Sittwe: If it weren’t for the flattened gaps in the standing rows of houses, Sittwe would seem like any typical Burmese city, with its decadent colonial façades. But the isolated blocks, leveled to the ground, are the price to pay for the apparent quiet: A brutal urban war begun last June that emptied the city of the Muslim Rohingya people — if you don’t count the 7,000 confined to a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. Another 100,000 displaced residents live in dusty camps on the outskirts of Sittwe and the rest, in this western part of Burma or Myanmar, in totally indignant conditions.
As for the local Buddhists, most think that even those remaining Rohingya should leave too.
“They are trying to invade our land and take over the population,” says U Phoe Minn, a representative from RNDP, the Nationalist Party, who in the State of Rakhine defends the Buddhists ethnicity.
These are the words repeated by monks, young troublemakers, women and old people alike: They are the original owners of this strip of land and are terrified by the population growth of the “Bengali Muslims,” as they call the 800,000 Rohingya who are a minority nationality and are systematically discriminated against, including when it comes to special licenses to get married and have children.
Building up for years, the hatred peaked last June after the murder and rape of a Buddhist Rakhine girl. Ten Muslims, totally uninvolved, were killed in retaliation. In just a few days, the violence spread to Sittwe. Thousands of houses were torched in clashes with sticks and machetes — only the intervention of the Burmese army brought calm. But in October the violence reignited, in areas not involved in the June riots. Officially, the total death toll reached 167; according to many, the figure may be at least three times as high.
At first, people talked of the “worst inter-ethnic clashes in 70 years”; over time it was clear that the large majority of victims were Rohingya and that the Rakhine raids were too organized to be spontaneous. The definition of “ethnic cleansing” is increasingly accepted. “In the mob that destroyed my house there were police and monks, too,” recounts Aye Maung, a Muslim boy who now lives with his relatives in the ghetto of Aung Minalar.
With its entrances blocked by soldiers — officially to protect the residents — the neighborhood is virtually an open-air prison, just a few hundred meters from the seaside of Sittwe.
The camps of internally displaced Rohingya are getting worse, with rows of tents pitched in the sand and two rations of rice per day. Many children show signs of severe malnutrition, their swollen bellies reminiscent of the famine in Africa. Swarms of flies buzz around the latrines and health care is minimal; NGOs complain of threats by Rakhine extremists. “I have never seen such a level of intolerance,” says an organizer for Doctors Without Borders. The Buddhists have camps too, but they live in better conditions, thanks to the support from local authorities.
Scant attention from Aung Sang Suu Kyi
The lack of a shared history has fed the hatred that continues to smolder in the ashes for the last few months. For centuries, this land was a crossroads of trade and travelers with a small, but influential, Muslim presence. The Rakhine still idealize their ancient kingdom today and painfully remember the invasion of Burma in 1784. The seeds of conflict were spread 40 years later with the arrival of the British, who encouraged the immigration of Bangladeshis from the adjoining region of Chittagong.
Burmese independence gave rise to a new awareness of the Rohingya, contributing to victimization and the syndrome of encirclement that reigns among them. “They keep arriving from Bangladesh and have more and more children, with different wives,” explains a respected monk from Sittwe.
Each community only has space for their own truths, often with beliefs beyond any logic. The fires that burned down thousands of Rohingya homes? They were caused by the same Muslims who have ignited world attention but they tell you it’s the Rakhines. And on the other side, to find a Rohingya who admits to having destroyed the houses is impossible: “It’s the wind that brought the fires to our houses around them,” says Maung Aye, the boy from the ghetto.
This atmosphere is a stain on the image of the “new” Burma — and its Buddhist majority — just out of the military dictatorship. Former general and Prime Minister Thein Sein, who months ago proposed a mass deportation of the Rohingya, has re-launched in the role of “defender of the fatherland”. Even Nobel Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi has offered only a few ambiguous words.
One person who has urged the Burmese society to accept the Rohingya is US President Barack Obama, during his recent speech at the University of Yangon — which did not earn him friends among Burmese.
Still, the international pressure is not holding much weight. Thein Sein, maybe to gain time, has announced that he “wants to consider” the hypothesis of the Rohingya becoming citizens. Paradoxically, it is an idea that some of the local Rakhine find favorable: At least this way the Muslim presence would be statistically diluted nationwide, keeping Buddhists with a clear majority.
Still, for the 100,000 Rohingya constrained “temporarily” in their makeshift camps, a long stay seems like a real prospect. And if the violence breaks out again, there may be no more room on that sand for more tents.