First They Must Be Counted and Classified

Burma seems to be lurching toward some enormous ethnic cleansing campaign or mass expulsion of minority Muslim ethnic groups who inhabit the country’s West, suggests this reportage from longtime opposition newspaper The Irrawaddy.

Baudi Amin appears apprehensive when discussing the incident that occurred when government officials, policemen and Nasaka border guard forces came to Thet Kal Pyin, a predominantly Rohingya village near Sittwe, on April 26.

“I lived with my wife for 20 years, I want her back,” he said quietly, “My wife did nothing, knew nothing.”

The officials had entered his neighbors’ house during a household registration procedure, but a scuffle broke out when they refused to sign an official document stating that they were ethnically “Bengalis”.

They were promptly arrested by the angered officials, as was Baudi Amin’s wife and a trishaw driver who was dropping her off at home. In a reaction to the events, children at the nearby school started shouting “Rohingya! Rohingya!” Allegedly some threw stones at the officers, injuring one of them.

During an interview three weeks later, Baudi Amin, a 50-year-old thin, tall man, still seems stunned by the incident, as do his two children – his 12-year-old daughter breaks down in tears at the mention of her mother.

“I am too scared to ask the police about my wife,” he said. “I don’t feel like eating anymore ever since they took her.”

Baudi Amin’s family is ethnic Kaman, a Muslim minority that are officially recognized as Burmese citizens. But like tens of thousands of other Muslim households in western Burma’s Arakan State, they are suffering the consequences of the deadly violence that broke out between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists one year ago.

On June 8, 2012, residents of the Muslim-dominated Maungdaw District attacked Arakanese Buddhists, burning their homes and killing several villagers. The violence was sparked by two earlier incidents in southern Arakan – the killing of 10 Muslim pilgrims by Buddhists on June 3 and the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men on May 28.

The violence quickly spread to the state capital Sittwe and surroundings, where the groups clashed for days. Unrest resurged in October 2012, reaching another three townships. About 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, were displaced by the violence, which left almost 200 people dead.

The violence also led to sectarian tensions elsewhere, and clashes in April between Buddhists and Muslims in central Burma killed 44 people.

Government measures: reinforcing statelessness

As soon as Arakan crisis began, Burma’s Buddhist-dominated government segregated the two communities in Arakan State, ostensibly for security reasons. It tightened numerous restrictions on the Muslim population, which have affected their freedom of movement, access to healthcare, education and employment, and other basic rights.

For many months now, authorities have confined Rohingyas to their villages, while some 120,000 displaced Muslims are kept in dirty, crowded camps in the countryside.

The government claims the harsh treatment of the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas is justified as they are not recognized as citizens under a 1982 law. It labels them “Bengalis,” to suggest that they crossed into Arakan illegally from neighboring Bangladesh in past decades – a widely-held view among the ethnic Arakanese and Burma’s Buddhist majority.

Citizenship rights are at the heart of the conflict, as Rohingyas insist that they have lived in Arakan for many generations and should gain citizenship.

In the past year, however, the government has introduced measures that consolidate the group’s statelessness, a move that is raising local tensions to new levels. A report on the violence, released in April, reaffirmed the government’s position on the citizenship issue. The report also claimed that “high population growth” among the Muslim population was a root cause of the violence.

During a visit to Sittwe Township in mid-May, Irrawaddy reporters encountered widespread resentment among the Rohingyas against the authorities’ household registration exercise, which began in Pauktaw Township in November and in Sittwe Township and Maungdaw District in April.

Maung Maung, a community leader at Te Chaung, a camp near Sittwe where thousands of displaced Rohingyas live, said that several attempts to register families there had ended in arguments due to the procedure’s requirement that households register as Bengalis. “We will never accept being called Bengali, we are Rohingya,” he said.

Myo Thant, a Rohingya politician of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, said that in his constituency of Maungdaw Township authorities were using digital scanners to collect fingerprints and data among households.

