SITTWE, Myanmar // There are no Muslim faithful in most of this crumbling town’s main mosques anymore, no Muslim students at its university.
They’re gone from the market, missing from the port, too terrified to walk on just about any street in the centre of the town.
Three-and-a-half months after some of the bloodiest clashes in a generation between Myanmar’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslims known as Rohingya left the western town of Sittwe in flames, nobody is quite sure when, or even if, the Rohingya will be allowed to resume the lives they once lived here.
The conflict has fundamentally altered the demographic landscape of this coastal state capital, giving way to a disturbing policy of government-backed segregation that contrasts starkly with the democratic reforms Myanmar’s leadership has promised the world since half a century of military rule ended last year.
While the Rakhine can move freely, some 75,000 Rohingya have effectively been confined to a series of rural displaced camps outside Sittwe and a single central district they dare not leave for fear of being attacked.
For the town’s Muslim population, it is a life of exclusion that is separate, and anything but equal.
“We’re living like prisoners here,” said Thant Sin, a Rohingya shopkeeper who has been holed up since June in the last Rohingya-dominated quarter of central Sittwe that wasn’t burnt down.
Too afraid to leave, the 47-year-old cannot work anyway. The blue wooden doors of his shuttered pharmaceutical stall sit abandoned inside the town’s main market – an area only Rakhine are now allowed to enter.
The crisis in western Myanmar goes back decades and is rooted in a highly controversial dispute over where the region’s Muslim inhabitants are really from. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated here as foreigners – intruders who came from neighbouring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
The United Nations estimates their number at 800,000. But the government does not count them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and so, like Bangladesh, denies them citizenship. Human-rights groups say racism also plays a role. Many Rohingya, who speak a distinct Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.
In late May, tensions boiled over after the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman, allegedly by three Rohingya, in a town south of Sittwe. By mid-June, skirmishes between rival mobs carrying swords, spears and iron rods erupted across the region. Conservative estimates put the death toll at about 100 across the state, with 5,000 homes burnt along with dozens of mosques and monasteries.
Sittwe suffered more damage than most, and today blackened tracts of rubble-strewn land filled with knotted tree stumps are scattered everywhere. The largest, called Narzi, was home to 10,000 Muslims.
The Human Rights Watch agency accused security forces of colluding with Rakhine mobs at the height of the mayhem, opening fire on Rohingya even as they struggled to douse the flames of their burning homes.
Speaking to a delegation of visiting US diplomats earlier this month, Lt Gen Thein Htay, the border affairs minister, described Sittwe’s new status quo. Drawing his finger across a town map, he said there are now “lines that cannot be crossed” by either side, or else “there will be aggression … there will be disputes”.
He added: “It’s not what we want, but this is the reality we face.”
While police and soldiers are protecting mosques and guarding Rohingya in camps, there is much they cannot control. One group of 300 local Buddhist leaders, for example, issued pamphlets urging the Rakhine not to do business with the Rohingya or even talk to them. It is the only way, they say, to avert violence.