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Powerless Muslims still living destitute in fenced-off Myanmar camps

By Jack Board
October 29, 2015

In Der Paing camp in Rakhine state, thousands of Rohingya are living destitute in squalid conditions. 

Inside a Rakhine IDP camp in Sittwe. (Photo: Jack Board)

SITTWE, Myanmar: On the outskirts of Rakhine's capital lies Dar Paing camp, a wretched dusty landscape and home to thousands of internally displaced Muslims.

Channel NewsAsia's Jack Board reports from a internally-displaced persons (IDP) camp in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
Posted by Channel NewsAsia on Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Around this area, 140,000 people are registered in ten internally-displaced persons (IDP) camps; another 85,000 people live in ramshackle villages perched around the camps' perimeters.

None of the population, in the camps or villages, are allowed to leave. They are Rohingya, or what the government calls Bengalis, voiceless and no longer citizens of Myanmar.

Around the entire vicinity is a solid, imposing barbed-wire fence, while sporadically within the compound are cordoned areas used by police and military troops ordered to maintain order and keep people in. They are housed in newly built, permanent structures as well as in abandoned mosques, which are no longer allowed to be used for prayer.

"This is not a place for human beings," said Abu Zidik, one of the local camp committee members. "Animals would not live here."

He added: "This place is very bad, it's not suitable for anyone and it's very sad that the government makes us continue to live here."

The camps are full of children, many of them dirty and without clothes and with swollen bellies revealing serious malnutrition. They still run and play, but most do not have any access to education aside from small volunteer-run schools.

Their health is a serious concern and generally has not improved in the three years of the camps' existence, according to local clinician Molana Tayub. "We can't say what will happen here for sure, but if the situation stays like this long term, many people will die," he said.

"The family members are not getting enough food and the parents cannot feed their children. These houses are not proper to live in," said Mr Molana. "Because of that many people have diarrhoea, malaria or fever."

Roshid Hamad, 13, is suffering from severe malaria but his parents says they cannot deal treatment at hospitals in Sittwe. (Photo: Jack Board)

Signs of this are clear to see. Down one small winding track between tents and wooden structures reinforced by corrugated iron lives one family who tragically live knowing that their son will soon die.

Roshid Hamad, 13, has suffered from malaria for more than two years, with the disease now affecting his brain and leaving the young boy unable to speak or move independently. He is in need of specialist care.

As his mother Fatama holds his head she says that there is little they can do help him now. "We are afraid to go to the hospital. Some people helped us but it wasn't much," she said.

Just next door, a young woman grips in a blue towel to her jaw in anguish. Anguma is just 28 but she is suffering from mouth cancer, which has wasted away most of her left cheek and leaves her in constant pain.

"This area has no doctors, we are not getting proper care," said community leader Aung Win. "If there is a serious illness, we cannot go to Sittwe hospital without being discriminated against."

Anguma, 28, has mouth cancer and is in constant pain. (Photo: Jack Board)


The upcoming elections are unlikely to change the plight of the Rohingya. They are not entitled to vote, which means there is almost no chance there will be a Muslim member of parliament from this region to fight for the cause.

According to Aung Win, it is just another setback, another reason for people to try and leave Myanmar, as thousands have on risky boats journeys from this very coastline.

"They do not want to live here. They have to live in a restricted area just like a prison, they have no job and they are deciding they have no future in Myanmar," he said. "People are waiting for the election and if the new government will help them. Otherwise they will leave."

"They are very sad that they cannot vote in the election. I don't know why the government does not want us, why they are discriminating against us politically, why they want to keep us away from parliament."

Sittwe's Muslim population was exiled out of the city and into isolated existence following a deadly spate of sectarian violence in 2012, when Rohingyas clashed with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists resulting in nearly 100 deaths, the destruction of some 2,500 homes and the displacement of about 90,000 people.

The two communities have never reconciled and tensions remain a daily reality. Despite the physical separation, Aung Win said trading still occurs between the two and he holds hopes of a more lasting, liveable peace.

"Both communities have been suffering and have been for a long time. There can be reconciliation, it happens every day; it's just the government saying there is not," he said.

It is a sentiment echoed by other local community members, including Abu Zidik who said his people had lived with the Rakhine Buddhists for many years before "the problem with the government", alluding to the clashes three years ago.

The Myanmar government has said that its stance on Rohingya people has not changed in recent times and that it does not deem them as belonging in the country. 

Scenes from an internally-displaced persons (IDP) camp housing #Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state. #MyanmarElection(Photos: Jack Board)
Posted by Channel NewsAsia on Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Across the other side of Sittwe are the IDP camps set up in the wake of the 2012 violence to house the affected Rakhine Buddhist communities. Access to basic essentials are still a challenge, but there is a tangible difference to the way the community has formed.

People are free to come and go, the bridge between the camp perimeter and the main part of Sittwe's downtown is unguarded. Likewise, the residents are able to work as they could before, operate their businesses and practice their religion.

Pwint Phyu, 50, was a victim of the violence and has lived here for about two years after being placed for a year in a school and various monasteries. She said the infrastructure has greatly improved over time.

"When we first got here it was so muddy and wet that we couldn't even walk," she said outside her wooden home. "Now it has changed but I still wish to go back to my home, my real place."

She said she is content with how the government has segregated the Buddhist and Muslim communities saying it was the only way to ensure peace and security. "There is no way to live closely with the Muslim people so it's better to stay apart."

She added that the Rohingya issue was not one of concern for the election, but said that people wanted "real democracy" and better job opportunities.

Yet, human rights groups including Human Rights Watch have argued that without a more inclusive approach, Myanmar will continue to suffer from damaging division.

"Within Rohingya you have de-facto segregation, almost an apartheid-type situation," said the organisation's Asia Division deputy director Phil Robertson. "They're really not welcome and ultimately they're not going to be able to find a way through to get what they want, which is effectively citizenship in Burma. 

"The situation is not only cementing the disempowerment of the Rohingya but also posing the very possibility of unrest and violence."

The notion of more conflict was dismissed by Muslim community leaders but they admitted that the situation was adding to levels of desperation.

Said Molana Tayub: "What can people do if they stay here? What choices do they have?"

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