Bleak future for 'unwanted' people

Bleak future for 'unwanted' people
In 2012, violence flared up when the Rakhine Buddhists attacked the Rohingya, killing as many as 200 and driving up to 140,000 out of their communities and into camps for internally displaced persons.

Sittwe is a huddle of ancient, sagging wooden houses, stained colonial bungalows and tall, old trees full of big fruit bats and noisy crows.

It has a crowded bazaar.

It is also where the borderless sprawl of the Kaladan River meets the roiling waters of the Bay of Bengal.

There are only a few hotels for the trickle of tourists passing through, mostly fresh from nearby Ngapali beach, and on the way to the ancient Arakanese ruins of Mrauk-U.

Below a long promenade on the bay, young locals gather in the evenings for beer and football on the beach.

It is a carefree scene, but it belies the weight of a history of conflicts between the majority Rakhine Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslims in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine, of which Sittwe is the capital.

Some of the worst hostilities took place in 2012 in and around Sittwe, where the Rakhine Buddhists attacked the Rohingya, killing as many as 200 and driving up to 140,000 out of their communities and into camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Long discriminated against in Myanmar, the Rohingya have left - in a steady trickle and sometimes in waves - overland and by sea every sailing season between October and April, down the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, for South-east Asia.

There may be up to one million Rohingya in Myanmar.

But more than one million live elsewhere as migrants or refugees, often in abject poverty and mostly in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Ms Yanghee Lee, said after a visit to the state last month: "Issues in Rakhine State have international implications which are of concern to all (UN) member states.

"Human rights violations… are encouraging people smuggling and generating large numbers of asylum seekers, often leading to tragic suffering and loss of life." In Sittwe, the places of worship and the IDP camps tell the story of the most recent conflicts.

Buddhist pagodas dot the town and the surrounding landscape.

Downtown, there are Hindu temples, churches and mosques, but some of the mosques are no longer being used.

Just a few hours outside the city, Ms Fatima Mohamed lives in a hut in an IDP camp after her house in town was burned down in 2012.

The 64-year-old Rohingya Muslim widow with four children finds it hard to smile.

Supplies are short.

The family depends almost entirely on food aid. Just collecting sticks and coating them with cow dung to make slow-burning firewood for cooking takes all day.

There is no running water and electricity.

With little access to proper education for the children, and formerly cordial relations with the Rakhine Buddhists in shreds, the family's future is at best uncertain and, at worst, bleak. Rakhine Buddhists account for about 60 per cent of the 3.2 million people in the state bordering Bangladesh.

Muslims, including the Rohingya, comprise about 30 per cent. The remaining 10 per cent consist of Chin people, who are Buddhist, Christian or animist, and other minorities like the Kaman, who are also Muslim.

The Rohingya, who originally came from the former East Bengal, or today's Bangladesh, to the west, have settled in the Rakhine area for generations. But the Rakhine Buddhistshave a visceral fear of losing their lands and their state to the Rohingya, whom they refer to as "Bengalis".

The Rohingya's plight today is a legacy of the conflicts and migrations of history, and the largely arbitrary designation of nation states by British colonialists when they left in the 1940s.

Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan, is a land of rugged mountains, fertile alluvial plains, vast mud flats and endless beaches.

It is easy to see why this area has been a magnet for people, overland and especially by sea along the great curve of the Bay of Bengal.

In his 2013 book Crossing The Bay Of Bengal, University of London professor Sunil S. Amrith writes that of the nearly 30 million people who left India's shores between 1840 and 1940, all but two million travelled back and forth between the Indian sub-continent and just three destinations - Ceylon (today's Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar) and Malaya (the Malaysian peninsula). Massive migrations have been a constant feature of the coast.

As people moved to and fro, the Arakanese identity (of today's Rakhine people) rubbed against the ethnic Burmese identity to the east and the Bengali identity to the west. Buddhist and Islamic values also came up against each other, starting with the Mughal conquest of Bengal in the 16th century, and the rise of the Buddhist Arakan kingdom between the 15th and 17th centuries.

Arakan "has long been a frontier between Muslim and Buddhist Asia, and the politics of religion continues to heavily influence the popular consciousness", the International Crisis Group said in a report last October on Rakhine State.

The region's colonisation by the British in the mid-1800s and its subsequent independence with the arbitrary drawing of boundaries - based on imperfect data and little ground information - deepened political, ethnic and religious frictions. The border between East Pakistan - later Bangladesh - and Arakan was a frontier where "whole communities found themselves trapped on the 'wrong' side", Prof Amrith writes. Arakanese stranded in East Pakistan were fearful of mass killings.

Muslims stranded in Arakan feared the same.

Violence flared in Myanmar in 1970 and again in the 1990s, sending well over 200,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, where they still live in wretched conditions.

The fallout of history is exacerbated by the competing historical narratives of the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya.

Yangon-based Dr Jacques Leider, an expert on the region's history, said in a telephone interview that a common historical narrative that is usually a binding factor even in the most diverse of countries is absent among the Buddhists and Muslims of Rakhine. "Each community claims (the land) for itself," he said.

What's in a name?

A senior Myanmar government official told The Straits Times on condition of anonymity: "We see the people not as Rakhines or Rohingya or Bengalis, but as human beings."

He added: "Ideally, in the future, we can even get rid of the ethnic identities. Why not be just Myanmar (people) instead of Kachin, Karen, Chin, Rakhine?"

But it is a rare and even idealistic notion for now, unlikely to find traction among the wider Myanmar public and minorities who have fought for their identities and their lands for decades.

And Myanmar is only in a calibrated experiment with democracy. In an election year, with general polls due this year, extreme politics can exacerbate underlying fault lines.

For many Rohingya Muslims in the IDP camps, the human smugglers that wait in boats on the bay are the only prospect for a better life.

Unwanted in Bangladesh and Rakhine State, migration is their only path to a future.

nirmal@sph.com.sg

Driven to desperation

Issues in Rakhine State have international implications which are of concern to all (UN) member states. Human rights violations… are encouraging people smuggling and generating large numbers of asylum seekers, often leading to tragic suffering and loss of life.

- MS YANGHEE LEE, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar


This article was first published on Feb 08 2015.
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