Arakanese nationalism

“We are the Middle East”

The Rohingya question and ethnic cleansing in northwestern Myanmar

Daniel Otis
June 3, 2013
“We are the Middle East”
Waiting for the flood: Sayed Hussein (in white) has begun constructing an earthen wall around his hut in anticipation of this month's rains. Photo: Daniel Otis

Sittwe, Myanmar – Sinewy, stern and draped in a saffron robe, U Sa King Da sits at the foot of a towering white and gold Buddha. The icon’s head is illuminated in a technicolour LED halo. U Sa King Da’s face is obscured by the darkness enveloping the monastery.

“The so-called Rohingya want to take over Rakhine state,” U Sa King Da says. “Our culture and religion are at risk.”

He clears his throat, and punctuates his sentences by splattering streams of thick betel juice into the plastic bucket at his side. Earlier in the day, a foreign aid worker described the 38-year-old monk as a “fascist”. The leader of the 200-strong Young Monks’ Association, U Sa King Da regularly visits every humanitarian agency office in the state capital, making sure that things are “fair” – that is, that international aid is distributed equally to the area’s Buddhists and Muslims.

“Most humanitarian aid goes to the Muslim side,” he says. “International organisations don’t realise how bad the situation is for us.”

A middle-aged sycophant mumbles his agreement. U Sa King Da silences him with a scowl. “It’s like this: You are the host, and a guest comes to visit. This guest then declares that it is his house, that your possessions are his. Is it possible to continue living with someone like this?”

He begins ranting about the moral degeneracy of the state’s Muslims. They’re polygamous, he says. Incestuous, too. They deliberately contract diseases to get free medication. Some, U Sa King Da says, even set fire to their own homes to vilify the area’s Buddhists and garner sympathy from the international community.

“My goal is to educate people so we can solve this problem peacefully,” he added.

Since June 2012, international media have been describing the plight of the Rohingya – a group of approximately one million Muslims from Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state that has been called “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities”. They have been persecuted, it is claimed, by the government of Myanmar and the Rakhine – also known as the Arakanese – the ethnic majority in their eponymous state. The Rakhine are increasingly nationalistic progeny of a Buddhist kingdom that thrived in the area from the dawn of the Common Era before being conquered by the neighbouring Burmese in 1785.

While the two communities were never completely integrated, Rakhine Muslims and the Arakanese had been mingling in schools, tea shops and marketplaces for decades. This changed, the Arakanese say, after a group of Muslim men gang raped and murdered an Arakanese woman on May 28, 2012. On June 3, an Arakanese mob retaliated, beating ten Muslims to death on a bus. Five days later, the state descended into an orgy of fire and blood as Muslim mobs attacked their Buddhist neighbours, and vice versa. Between October 21 and 24, a second, more organised wave of violence took place – this one orchestrated by the Arakanese. State security forces either watched or participated.

In the past year, more than 7,700 homes have been destroyed in Rakhine state and, officially, 211 people have been killed. Observers say the real number of deaths is likely much higher. Nearly 140,000 people are now displaced, the vast majority of them – some 94% – Muslim. Most of these people live in internally displaced person (IDP) camps. Thousands of other Rakhine Muslims have pushed off in boats. Many have been turned away by Bangladesh and Thailand, and hundreds are thought to have been lost at sea. Meanwhile, throughout the state, Muslim villages and quarters have been sealed off by security forces, allegedly to protect their inhabitants from further attacks, but essentially creating ethnic ghettos that lack access to food, water, and medical supplies. Moreover, whereas Muslims once constituted nearly half of the bustling state capital’s 180,000 inhabitants, the streets of Sittwe are now entirely Muslim-free.

Crumbling along Sittwe’s main boulevard are the domes and elegantly imposing spires of the 154-year-old Jama Mosque. The tangle of an overgrown garden peaks above high, once-white walls that are now grey, green and black from lichen, moss and flames. Two police officers guard the mosque’s entrance – one with a new Chinese assault rifle, the other with a battered carbine that looks like it could date from the Second World War. No one, they tell me, is allowed inside.

We are the Middle East

You are the host, and a guest comes to visit. This guest then declares that it is his house, that your possessions are his. Is it possible to continue living with someone like this?

