of the Sittwe’s Shwe Zadi monastery, said he had advised the RNDP leadership on various issues. He repeated allegations the Muslims were deliberately increasing their numbers and that there was a “conspiracy to invade Arakan cities”. The monk denied claims from Rohingya victims that monks took part in attacks or that the clergy had been involved in organising attacks.
Asked about the cause of the violence, he said: “People are angry because of the rape and because they are trying to take our land. It’s our reaction to that behaviour.”
Asked what should happen to the Rohingyas, he said: “We have to identify illegal immigrants and keep them in refugee camps. If at some time, a third country wants to accept them we would be happy.”
But the Rohingyas insist they have lived in the region for centuries and say they want to stay. In Sittwe’s Aung Mingalar quarter, Aye Maung, an English teacher, explained how the 7,000 residents were unable to leave and had lived under a cloud of anxiety since the summer. A curfew is in place.
Walking through its dirty streets, he pointed to where Muslim homes and schools had been set alight or bulldozed during the summer violence. On one side were the homes of a handful of Hindu families and Bollywood music could be heard playing. To ensure they were not mistaken for Muslims, the Hindus were flying Buddhist flags.
In a dark shack serving Chinese tea, Mr Maung organised a showing of hands for those who wanted independence, as opposed to Burmese citizenship. Without exception, the customers voted for the latter. “We want to be citizens of Burma. We don’t want to leave Rakhine,” said Mr Maung.
The conflict in Rakhine is complex and historic. Several thousand Buddhists are also in refugee camps after their homes were set on fire by Muslims. A number have been killed.
Aid organisations expect to be in for the long haul. Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the World Food Programme, said they were now providing emergency food supplies to 110,000 people. “We have asked for funding to see us through to the middle of next year,” he said.
Christophe Reltien, Burma head of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, said the Muslim population was growing faster than the non-Muslim population. He said the attacks against Muslims were not spontaneous. “We know in some areas it was well organised and not simply people going after a few houses,” he said. “Messages were sent to the [Muslim] community that they should move.”
The government of Thein Sein has established a committee to investigate the violence. The committee includes members of different religions, but no Rohingyas. Among its members are democracy activists who have spoken out against the Rohingyas.
Indeed, for observers the most disappointing role has been that played by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who – unlike Barack Obama, who has defended the Rohingyas – has refused to denounce the attacks and simply said violence was committed by both sides. At her National League for Democracy’s office, her spokesman, Nyan Wyn, said the Rohingyas’ future should be decided by the 1982 citizenship law. When it was suggested the Rohingyas had lived in Burma for centuries, he said: “That is not true. They were not here before 1824.”
In Aung Mingalar, the Rohingyas believe Ms Suu Kyi has forgotten them. “She is keeping silent,” said Mr Maung, the teacher. “Perhaps she wants more votes from Buddhists.”