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Muslims trapped in ghetto after clashes in Burma

June 30, 2013

SITTWE, Burma — From inside the neighborhood that has become their prison, they can look over the walls and fences and into a living city.

Stores are open out there. Sidewalk restaurants are serving bottles of Mandalay beer. There are no barbed-wire roadblocks marking neighborhood boundaries, no armed policemen guarding checkpoints. In the rest of Sittwe, this city of 200,000 people along Burma’s coast, no one pays a bribe to take a sick baby to the doctor.

But here it’s different.

Aung Mingalar is just a few square blocks. You can walk it in 10 minutes, stopping only when you come to the end of the road — 7/8 any road — and a policeman with an assault rifle waves you back inside, back into a maze of shuttered storefronts, unemployment and boredom.

In this May 18, 2013 photo, men gather for prayers at Aung Mingalar's main mosque in Sittwe, northwestern Rakhine state, Burma. A year after Buddhist-Muslim violence tore through Burma, the fury of religious pogroms has hardened into an officially sanctioned sectarian divide, a foray into apartheid-style policies that has turned the Aung Mingalar neighborhood into a prison for Sittwe's Muslims and threatens Burma's fragile transition to democracy. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
In the evenings, when bats fly through the twilight, the men gather for prayers at Aung Mingalar’s main mosque, the one that wasn’t destroyed in last year’s violence.

Zahad Tuson is among them. He had spent his life pedaling fares around this state capital, a fraying town, built by British colonials, full of bureaucrats and monsoon-battered concrete buildings. Now his bicycle rickshaw sits at home unused. He hasn’t left Aung Mingalar in nearly a year.

“We could go out whenever we wanted!” he says. His voice is a mixture of anger and wonder.

What has caused this place to become a ghetto that no one can leave and few can enter? A basic fact: Aung Mingalar is a Muslim neighborhood.

A year after sectarian violence tore through Burma, the fury of religious pogroms has hardened into an officially sanctioned sectarian divide, a foray into apartheid-style policies that has turned Aung Mingalar into a prison for Sittwe’s Muslims and that threatens this country’s fragile transition to democracy.

Muslims, Tuson says, are not welcome in today’s Burma.

It’s simple, he says: “They want us gone.”

For generations, Aung Mingalar existed as just another tangle of streets and alleys in the heart of Sittwe. It was a Muslim quarter; everybody knew that. But the distinction seldom meant much.

Until suddenly it meant everything.

Last year, violence twice erupted between two ethnic groups in this part of Burma: the Rakhine, who are Buddhist, and a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya. While carnage was widespread on both sides of the religious divide, it was Muslims who suffered most, and who continue to suffer badly more than a year later.

Across Rakhine state, more than 200 people were killed, 70 percent of them Muslim. In Sittwe, where Muslims were once almost half the population, five of the six Muslim neighborhoods were destroyed. Over 135,000 people remain homeless in Rakhine state, the vast majority of them Muslims forced into bamboo refugee camps that smell of dust and wood smoke and too many people living too close together.

The troubles here were, at least initially, driven by ethnicity as much as religion. To the Rakhine, who dominate this state, as well as to Burma’s central government, the Rohingya are here illegally, “Bengalis” whose families slipped across the nearby border from what is now Bangladesh. Historians say Rohingya have been here for centuries, though many did come more recently. Their modern history has been a litany of oppression: the riots of 1942, the mass expulsions of 1978, the citizenship laws of 1982.

In this May 18, 2013 photo, Muslim men drink tea and listen to a news bulletin on a radio at Aung Mingalar in Sittwe. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
What started with the Rohingya has evolved into a broader anti-Muslim movement, helping ignite a series of attacks across Myanmar — from Meikhtila in the country’s center, where Buddhist mobs beat dozens of Muslim students to death in March, to Lashio near the Chinese border, where Buddhist men swarmed through the city burning scores of Muslim-owned stores in May.

The violence is about religion and ethnicity, but also about what happens when decades of military rule begin giving way in the nation [also known as Myanmar], and old political equations are clouded by the complexities of democracy.

In 2010, political change finally came to Myanmar, a profoundly isolated nation long ruled by a series of mysterious generals. Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house imprisonment. National elections were held. Former political prisoners became politicians.

Amid the tumult — and with the military still wielding immense power behind the scenes — old animosities and new politicians flourished. Ethnic groups formed powerful regional parties. Buddhist nationalists, with a deep-seated suspicion of Muslims, moved from the fringes into the mainstream.

Political frustration fed on economic frustration, with millions of poor rural residents flocking to Burma’s cities only to find continued poverty in ever-growing slums. In a country that is about 90 percent Buddhist, Burma’s Muslims, who number as little as 4 percent of the population, became political bogeymen.

U Shwe Maung, a top official with the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the state’s most powerful party, will tell you about the problems with the Rohingya: They have too many children, they are angling for political clout, they claim to be citizens.

“We are not willing to live with them,” the onetime high-school English teacher says in his quiet voice. He’s an avuncular man, friendly and unfailingly polite. “They want to Muslimize this land. They want power.”

Anti-Muslim sentiment has been magnified by an increasingly virulent strain of Buddhist nationalism, as a once-obscure group of monks nurtures populist fears of a growing Muslim threat. Muslims are criminals, they say, a “poison” driving up land prices and pushing aside the Buddhist working class. Crowds pack monasteries and prayer halls to hear the monks’ speeches. Recordings are sold in sidewalk stalls along Burma’s streets.

“They will destroy our country, our religion, our people. They will destroy the next-generation Buddhist women, since their aim is to mix their blood with ours,” a popular monk, Ashin Tayzaw Thar Ra, said in a speech earlier this year. “Soon, Buddhists will have to worship in silence and fear.”

