Homeless and Helpless: The Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State
By Andrew Buncombe
The Independent, December 5, 2012
"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 check-points, it matters to his very core. 'Look here. It asks "race" and then says "Rohingya",' says the 68-year-old, touching his chest with one hand while with the other pointing to a photocopied identity card dating from 1974. 'We have been here for a long time. My father, my grandfather, they were born here. We were Rohingya at the time.' For Shwe Maung, a member of a local political party with links to the Buddhist clergy and which wants to force most Muslims from the state, the matter of a name is equally important. These people are not Rohingya, 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 overwhelming majority of them Rohingya Muslims, into squalid refugee camps. The Buddhist community claims they are at risk of being 'swallowed up by outsiders' who they say migrated from neighbouring Bangladesh, while the Rohingya, who say they have lived here for centuries, claim they are the victims of nothing less than 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 wearing a floral print dress, said their neighbourhood had been surrounded by Buddhists and police. 'We had to hide in the lake,' she said, sitting outside her tent. And why were they attacked? 'We don't know,' she replied. 'They want our land, they want our properties. They want us to leave, to leave the country.'
At another camp, Te Chaung, were those who fled more recent violence, both Rohingya 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 October 22. 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. We did not know where everybody was,' 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 and there have been regular outbreaks of violence. While some people say they had friends from the other community, there was never intermarriage. The Buddhists of Rakhine, Burma’s second poorest state, have always felt neglected by the central authorities. They say their history as a proud independent kingdom, known as Arakan and which spread northwards into what is now India, has been overlooked. With no small irony, given their refusal to to use the word Rohingya, many insist their state should still be referred to as Arakan. 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 Rohingya 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 Rohingya were trying to increase their population. Asked where the Rohingya should go, one member, Shwe Maung, swept his palms backwards, as if he were swishing away a fly. Asked if the party was racist, one member insisted: 'No, it's not. We are not anti-Muslim.' While the RNDP says it is secular, it has links to local the Buddhist clergy which has been vocal in its condemnation of the Rohingya. Abbot Ariyawantha of the Sittwe's Shwe Zadi monastery said he had advised the RNDP leadership on various issues. He repeated allegations that 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 had taken part in attacks or that the clergy had been involved in organising attacks."