Myanmar's communal tragedy

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Rakhine state, always one of the most troubled of Myanmar’s troubled ethnic areas has been suffering a particularly virulent spate of communal violence since early June. Villages and houses are being set on fire, people are being beaten and killed.

Fear of the other
Fear of the other is creating a widening gap between the already segregated Muslim (Rohingya) and Buddhist (Rakhine) communities who are now living in a state of almost total isolation. Village communities are swelling with displaced people fleeing insecurity and informal camps are sprouting in public places like sports grounds or schools.

The clashes began on 8 June after a Buddhist woman was raped and killed, allegedly by three Muslim Rohingya men.  Soon after, Buddhist Rakhines mobbed a bus and killed ten Muslims.  Violent retaliatory attacks by one community on the other have mushroomed into the destruction of some 16,000 homes.

The Burmese army has closed off the region, so it’s almost impossible to get accurate figures, but the UN says that around 48,000 people have since been displaced.  At a recent press conference, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said “we expect this number to continue to grow as further information becomes available.”

People dispersed
The medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF) has been forced to evacuate its international staff from their long running malaria programme in Rakhine state.  Its national staff, numbering around 350, has dispersed, returning either to their own villages or to their own ethnic communities. 

Some of them are trying to help at a local level, but according to Operational Manager Joe Belliveau, it’s hard to co-ordinate them.  He said that because the supervisors and managers were mainly foreigners,  many of whom left still in possession of the keys to warehouses and supply stores, “staff have been breaking into the sheds to get to the medicines and supplies to treat people in their communities.”

Belliveau has just returned from Myanmar and said that access was a major problem. “We’re extremely concerned about the mounting humanitarian needs in this area” he said. There is a growing shortage of food and medicines despite the activities of the World Food Programme which is doing its best to cope but is clearly outnumbered by the needs of the people.

“It’s the rainy season,” reports Belliveau “which means that they have drinking water, but there’s also a higher risk of water borne diseases.” MSF has heard of the deaths of at least six children from diarrhea and dehydration, and is growing increasingly concerned about the consequences of being forced to shut down their malaria centres in the region.

Not citizens
Rakhine state in western Myanmar is one of the country’s most underdeveloped areas, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the local Muslim Rohingya community have long been denied citizenship status by the military government.  Human Rights organizations have documented state resettlement and land confiscation programmes when Buddhist Rakhines were encouraged to encroach on Rohingya land. 

The Rohingya, numbering just over 700,000 in a 2009 UN census, have had to live under a particularly stringent regime even by the standards of the junta government. They were not allowed to move out of their villages in search of work, not allowed to marry without permission, and denied the most basic amenities available to Burmese citizens. 

For decades, Rohingya have crossed the border to neighbouring Bangladesh.  But life there was no easier.  The government of Bangladesh, already poor and struggling with its own problems, has complained about the responsibilities it must shoulder for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees.  Most live in squalid illegal settlements and are open to exploitation by the local population.  But there’s no going back.  A Rohingya who leaves Myanmar is struck off the local register and becomes officially non-existent.

Pleas to Bangladesh

Safety concerns have increased the pressure on the border.  Vijay Nambiar, UN envoy to Burma, has appealed to the Bangladeshi government to allow refugees in, but roads and waterways on the border areas are being sealed.

According to Bellivue, the situation is reaching a critical stage. “Villages [in Rakhine State] that should have a few thousand people, have tripled and quadrupled in size.”  That’s a tremendous strain on the meager resources of rural communities.

MSF would like to be able to get its staff back to their posts, but international staff are still denied visas by the government of Myanmar which means that the most qualified medical staff cannot get to the region. 

“We’re trying to contact the local staff and train or coach them by phone to help their community”, says Bellivue. There’s a need for qualified doctors, nurses and technicians but because of the insecurity few qualified Burmese are willing to come into the area.

An immigrant problem
What no one will go on record pointing out, is that this is ultimately an immigrant problem. The Buddhist Rakhine are viewed by the general Burmese population as a legitimate Burmese ethnic group. But the Muslim Rohingya are rejected by both Myanmar and by Bangladesh. Each country is afraid of opening the floodgates of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya across the border.  Neither wants more of them than they already have.

However, the humanitarian organizations on the ground do agree there are perpetrators and victims on both sides of the communal divide.  And both Muslim and Buddhist communities are in urgent need of help.