April 23, 2013
Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s restive Rakhine state, is a town divided. Or, put more accurately, segregated, thanks to the majority Buddhist Rakhine people developing a passion for beating, raping, murdering and setting fire to members of the local Muslim Rohingya minority. As it stands, the Rohingya have been ghettoised into a series of IDP (internally displaced person) camps just outside of Sittwe.
Things have been this way since last June, when the region witnessed a massive outbreak of sectarian violence following the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman and a revenge attack that killed ten Muslims. From there, events escalated dramatically. Countless houses have been razed and large numbers from both communities displaced. However, only the Rohingya suffered from systematic persecution by government security forces – again, involving rape and murder – in the aftermath. Further violence in October elsewhere in the state pushed the total number of IDPs over the 100,000 mark, almost all of them drawn from the Rohingya community.
Such persecution for the Muslim minority is nothing new; they have been subjected to marginalisation and violence within Burma for decades, mostly at the hands of the former ruling Junta. Almost all have been effectively stateless since a citizenship law was passed in 1982, which effectively classified the group as foreigners, despite their presence in the country for centuries. Many NGOs have characterised the law and its consequences as part of a long-standing campaign to pressure the Rohingya into leaving Burma.
The situation for the minority, described by the UN as one of the world’s most vulnerable, is evidently rough. Yet not everyone sees them as victims. During a visit to one of Sittwe’s many Buddhist monasteries, a resident cenobitic monk told me that, “All the problems here are the fault of the kalar” – that last word a racist epithet for the Rohingya. “They want to take over all of Rakhine state,” he insisted. They were “terrorists” and the Rakhine people could not be made to live with them or violence would break out once again, he asserted.
A day later, visiting the Rohingya IDP camps, I had the opportunity to gain a very different perspective. I sat in on an art therapy session hosted by a visiting humanitarian volunteer, in which children were encouraged to render their memories of last year’s violence using coloured pens and paper. Many of their drawings depicted members of the Burmese government’s Hlun Tin paramilitary outfit shooting at people outside of burning homes. One child, explaining what she drew in a particularly affecting piece, mentioned calmly that she had seen the severed head of a mentally disabled boy she once knew laying by the bank of a river. Another said that she saw a woman have her skull smashed in by a Rakhine man and that she saw some of her brain spill out.
That night I refreshed my memory on what the government line on the unrest had been last year. President Thein Sein mystifyingly appeared to deny that that the violence was connected to racial tensions. His foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, told the Irrawaddy newspaper that the violence was “not the fault of the government or the people of Myanmar” – a grouping that, tellingly, did not exclude the Rohingya from blame, but managed to clear the Rakhine. It was hard not to see such remarks as indicative of discrimination against the worst victims of the violence – those children included.
Two days later, I visited one of the most deprived parts of the camps, an area populated by “unregistered” IDPs who don’t qualify for the limited official aid allowed into Rohingya wards. According to a source within the human rights community, the decision to confer registered status on some IDPs and not others was determined on an “arbitrary” basis.
As I walked around the dusty encampment, malnourished children approached me making plaintive begging gestures while pointing to their stomachs. I saw an infant whose skin had nearly been burnt off on much of her upper body after a cooking accident in one of the makeshift straw-covered tents. Her only aid came from a visiting non-government doctor.
In the midst of this shocking scene, a modestly-sized food truck appeared, announced with a sudden uproar of joy from the camp’s children, who chased it excitedly up a worn path to an unloading point above their field. I had no idea where it had come from, yet the people there seemed to assume its cargo was meant for them. The feeling of relief expressed was infectious and it was impossible not to be deeply grateful on their behalf.
Within minutes, the mood darkened. It emerged that what had seemed to be a marvel of deliverance was more like a sadistic joke. We were told by some of the IDPs that, despite initial impressions, they now believed the food would be distributed exclusively in the registered camps nearby. We were later informed by reliable sources that no one in the unregistered area received a single bag of rice from the truck.
I went back to my hotel that night, acutely aware of my own privileges, feeling a sickening blend of exhaustion and seething anger. As bad as the false hope of the rice was, it was a greater agony to consider what the coming weeks promised for them and the rest of the camps: death and sickness on a massive scale.
In May, the rainy season will begin and the open-air prisoners of Sittwe’s ghettos will almost certainly face what Human Rights Watch, relevant UN bodies and the European Commission predict will be a humanitarian disaster. Malaria and many other diseases will likely kill thousands – a scenario only made more inevitable by the criminal inaction of the Burmese authorities, who have dismissed calls to move the IDPs to ground that will not flood. It’s almost as if they want them to die.
That’s still the impression I have. It’s no consolation to consider how little the West has done so far to step up and help these desperate people, given its newfound influence over Burma. As astute commentators have observed, Washington is seeking to “counter rising Chinese assertiveness by engaging its neighbours”, which may account for its apparent reluctance to get tough with those in power in Naypyidaw. Meanwhile, the EU – who have been similarly muted – are on the verge of permanently lifting sanctions against Burma over the objections of rights groups.
Perhaps only when displacement and humanitarian disaster mutate into fully-blown ethnic cleansing, the global community will act decisively to help this imperilled people. That this may occur seems far from impossible, particularly given the enduring tensions in Rakhine state and the recent wave of anti-Muslim violence elsewhere in the country.
That it may take such an event to get the West to intervene should be an international scandal in itself. But it seems the world has a short memory, and while economic imperatives dominate over moral ones in global affairs, it’s entirely plausible that Rohingya children may be sketching corpses for some time yet.