As the country prepares for Barack Obama’s arrival, Rohingya and Arakanese communities claim atrocities on both sides
Khamal Alam is the only member of his family to survive the recent violence in western Burma. The 25-year-old from the Rohingya minority says all his relatives were shot by government troops who opened fire on the Muslims during running battles with the Buddhist Arakanese.
Alam arrived at the Thae Chaung refugee camp after fleeing his home town of Kyaukphyu when several hundred houses were burned by local Buddhists. “Nobody died from the sword, only gunshots,” said another Kyaukphyu resident now in the camp.
Hundreds of Muslim Rohingya people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced in recent weeks in renewed clashes with the Arakan Buddhists. But where there is conflict there are always two sides to the story.
Ko Aye, 14, a Buddhist from Yaithein village, last saw his 15-year-old friend lying on the ground, bleeding from a sword wound just below his neck. A mob had descended on his village, razing the homes of the largely Buddhist community. “Hundreds of Muslims arrived carrying bows, swords and fire torches,” he recalled of that morning, before he and his family fled. “I was on the street, and everyone ran as they began burning houses.”
The violence between the Rohingya Muslims and the Arakan Buddhists has raised fresh questions about Burma’s reform process at a time when the country is flirting with opening up to the outside world.
With Barack Obama due to visit the country in a fortnight, renewed scrutiny will be placed on Washington’s warming relations with the Thein Sein administration. “He absolutely has to raise the issue [of the Rohingya],” said Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, a Thailand-based NGO monitoring abuses in western Burma. “It’s a great opportunity to press the government on the 1982 citizenship law [which denies the Rohingya citizenship]. It would be disappointing if he didn’t.”
The unrest, which first engulfed large parts of Arakan state in June after the rape of an Arakanese woman by three Rohingya men was reported, resumed three weeks ago. A state of emergency has been in place since the summer, and access to affected areas is difficult. The Guardian was denied permission to visit Yaithein village, where witnesses of the violence tell of beheadings and incinerated bodies, and where a heavy troop presence blocks accurate assessment of the magnitude of the situation.
Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have festered for decades here: both have suffered abuse from the government, but have directed their response largely at one another. Arakanese blame aggressive attempts to stamp a Burman identity on the state as reason for a fierce nationalism. The target of this has often been the Rohingya, whom both Arakanese and the government claim are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
U Nya Nya, chairman of a monks’ association in Sittwe, says the Rohingya identity was only adopted in the 1950s as “an attempt by illegal Bengalis” to get recognition as a distinct ethnic group in Burma. Historical references, such as a 1799 study of dialects by ethnographer Francis Buchanan which refers to the “Rooinga”, are dismissed by Arakanese, and anti-Rohingya sentiments have conspired to render the group stateless: they are denied citizenship and suffer tight restrictions on their movement.
Aung Mingalar is the last surviving Muslim district in Sittwe, and in many ways embodies the dark heart of the conflict. Barbed wire barricades manned by soldiers mark the entrance to this ghetto. Few of its 8,000 inhabitants, mostly Rohingya, dare to leave, while Arakanese taxi drivers go only as far as the checkpoints. Until June, Rohingya and Buddhists in Sittwe mingled freely, but now both fear attacks as they pass through one another’s neighbourhoods.
“I would not be surprised if the local Arakanese population attempt to drive out Aung Mingalar residents, and soon,” said Matthew Smith, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They’ve made attempts recently; they’ve gathered in the surrounding area, and the tension is such that they could galvanise forces at any moment.”
If that were to happen, Sittwe’s once strong Muslim population would be no more. Aung Htay, from the Rakhine Nationalities Development party, which has 35 seats in parliament, said the aggression from Arakanese was needed to retain a hold on the state. “We never wanted to fight the Bengalis,” he said, echoing the claim that the term Rohingya is a political construct. “We want to protect our land though, so we must fight.”
The result has been the creation of an apartheid-like state, where more than 100,000 Muslims have been driven into camps. They add to the nearly 300,000 Rohingya living stateless in Bangladesh, and countless thousands more in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. Such is the intensity of the latest campaign that observers are debating whether ethnic cleansing is under way.
Attacks from Buddhist mobs in recent weeks have widened to include Kaman Muslims, who are distinct from the Rohingya and have citizenship. Until October they had lived relatively harmoniously with the Buddhist population. Smith says that this factor, coupled with a grenade attack on a mosque in Karen state, eastern Burma, raises the possibility that a religious war is unfolding. “There is a nationwide anti-Muslim sentiment,” he said. “What we are seeing in Arakan state is as much about ethnicity as it is about religion.”
A two-hour boat ride upriver from Sittwe, the monasteries of Mrauk U have become home to hundreds of Arakanese sheltering from the violence. It was nearby villages such as Yaithein that fell victim to grisly retaliatory attacks from Muslim groups. But restrictions on movement by the authorities, coupled with a climate of fear among Buddhists and Muslims, has impeded investigation of both sides of the violence.
A commission set up by the government to look into the unrest has already met with obstacles. Zarganar, a popular comedian and member of the commission, lamented last month that local leaders from both sides were not co-operating in the investigation.
“Once you take the lid off authoritarian rule, then you will have these sudden outbursts,” said fellow commission member Aung Naing Oo, adding, however, that the multifarious channels that have opened with the reforms offer hope for reconciliation. “There is segregation now, but the Myanmar [Burmese] government as far as I know does not have a segregation policy.”
An air of hostility hangs over Sittwe. The feeling here is that deep-seated animosities will take years to resolve. Both Arakanese and Rohingya say they have cut all contact with long-time friends from the now rival communities. In downtown Sittwe, shops that had belonged to Muslims have been appropriated by the authorities; their former owners do not risk the journey out of Aung Mingalar to work.
The future of the state hangs in the balance. Past experiences with the Burmese government cast doubt on the official death toll of 180 – it may be that the scale of the violence is far greater than outsiders have been led to believe.
“I saw at least 21 bodies before I left,” said Khamal Alam of his parting image of Kyaukphyu. He has already lived as a stateless Rohingya in a country growing increasingly hostile to Muslims, and bitterness now pervades both sides. The fear now is that this conflict has gone beyond being merely one over ethnic identity. “I hate Buddhists,” he said. “Now I have no family, no business and no home.”
Some names have been changed for security reasons