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Myanmar Muslims trapped in a ghetto

Muslim Rohingyas stand outside a school sheltering Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the village of Theik Kayk Pyim, located on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. — AFP

SITTWE — Barbed wire and armed troops guard the Muslim quarter of a violence-wracked city in western Myanmar, a virtual prison for the families that have inhabited its narrow streets for generations.
The security forces outside the ghetto in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe are not there to stop its residents leaving — although few dare to anyway — but to protect them from Buddhist mobs after an outburst of sectarian hatred.

In the nearby city center, life has regained some semblance of normality since the authorities imposed a state of emergency in June in response to Buddhist-Muslim clashes that left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless.

But inside the tense enclave of Aung Mingalar, hundreds of families from the Rohingya Muslim minority group say they are living in fear for their lives.

“Rakhines will attack us today,” one man told AFP at Friday prayers last week.

The same evening groups of Rakhine Buddhists — who have also accused the Rohingya of attacks on their communities — gathered outside the barriers, prompting troops to fire warning shots and sparking panic inside.

On three separate days earlier in the week, hundreds of ethnic Rakhines — sometimes led by Buddhist monks — had marched near the perimeter demanding the “relocation” of Aung Mingalar.

Their shouts were clearly audible by people within the ghetto, who could only imagine what was happening outside.

“In my opinion, living in the Sahara desert in Africa would be better than living in this situation,” said 28-year-old Mohamed Said, tears welling in his eyes.

“We cannot suffer anymore. We have lost everything but our lives. We are human beings as well,” a crying Said said.

Between 3,000 and 8,000 people are thought to live in an area of roughly 0.5 sq km, where no traffic circulates and almost all shops have been shuttered.

Supplies of food — mainly rice — are provided by the authorities and some benevolent Buddhist locals, forced to deliver aid discreetly for fear of fanning local resentments. But there is not enough to eat.

Some Rohingya have dared to breach the barriers — which vary from bamboo and barbed wire to simple security cordons — hiding their faces under hoods to prevent people identifying them.

But most people have not ventured outside in four months.

“This bamboo fence is like a psychological barrier, symbolizing the fear that separates the two worlds,” said Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, which campaigns for Rohingya rights.

Calls are growing for the Muslim quarter to be moved.

“If the Aung Mingalar quarter stays in the city centre, the problem will get worse,” said Nya Na, a leader of a monk association.

“I don’t want the two communities to fight. It is risky for them to stay.”

The stateless Rohingya have long been considered by the United Nations to be one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet.

The segregation recalls South African apartheid in the 1980s, “but worse” because the Rohingya are unable to leave their camps, Lewa said.

“Freedom of movement was always an issue for the Rohingya, but it is an extreme restriction now,” said Sarnata Reynolds, of aid group Refugees International.

“Unofficially there seems to be widespread agreement that the camps will likely be there for three years or more, and that it might be the beginning of a permanent segregation.” — AFP
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