In Aung Mingalar, they know all about fear.

The neighborhood is where Maung Than Win once served hundreds of meals a day at the little restaurant his father had opened, and where residents gathered at the Chat Cafe to gossip in the cool of twilight. It is where dozens of boys showed up every day for classes at Hafeez Skee’s Islamic school, but most children attended secular schools.

It was widely seen as the wealthiest of Sittwe’s Muslim neighborhoods, but it was hardly an island of economic isolation. It was a place where day laborers built thatch huts for themselves, and rich businessmen, their fortunes often made on small fleets of wooden fishing boats that troll the Bay of Bengal, built sprawling houses covered in shiny green tiles. A few families farmed gardens of watercress in a swampy area between some of the alleys. The main streets, once brick or cobblestone, had turned to dirt over the years.

“My grandfather was from Aung Mingalar. My father was from Aung Mingalar. I’m from Aung Mingalar,” says Win, his teeth stained red from years of chewing betel nuts. At 32 he has spent nearly his entire life working at his restaurant, the Love Tea Shop. It filled with people every day, particularly after prayers at the mosque. “I just want to stay as long as I can.”

Not that everything was perfect. Buddhist and Muslim residents of Sittwe agree at least on that.

There were fights, though they tended to be just one person against another. In the last sectarian violence, in 2001, only one person died in Sittwe. The last widespread bloodshed was during World War II, when the Rohingya backed the British colonial forces and the Rakhine supported the Japanese. Hundreds of people were killed.

“I had heard about the troubles then,” says Ferus Ahmad, a pharmacist. “We thought something like this could never happen again.”

But it did. It began last year on May 28, with the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a group of Rohingya men in a village a few hours from here. Days later, a bus carrying Muslim travelers was surrounded by a Buddhist mob and ten Muslims were killed. Five days after that, Rohingya mobs attacked Rakhine near the Bangladesh border. It’s unclear how many people died.

With fear spiraling on both sides, trouble came to Sittwe. Over five days, Rakhine and Rohingya mobs battled one another. By the end, hundreds of Rakhine homes had been destroyed, as had nearly every Rohingya neighborhood. Today, other than Aung Mingalar, Muslim Sittwe is little more than destroyed mosques and once-crowded communities grown over with grass and weeds, completely empty of residents.

During the street battles, the women and children of Aung Mingalar were put into a mosque for safety, while the men protected the neighborhood’s edges. Then something unusual happened: The security forces arrived to help.

Across Burma, the army and the police have done little to protect Muslims through a year of violence, and rights groups say they have often joined in the attacks. It’s still unclear why it was different in Aung Mingalar.

But while they arrived as protectors, those soldiers soon became jailers. Today, the security forces enforce the official ghetto. And the dominant story line remains: Not only did Muslims never need protection from Buddhists, but they destroyed their own neighborhoods.

“The Bengalis lit their own houses on fire, because they knew they would get another house” in the refugee camps, says U Win Myaing, the Rakhine state assistant director for communications. “Plus, they thought the fires would spread to Rakhine areas and burn those houses down.”

Increasingly, such stories about Muslims are believed across Burma.

Today, Aung Mingalar is consuming itself.

House after wooden house has been torn down for firewood. The dead, who can no longer be taken out to the Muslim cemetery, are buried behind the mosque. Food, which comes from occasional government handouts and the twice-weekly markets some residents can attend, is scarce and expensive.

There are no stores left open, just a few food stalls and a makeshift pharmacy that sells laxatives and herbal headache medicine.

There are also few heroes. Residents say wealthy Rohingya have bought land from poorer or more desperate neighbors. While the authorities occasionally allow some Rohingya into the neighborhood to sell supplies, they charge double what customers pay on the outside.

“People aren’t competing with each other,” says Win, the tea shop owner, “but they are not working together either.”

Officials refuse to say when — or if — Aung Mingalar will be allowed to rejoin the rest of Sittwe.

There is one way to get out. The bribe to pass the checkpoints is 10,000 kyats (about $10) each way, according to current and former residents. That’s a lot of money here, but plenty of people are paying it. While no one is sure of the neighborhood’s size — aid workers say it was probably about 4,000 before the violence — it’s now dropping fast.

“When everything they have is gone, people just want to leave,” Win says.

Thousands have left Burma, paying smugglers to slip them into Malaysia or Thailand. But most head to the refugee camps outside towns, endless rows of bamboo shelters filled with Rohingya. Many of the camps are restricted areas — residents are not allowed to come and go as they wish — but most are also large enough to have their own economies.

Across Burma, many Muslims are now more closed-off than they once were, barricading their neighborhoods at night against possible attackers. But so far, at least, Aung Mingalar is the only sealed ghetto.

Ahmad, the pharmacist, lived in Aung Mingalar for 38 years. Until the violence of 2012, he owned a pharmacy in Sittwe’s main market, a warren of shops near the port. But soon after the trouble started, Aung Mingalar was sealed and Ahmad couldn’t get to his shop. The medicines expired. His customers went elsewhere. The shop has been closed for months.

Ahmad wonders at what has happened to his country. The 2010 transition was supposed to bring change, but he’s seen nothing to encourage him.

“We now have a president, a government,” says Ahmad, his button-down shirt faded from so many washings. “But it’s like there is no ruler.”

For many like him, the main sustenance now is memories. That is what keeps Ahmad going.

A couple of times a week, back when things were good, Ahmad would close his pharmacy, pick up his wife and two children at home and head to the Sittwe beach, barely a mile away. Now, only Rakhine are allowed at the beach and Ahmad has left the neighborhood where he grew up. His family is still there, but he has moved to the refugee camps, where he seeks work and tries to remember what normal felt like.

“We’d just walk along the beach,” he says of those family outings. “I dream about that sometimes.”

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