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Rakhine chief pledges security in troubled state

With no electricity, women in the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) make fuel to cook with, by coating sticks with cow dung. The work takes almost all day.

By Nirmal Ghosh
January 23, 2015

The no-nonsense general who has one of the most difficult jobs in Myanmar - chief minister of violence-torn Rakhine state - says he guarantees security in the state.

"The number of police has been reinforced. In addition, wherever necessary, I plan to get reinforcements from the army," Major-General Maung Maung Ohn told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview at his office in the state capital Sittwe.

"At this point of time, I can guarantee security," said the 54- year-old hand-picked for the job about eight months ago. His predecessor Hla Maung Tin was seen as siding with local Rakhine activists and creating difficulties for humanitarian aid efforts to help the stricken minority Muslims.

About 200 minority Muslims - identifying themselves as Rohingya but seen as "Bengalis" by local Rakhines and also by the Myanmar government - were killed, and another 140,000 driven from their homes in attacks by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.

They live in wretched conditions in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), some just a couple of kilometres from Sittwe.

Rakhines were also attacked by the Rohingya in the state's north, where Muslims form the majority in some areas. But the Rohingya bore the brunt in the south.

The displaced Muslims, who lost everything and, in many cases, saw family and friends hacked and burned to death in 2012, are confined to the camps. Community ties are in shreds, with those remaining in town avoiding Rakhine neighbourhoods, and vice-versa.

Every month, hundreds of Rohingya risk life and limb to flee across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in boats run by people smugglers to Malaysia, often via Thailand.

The chief minister's comments came just days after the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Ms Yanghee Lee, commended his efforts after visiting the IDP camps. But she said Rakhine state was still in crisis and called for more humanitarian access and speedy resettlement of the IDPs.

Asked to respond, he said: "I am very much aware of the fact that as chief minister, I am totally responsible for the humanitarian affairs of the communities."

He said he would continue with humanitarian assistance and "uphold the human rights of the IDPs in line with international standards and UN principles".

Global aid groups had full access to camps, he said, adding the only issue was international non- governmental organisations' (INGOs) "personal relations" with local communities, referring to Rakhines. There have been incidents where local INGO staff were attacked by Rakhines, who resent that aid is going to the Rohingya.

Buddhist sentiments have also been fanned by incendiary rhetoric by right-wing nationalists like Mandalay-based monk Wirathu.

As chief minister, Maj-Gen Maung Maung Ohn has to navigate between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities, dealing with extremists on both sides. This has become even more crucial with elections to be held later this year.

He said the Rohingya will be resettled once an ongoing citizen verification process is done, and camp conditions will improve.

But he made clear those who insist on identifying themselves as Rohingya will not get citizenship. "That's not going to happen," said the chief minister, referring to the Rohingya as Bengalis.

While this group has been in Rakhine for a long time, often for generations, the "Rohingya" label is a red rag for local Rakhines who view them as recent illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, using the identity as a political tool to grab land, gain more rights and "Islamise" the state.

"The Rakhine community believe 'Rohingya' is a coined word," he said. "They say there is no such ethnicity in this country, so they reject it. This is the stand of the Rakhine people."

Myanmar law, too, does not recognise such an ethnic group, he added.

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