Rohingya Muslims, who were displaced by communal violence with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists across western Myanmar’s Rakhine state nearly eight years ago, say that prospects for improving their lives look dimmer than ever as they still live in near-apartheid conditions.
The wave of brutal slayings and attacks in June 2012 left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 120,000 Rohingya, who were later forced to live in squalid camps scattered around the state that borders southeastern Bangladesh.
During that explosion of violence, tens of thousands of stateless Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh to shelter at refugee camps and settlements in Cox’s Bazar. The population of those camps has swelled to around 1.1 million refugees.
These include more than 740,000 Rohingya who fled across the frontier after Myanmar’s military and security forces launched a brutal military offensive in August 2017, in the wake of deadly raids carried out by a Rohingya insurgent group.
Back in 2012, entire communities in Rakhine were burned down, including Narzi ward in the state capital Sittwe, where Khin Maung, a 30-something year-old Rohingya said he lived with his family. During the violence, Khin Maung, his relatives, and other residents escaped to the west side of town where other Muslims were living.
Khin Maung told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA) that he did not know whether his family would ever be able to return to their original ward, with restrictions still imposed on the free movement of the Rohingya in Rakhine and beyond. BenarNews is affiliated with RFA.
“I cannot guess when our return to the original place will take place,” he said. “Only Allah knows. I am only expecting Allah’s decision.”
Khin Maung’s mother, Ah Ray Shah, said she missed her house in Narzi ward.
“Even though everything has been destroyed and I’ve lost everything, I miss my house,” she said. “I miss my small shop. I would like to go back and live there now.”
Amid the riots in June 2012, Rohingya Muslims torched eight ethnic Rakhine communities on the south side of northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw township: Go Mu, Way Thali, Shwe Yin Aye, Bawdigon, Khayay Myaing, Thayay Konbaung, Mawrawaddy, and U Daung villages.
In retaliation, ethnic Rakhines destroyed and burned many wards and villages in townships, including Sittwe, Kyaukphyu, Pauktaw, Myebon, and Kyauktaw, where the Rohingya lived.
Myanmar’s government then resettled displaced ethnic Rakhines and herded tens of thousands of Rohingya into camps, where they remain today.
Though officials have closed several of the camps and relocated the Rohingya to other settlements, about 14 still exist, including Theh Gyaung, Dah Pine, Manzi, Thekkeh Byin, Baw Duga, and Ohn Daw Gyi on the west side of Sittwe.
Because racial tensions have not subsided, it is nearly impossible for any Rohingya who has permission to travel the 10-minute drive from the camps to Sittwe even with security guards, some say.
Bahusa Nara, who is in her 30s and lives in the Theh Gyaung displacement camp, said she began suffering from hepatitis two weeks ago, but hadn’t received sufficient medical treatment because she could not pay for it.
The Rohingya woman also said she could not afford the cost of hiring a security guard to escort her to Sittwe Hospital if she had permission to travel.
“If I go to the hospital in the city, I need money,” she told RFA. “I will have to pay the driver and the police. I cannot afford that much. How can I go? That’s why I’ve only been going to the Thekkeh Byin Clinic.”
‘Wherever you go’
Rohingya who want to leave the camps to go into town must first obtain written permission from officials.
“If you must travel, you have to report to the government and then you can go,” said Kyaw Thein Maung, another displaced Rohingya who lives in one of the camps. “The government provides you with security. You have to travel with that security.”
“The government does give us that right,” he added. “It’s not that they don’t give it to us. If you go to the hospital, you have to go with the security. Wherever you go, you have to go with security.”
The problems faced by Bahasu Nara and Khin Maung are typical of the systematic discrimination confronting Rohingyas in Myanmar, where members of the minority group are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Not only are their movements restricted and their access to health service limited, but they are also denied citizenship and prevented from obtaining jobs and formal education.
Because of a lack of income, displaced Rohingya living in the camps must rely on international NGOs to fill the gaps.
After moving from Sittwe in 2017, children from the more than 2,000 families who live at the Thekkeh Byin camp were unable to attend school for two years, because there was no school in the settlement.
An NGO eventually built a primary school facility, and international organizations provide support for those who teach classes there, said camp resident Mohammed Shobi.
Rohingya adults in the camps build their own huts in instances where the government does not build the structures for them. They depend mostly on odd jobs to try to eke out a living.
Ka Sein, who ran his own business in Narzi ward before he was forced to flee in June 2012, said he now has had to improvise so his family could makes ends meet.
“When I was in Narzi, I had a shop in the market,” he said. “At that time, we were able to eat. But we’ve been encountering problems since we arrived here."
“After building the house, I worked as a cobbler, [and] people hire me to build houses,” he said. “If there’s no job, I go around and sell Popsicles.”
‘Not asking for a state’
The Myanmar government, meanwhile, has been shutting down the camps one by one and relocating the Rohingya to other settlements in accordance with recommendations made in an August 2017 report by an advisory commission led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to help resolve the religious and ethnic divisions in the unstable region.
Amid the gradual closures of the camps, the country is still grappling with the fallout of a larger round of violence against the Muslim minority group that began in August 2017 when a military-led crackdown in northern Rakhine left thousands dead. The violence then drove nearly three-quarters of a million Rohingya into southeastern Bangladesh, where they now languish in sprawling refugee camps.
Despite an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to repatriate Rohingya refugees who receive approval to return, none of them have shown up at border crossings to go back to northern Rakhine state through the official program, citing fears of ongoing discriminatory policies, more violence, and denied citizenship rights.
The Rohingya in the Rakhine displacement camps say members of the minority group have lived in the region for generations and should therefore be accorded equal rights to full citizenship.
“We are not asking for a state, and we are not asking for a country either,” said Kyaw Hla, a member of the management committee at the Thekkeh Byin camp. “Recognize us as citizens and allow us to live as we did before.”
Nearly all, except for a few hundred Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, have decided to remain in the squalid but relatively safe displacement camps in Bangladesh. But tens of thousands of others, mainly living in Rakhine state, have paid human traffickers to ferry them to Muslim-friendly countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
However, many are caught by Myanmar authorities and returned to their places of origin where they face charges for violating immigration laws.
Rights activists say more Rohingya will continue to embark on such risky flights because the government has done nothing to address the underlying causes pushing the Muslims out of the country illegally.