SITTWE: Praying with a Quran on his knees in a mud-strewn camp, Rohin Mullah is one of thousands of Muslims uprooted by sectarian bloodshed in Myanmar. But the former monk’s story is far from normal.
Born a Buddhist, he fell in love with a girl on the other side of the religious divide — a member of the Rohingya minority group shunned by Myanmar society at large.
He has since been ostracised by his former neighbours, lost his home and lives in a camp for displaced people in western Rakhine state, which is reeling from an upsurge of Buddhist-
Muslim violence since June.
“The Rakhine side hated me when I converted to Islam,” he said
Mullah, 37, who changed his name from Kyaw Tun Aung, has had no contact with his parents since he married 10 years ago.
“For three days, my mother asked me why I was going to Islam, and I said that I didn’t like Buddhism, that I thought it was not the right religion,” he recalled.
His wife Amina, a round-faced 30-year-old with her hair tucked under a headscarf, said that despite the lack of tolerance for their marriage, they had “a very happy life” together.
“But since the violence, our life is hard,” she added.
Mullah, a construction worker, lived with his wife and three children in Rayngwesu, a Muslim district of the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, until clashes engulfed their neighbourhood in June.
He said the family’s home was one of the first to be torched.
Mullah’s background as a Rakhine Buddhist — who spent four years as a monk before converting one-and-a-half decades ago — did not help protect his home.
“Monks remembered me from the monastery, and they attacked my family and destroyed everything in my house,” he said.
Amina has not met her in-laws.
“I have never even seen them,” she said, adding that her husband was “a good Muslim”.
Their situation is unusual in Rakhine, despite estimates of around 800,000 Rohingya living in the state.
There are “not more than 100” mixed marriage couples, said Abu Tahay, a leader of the National Democratic Party for Development, which campaigns for the rights of the Rohingya — considered by the United Nations to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
“Some people meet and fall in love in school or doing business,” he said, but few opportunities for inter-religious courtship exist between the communities.
Oo Hla Saw, general secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said he did know of one Muslim woman who had converted to Buddhism to marry a Rakhine, but “generally, Rakhine people do not accept mixed couples”.
A long history of discrimination and prejudice has left the Rohingya stateless, with restrictions placed on their movements and scant access to public services.
They are considered by the government and many ordinary people to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
June’s violence left about 90 people dead, according to official figures, although some rights groups estimate many more may have died. Three people were killed in the latest outbreak of violence on Tuesday.
Thousands from both communities were left homeless after whole villages were burned to the ground.
Now Mullah shares the fate of more than 50,000 Muslims, mainly Rohingya, who are housed in several wretched camps in the state, unable to go home.
For more than four months the family has lived with around 1,000 others in the Dabang camp on the outskirts of Sittwe.
Their flimsy white tent, lashed to a palm tree and bearing the slogan “Saudi Arabia, Kingdom of Humanity”, is only a few metres square and pitched in thick mud as the monsoon drags on — a particular hardship as they struggle to look after their children including a six-month-old baby.
There is little sign of an end in sight — the fighting appears to have deepened animosities between the two communities, with growing calls among Buddhists for the Rohingya to be removed.
But Mullah and his wife said they have no regrets about choosing each other.
They even hope that one day they will be able to return to the lives they knew before and help reconcile the two communities.
“I want to go back to the city, where I lived for so many years,” Mullah said. “I would be very happy to live with Rakhine people.”