ARAKAN STATE — It’s a five-hour boat ride and then a short drive from the Arakan State capital to Maungdaw, a predominately Muslim township in the country’s west that became a major concern for the Burmese government following allegations that dozens of people were killed there last month.
Setting off from Sittwe early in the morning, a boat winds north along Kaladan river, packed with hundreds of passengers, and then connects with Mayou River as it heads west. Most passengers are Arakan State natives, traveling to a destination where foreign tourists are banned, and where international NGOs have sought access in recent weeks but have largely been denied.
For entertainment on a journey earlier this month, a video played from a television on board. The program of choice was a Buddhist dhamma talk, featuring a senior monk who was a member of the nationalist 969 movement, which opposes interfaith marriage and urges people in Buddhist-majority Burma to shun Muslim businesses.
Passengers listened as the monk spread messages of fear, warning that Muslim men were trying to bolster their numbers in the country, in part by marrying multiple wives and having many children. “Look at Pakistan, which was Buddhist in the past. It has become a Muslim country because the Muslims have such a large population. Our people need to be careful,” the monk said.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric has become common in Arakan State, especially since 2012, when two bouts of inter-communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims left scores dead and about 140,000 people displaced. The majority of victims were Rohingya, a Muslim minority that faces severe discrimination because local Buddhists allege that they came illegally from neighboring Bangladesh, although many trace their roots in Burma back generations.
“We feel we are going to have a war with them. We heard their armed groups have been active along the border, and that this will spread,” says Thein Tun Aye, an Arakanese Buddhist in Sittwe, referring to government claims that the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), an Islamist militant group, was involved in the killing of a policeman in Maungdaw last month.
In Sittwe, a coastal town of some 180,000 people, Buddhists and Muslims have been segregated since the violence in 2012, with many Muslims confined to a ghetto-like neighborhood known as Aung Mingalar. That’s where Rohingya rights activist Aung Win must go whenever he wants to visit his parents, offering money to officials in order to enter. “I pay security forces a bribe of 20,000 kyats [US$20] every time,” he tells The Irrawaddy, adding that his own home is in Bume Quarter, also in Sittwe.
About an hour’s drive from the town, thousands of people continue to take shelter in camps after being displaced by the violence. They have received limited assistance from the government and international humanitarian organizations, but some say they struggle to feed their families.
“We do not have enough food here. I’m especially worried for my children,” says Zohra, a 30-year-old Muslim woman who lives in Thetkepyin camp. She says she is afraid to return to her home in Sittwe and will continue to live in the camp, despite the poor conditions.
In many ways, Sittwe seems a world away from Maungdaw, where Buddhists are a small minority compared with Muslims. The township is known in the state as the “western gate,” with Buddhists claiming that it is the entry point for illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
A river demarcates the two countries, and Rohingya fishermen work on boats to haul in their daily catch with nets.
During The Irrawaddy’s visit earlier this month, a teenage boy said he earns about 2,000 kyats ($2) per day but can sometimes make about 5,000 kyats if he’s lucky. In a group of about 20 people, only two fishermen spoke Burmese.
The Burmese government built a fence to block illegal immigrants from entering the country. The fence included barbed wire at a security compound, but not far away the wire had been removed, with large gaps between the poles in the ground. A police officer with the border guard security force, speaking on condition of anonymity and requesting not to be photographed, said the fence stretched for almost 5 kilometers.
About 15 minutes away from the river by motorbike is the town of Maungdaw, home to 23,000 people, of whom about 20,000 are Muslim. At the call to prayer, bearded men in long white tunics walk together to a mosque, while women wear black niqabs that leave only their eyes visible. Earlier this month, the town appeared busy but peaceful during the day. At night, however, the roads were quiet. After dark, Buddhists could be found walking the streets, but most Muslim residents remained inside.
Tensions have lingered after allegations of violence in Du Chee Yar Tan village, about 45 minutes away from Maungdaw town by motorbike. The village in southern Maungdaw Township was allegedly where more than 40 Rohingyas were killed by a Buddhist mob last month, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Burma government has vehemently denied these killings, but Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a medical humanitarian organization, says it treated 22 wounded people in the village in the days following the alleged attack.
Security officials warn outsiders not to enter Du Chee Yar Tan alone.
“They do not trust other people except Muslims. So, if you are going inside the village, it will be dangerous for you,” police lieutenant Wai Phyo Zaw told The Irrawaddy, adding that he would send no less than 10 well-armed officers into the area for any operation.
The Irrawaddy went ahead and investigated the situation in Du Chee Yar Tan. Read more here.