By Lawi Weng
January 13, 2014
RANGOON — Hundreds of Rohingya university students in Arakan State have been prevented from continuing higher education pursuits, with authorities saying their safety cannot be guaranteed more than a year after communal violence tore through the region.
Universities in several Arakan townships were shuttered to all students in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 violence, but while Rohingya Muslims say their education has been put on indefinite hold, their Buddhist counterparts have since been allowed to continue their studies and some have gone on to graduate.
Rohingya students from Sittwe and Buthidaung townships told The Irrawaddy on Monday that state authorities claimed that they could not provide security to Rohingya seeking to re-enroll at Sittwe University, which closed after the first outbreak of violence between local Arakanese Buddhists and the minority Muslims in June 2012, but has since allowed non-Rohingya students to return to campus.
Aung Win, a Rohingya activist, said there were at least 1,000 Rohingya university students from 15 of Arakan State’s 17 townships who were being denied the opportunity to continue their studies.
“The government does not allow them [students] to study. They have been waiting for almost two years to study and they do not have anything to do,” Aung Win said.
Win Myaing, an Arakan State government spokesman, disputed the activist’s claim, saying authorities had enlisted Muslim university graduates to teach students at camps for the internally displaced persons (IDPs). The state government had also arranged for students to sit exams at the universities, he claimed.
“I completely reject the accusations,” Win Myaing said. “We have arranged the examinations since last year, so why are they complaining now?”
The spokesman said only about one in 10 university students in the state were Muslims.
Students say they have asked the government to allow them to continue their studies in Arakan State or transfer to universities in other states and divisions, but the government continues to ignore their requests.
The students’ families and community leaders have suggested that Muslims be allowed to study at an old, unused campus in Sittwe, according to Aung Win, who acknowledged that security arrangements would likely be necessary, with the current campus located nearby in the Aung Mingalar quarter of Sittwe.
Aung Than Naing from Buthidaung, a township near the border with Bangladesh, studied physics at Sittwe University but was only able to finish his first semester when his studies were interrupted by the university’s closing in June 2012.
He said that he and other students asked the state government twice last year to let them transfer to other universities if they could not study in Sittwe, but had received no response to either request.
“I’ve had a dream to get a degree since I joined university and my parents encouraged me a lot to study. I will have a good job after I get a degree. This is what I deserve for my parents’ effort, their money for my studies. Buthidaung has a poor economy, but my parents worked for me to study,” said Aung Than Naing.
He urged the government to allow students to transfer to universities elsewhere if authorities were concerned for the safety of Rohingya enrollees.
Aung Than Naing said he could no longer travel to Sittwe after the violence between local Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The former university enrollee said some of his former Arakanese classmates had already graduated.
Than Htay Oo, 24, was a second-semester botany student when he was forced to put his education on hold.
“One time my classmates called me by phone and told me about how they had graduated. Words can’t express how sad I felt over this.”
Given remaining tensions in Sittwe, Than Htay Oo said he did not want to return to university even if authorities would allow it, citing concerns that fresh violence might break out.
Than Htay Oo, who has spent his time since the university’s closure teaching children at a camp for IDPs in western Sittwe, still holds out hope that he will complete his education.
“I want to have at least two degrees. After that, I will find a career job,” he said.
Meanwhile, township authorities have told the students that they have the option of enrolling in a distance education program to prepare for examinations.
The Burmese government heavily restricts Rohingyas’ ability to travel to other parts of the country, and some have been imprisoned for traveling without authorities’ permission.
Aung Win said he did not think that the state government would issue the required travel documents to Rohingya, effectively leaving them at an educational dead-end for the time being.
“They have provided security for Arakanese students. If they provide security forces for our Muslim students, we could study at the former campus. I found that they do not want our race to be educated,” Aung Win said.
During two outbreaks of religious violence in 2012, nearly 200 people were killed and about 140,000 others were displaced, most of them Muslims. About half of the displaced were Muslim residents who were chased out of Sittwe by local Buddhists. Most of the displaced continue to reside in squalid, crowded camps.
Than Htay Oo, the botany student, said trust between area Muslims and Arakanese had only diminished since the two communities were separated by authorities in the aftermath of the violence.
“We wanted to stay as one community, but they [Arakanese] do not want this,” Than Htay Oo said. “We do not want to stay separated, which has brought discrimination against us.”