U Sa King Da, Young Monk’s Association

Past shops, guesthouses and banks – many of which fly the red, white and blue Rakhine state flag – towards the passenger jetty on the left-hand side of the road is the weather-stained, wood-slat house that serves as the headquarters of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, or the RNDP. The RNDP is a political party that won 35 seats in Myanmar’s 2010 general election, making it the dominant political force in the state. Rakhine Muslims and groups such as Human Rights Watch claim that through pamphlets, speeches and demonstrations, the RNDP (abetted by Myanmar’s government and local monastic associations) is driving Rakhine state’s anti-Rohingya campaign.

“Our objective is the development of the Rakhine people,” says 60-year-old Khin Maung Gree, a central committee member of the RNDP. “Muslims try to dominate society with their population – that is our biggest danger.”

He says that the state’s Muslims are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – extremists intent on conquering the Arakanese homeland through their “high birth rate”. Claiming that ‘Rohingya’ is an invented term, Khin Maung Gree pejoratively refers to these people as “Bengali” and “Kalar”.

“We want the government to take them to a third country,” Khin Maung Gree says. “While we can accept those that have citizenship papers, they need to be given their own, separate places to live.”

When asked him if he sees parallels with the Israel-Palestine conflict, he laughs.

“We are the Middle East.”

Out of Sittwe, there are neighbourhoods – both Arakanese and Muslim – that have been reduced to rubble, litter and ash. Through the military checkpoint is a world cloaked in dust; with men in topi caps, women with covered heads, and an overwhelming aura of destitution and despair.

The IDP camps, many of which were hastily constructed atop dry coastal rice paddies, are in serious danger of being flooded in the rainy season that begins this month. If the IDPs manage to survive being inundated, they’ll face malaria and diseases borne from the camps’ already-taxed septic systems. While permanent shelter has been constructed for the 7,300 Buddhists who lost their homes during the June and October riots, so far, and despite mounting international pressure, no attempts have been made by Myanmar’s government to move the state’s 130,000 Muslim IDPs to higher ground. If nothing is done soon, this inaction will lead to a grave humanitarian disaster. Meanwhile, the government and Arakanese routinely block the delivery of international aid.

Sayed Hussein, 33, has been living in an IDP camp for five months. He shares a tiny bamboo and thatch shack with his wife and two children. Hussein apologises for the stench: with overflowing toilets, the area reeks of human waste.

Because he settled in the camp after October, he lives in an ‘unregistered’ camp. He has had to build his own shelter and he receives no outside assistance. He has no idea what they will do in the rainy season.

“If someone donated tarpaulins, maybe we could live here,” he says naively. He does not want to return to the home he abandoned. “We are afraid of the Arakanese.”

When asked if he considers himself Rohingya, Hussein replies that they can worry about identification later. “Right now, our priority is to just live peacefully.”

Nearby, Fatay Makhatu, 57, has lived with her family of six in a three-by-three metre room in a ten-unit longhouse since August. As a registered IDP, she receives a small ration of rice from the government.

“A police battalion fired on us, then forced us from our house,” she says. As far as she knows, her house still stands. “We used to live with the Arakanese like brothers,” she says. “We want everything to go back to how it used to be.”

When asked what she thinks will happen to her family in the future, the woman slumps her shoulders and sighs.

“It depends on the government – and merciful Allah’s decision,” Fatay Makhatu says.

As the sun sets over the Bay of Bengal, thousands of fruit bats alight from Sittwe’s trees. Three elderly men sit on a bench, listening to a radio, talking politics and watching the sea. They come every night, they say and it’s only been a few years that they’ve felt able to speak freely.

One of the men currently lives in an Arakanese IDP camp. Unlike the state’s Muslim IDPs, he’s able to travel where he pleases. He claims that his Muslim neighbours, people he recognised, were part of the mob that torched his community.

“Some Muslims are moderate, but they always defer to their leaders,” he says. “In their religion, it’s okay to kill cows. The Arakanese people won’t even kill chickens. So, if they can kill big animals like that, what about people?”

The man’s textile business has folded since the violence, showing that the Arakanese have also been affected by the recent segregation – albeit to a much lesser degree than Muslims. Previously, Rakhine state’s Muslims formed a sort of economic underclass, working as maids, porters, butchers and agricultural labourers for the Arakanese. With their workers gone, the Arakanese are currently experiencing an economic downturn, and with fewer people tending to their fields and providing meat, they may face a food crisis in the coming year.

Despite this, dozens of interviews in and around Sittwe revealed not find a single Arakanese person hoping for immediate reconciliation.

“No one wants to live with the Rohingya again – including me,” says Southeast Asia Globe’s young Arakanese interpreter, a self-described moderate.

“We can live with Christians and Hindus, but not Muslims… we can’t let Rakhine become a Muslim state.”

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