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Rohingya's two years of despair in Myanmar camps

By Brent Crane
December 16, 2014

Anadolu Agency finds poverty and little hope during visit to camp for displaced in Rakhine state

Sittwe, Myanmar -- Scrawny chickens and mangy dogs mingle with raggedly clothed children and exhausted adults on the dusty paths through Da Paing camp near the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Nobody wears shoes. Nearby are a dozen simple longhouses arranged in rows where families live in cramped quarters.

A salty breeze blowing in from the Bay of Bengal provides a brief respite from the blazing sun but there is little around that exudes anything but destitution.

“Everything is not okay here,” Ba Sein, 52, a member of the managing committee for the camp, told The Anadolu Agency.

Holding 7,000 inhabitants from the Rohingya Muslim minority, Da Phaing is one of several squalid enclosures for Internally Displaced People outside Sittwe in northwestern Myanmar.

The center emits an air of despair and misery as its listless inhabitants eke out a subsistence existence under the eyes of Myanmar police and military.

The Rohingya were relocated to camps after a year of sectarian violence between the Rakhine state's Buddhist majority and Muslims in 2012 – clashes that saw hundreds killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

“We are living over two years here,” Ba Sein said grimly. “The government is planning to settle us permanently in these camps.”

There are an estimated 140,000 Rohingya living in such camps throughout Rakhine.

In most, basic necessities such as food, clean water and healthcare are alarmingly scarce and job opportunities virtually nonexistent.

The Rohingya are barred from leaving the camps by state security forces, who claim the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, despite the fact that many families have lived in Myanmar for generations.

As a result of their dire situation, many Rohingya have fled the camps illegally to make the perilous boat journey to Thailand and on to destinations such as Malaysia, a majority Muslim country that quietly takes them in.

Many end up the victims of human traffickers and are forced to work under appalling conditions to pay of the cost of their journey from Myanmar, a country still largely under the control of the military despite the introduction of a nominally civilian government in 2011.

Nearly 12,000 Rohingya have fled in the last month alone, according to the Arakan Project, an organization that monitors the exodus.

Under the Rakhine State Action Plan, a government initiative introduced in September, Rohingya can only secure citizenship if they register themselves as Bengali, a term that implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Those who refuse to do so are placed in camps.

The United Nations General Assembly’s human rights committee, which deems the Rohingya among the most persecuted minorities in the world, passed a resolution soon after the release of the plan calling for the government in Naypyidaw to grant the Rohingya “access to full citizenship on an equal basis” and to drop its controversial initiative.

But the government, which refuses to even acknowledge the Rohingya as an ethnic group, does not appear willing to do so.

In an open air cafe, with flies buzzing around an oily plate of potato samosas and cups of sweet tea, Ba Sein recounts the 2012 violence that led to his people’s displacement.

“On June 8 at four in the afternoon, many Rakhine people surrounded our village, threatening us, telling us we weren’t citizens of this country and that we needed to leave this place,” he said.

The mob dispersed but returned the next morning and began setting fire to the village. “The police weren’t stopping them but they were stopping the Rohingya from fighting back,” Ba Sein added.

The villagers hid in a mosque while their homes were looted and burned. One Rohingya man who attempted to fight back was shot dead by security forces, Ba Sein claimed.

After three days, eight military trucks showed up and drove the traumatized villagers to the camps, where they have been ever since. Similar stories are shared by tens of thousands of Rohingya throughout Rakhine state.

Yet despite their dire circumstances, many of those forced from their homes have not given up hope.

“We have no problem to forgive the Rakhine people and to live together with them,” Ahmed Saffar, 48, said.

A member of the managing committee of Maw Son Nywa camp also outside Sittwe, Saffar was speaking as other members of the committee sat around him. Prior to the 2012 violence they were businessmen, traders and even civil servants. But now they are imprisoned in enforced penury.

Peace with the Buddhists in Rakhine can be reached, Saffar said, “but we need government support.”

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