Local Rohingyas, he said, were determined to resist registration. “If we accept Bengali now, we worry that one day the government will take away all our rights and say that we are immigrants and we will have to leave Burma,” he explained. “We are Rohingya, not Bengali – this is very important.”

Arakan State spokesperson Win Myaing denied that the procedure intended to record a family’s ethnicity and he insisted that only displaced Muslims were interviewed. “We just made a list of people in order to provide food and aid to them, like WFP does,” he said, without explaining why those in undestroyed villages were also being questioned.

Win Myaing said the operation had been suspended in late April due to the growing resistance. “They said they will only provide the number of people in their household when they are called Rohingyas. They throw stones and beat people who were collecting information for the list. So we temporarily stopped,” he said.

Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Thailand-based Rohingya rights group, said the purpose of the registration exercise was shrouded in secrecy, and neither the Rohingyas, nor UN officials, are aware of its outcome.

Lewa said the exercise was probably being used “to confirm they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in order to deny them citizenship… and therefore to continue to justify arbitrary treatment against them, which will inevitably encourage them to leave.”

“The central government has so far done nothing to reduce tensions, while the Arakan State government and other Rakhine groups are making statements that could lead to more violence,” she said.

The past dry season, Lewa added, a record 27,000 Rohingyas refugees tried to flee to other countries by crossing the Bay of Bengal in small boats. Many have died on the way.

At Te Chaung camp, a maze of rickety bamboo huts covered with plastic tarpaulins located on a muddy paddy field, Rohingyas complained that they can gain only certain freedoms if they obtain a temporary ID card that designates them as “Bengali.”

“We need that to travel,” said a 19-year-old Rohingya, one several men who gathered furtively behind a shack to talk to reporters. “If we don’t have this card and we travel, we will go to prison for six months,” said another, while holding up the small paper document.

In mid-May in rural Sittwe, hundreds of armed police and soldiers could be seen at numerous check points and in compounds located along the roads between Muslim camps and villages.

In government-recognized camps, families have been dependent on UN aid handouts for many months. At unofficial camps and in the isolated Rohingya villages, families are forced to eke out a living by themselves. According to the UN Refugee Agency, authorities have refused to recognize almost 16,000 displaced people.

Most of the displaced come from Sittwe, where about 70,000 Muslims – representing almost half of the town’s original’s population – were chased away. The trauma of the violence, loss of family members, and the destruction of their homes, has left many deeply despondent about their future.

Sa Hein Kyaw, 20, recalled how his family in Kyaung Tatlang village, near Sittwe, was attacked by Arakanese Buddhist villagers armed with steel pipes and cleavers. “They tied our hands and brought us to a nearby stream,” he said. “The hit my father on the head and broke his hands. My mother was hit above the eye, she needed seven stitches. I was knocked unconscious.”

His family survived because another Arakanese man from a nearby village interfered in the violence and brought them to Sittwe Hospital. Although Sa Hein Kayw was lucky to survive, the unrest dashed his hopes for the future.

“I was a third-year Botany student at Sittwe University. But now they ban Muslims from going there,” he said, “I feel like I’m a dead man – I have no future, no job, nothing.”

Sittwe A Year On, A Buddhist-controlled Town

Several lines of police and army security on the edge of Sittwe form a sharp demarcation line between the crowded and desperate scenes in the countryside and the quiet streets of the old town. Here, the Arakanese Buddhist population goes about their daily business unperturbed. Students ride their bicycles to school and trishaws ferry middle-aged women through the crumbling colonial center to the busy markets. In the Arakanese community there is a sense of contentment at the segregation, which is seen as a measure necessary to protect their interests.
“The Arakanese people don’t accept to live close to Bengali people, we have too much fighting,” said Khin Maung Gree, a central committee member of the Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP) during an interview at a run-down wooden house that functions as the party’s Sittwe headquarters.
“Arakanese and Bengalis can never combine, never. They are more like Bangladeshis, their features, their dark complexion, their culture – we are different, we are Buddhists,” he adds.
Several fellow RNDP members nod in an agreement, and some outline the supposed advantages of the unrest and subsequent segregation. “The conflict promotes Arakan unity,” said one. “The UN will come and promote education of the Muslims. That is good, before they only went to madrassas, they didn’t know anything.” To the laughter of some, another added, “Most of them are thieves – now there is no more theft problem in Sittwe!”

Like many Arakanese however, the RNDP are quick to deny that they initiated the violence. “We never started it, we are under the central government and we have no arms. Maybe the government started it, or the Bengalis,” Khin Maung Gree said.

The influential Arakanese politicians, community leaders and local Buddhist monks have been accused by the US-based Human Rights Watch of planning a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Burma’s government, the group alleges, actively supported Buddhist mob attacks and has allowed these crimes to go unpunished – a claim that Naypyidaw has strongly denied.

The international community has criticized the government’s approach to resolving the Arakan crisis and says that authorities have also hindered aid deliveries to the Rohingyas.

Khin Maung Gree dismisses the accusations of ethnic cleansing as “a point of view” and stresses that outsiders don’t understand that the growing Muslim population, and the 160 million Muslims in neighboring Bangladesh, are intent on pushing out Arakanese Buddhists, who number around 3 million.

“They are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, they need our land, they want to Muslimize our land,” he said. “They have political, religions ambitions, so they make up a name, Rohingya, to claim they are natives of this state.”

The uncompromising attitudes of Arakan politicians and community leaders seem to indicate that inter-communal violence could resume again in the coming months, and in Sittwe such anger is aimed at the inhabitants of the town’s last remaining Muslim neighborhood, Aung Mingalar.

Unlike other Rohingya quarters, which have been reduced to rubble, Aung Mingalar, which comprises several street blocks in the Sittwe’s old center, somehow escaped full-on attacks and destruction by Buddhist mobs. Authorities are confining its approximately 6,500 inhabitants to the area, turning it into a Muslim ghetto sealed off by security forces.

It is cut off from UN aid deliveries and aid workers struggle to gain access. Irrawaddy reporters were blocked from entering the area.

Although the neighborhood is heavily guarded, some Arakanese talk menacingly about their hate towards its residents.

“Aung Mingalar is a problem because the Bengalis live there, but we don’t them want them living here,” said the director of the Arakan Social Alliance Foundation, a community organization located close to Aung Mingalar. “They are hostile because they are Bengalis… Some Bengali children tried to start a fire in the neighborhood this month,” the man claimed.

On the western edge of Aung Mingalar, an empty stretch of grassland spanning some about 100 meters is guarded by a few armed policemen. Before the violence, Rohingya families and Arakanese Buddhists lived here side by side, but now it forms a buffer zone between the communities.

“Fourteen houses were destroyed here: two Arakanese, 12 Muslim homes,” explained Maung Aye, a 40-year-old Arakanese man. “I lost my house and moved in with my mother-in-law.” Asked why Aung Mingalar had survived the unrest, he said, “Here we negotiated with each other, and after three days we had no more trouble… In other places they fought for a long time.”

Aung Mingalar residents said they were glad to be under government protection, but complained that life in the area was extremely difficult.

“We are grateful to the government, without security we would have been dead a long time ago,” Atea, a 40-year-old medicine shop owner told The Irrawaddy by phone. “But we have no doctors or healthcare here. Only if we have a serious health problem can we ask [community leader]U Shwe La to arrange a hospital visit.”

Despondently, he added, “We cannot leave. Now, we are not humans, we are treated like animals on a farm. We get food and water, but have no rights and we can get no education, nothing.” I hope one day the government will arrange a better life for me.”

Names of some people in this story were changed for protection reasons. Additional reporting by Saw Yan Naing.

Paul Vrieze and Htet Naing Zaw