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A tale of two Sittwes

By Kayleigh Long
November 18, 2015

Were it not for the handful of burnt-out and dilapidated mosques that dot the dusty Rakhine capital of Sittwe, a tourist could be forgiven for thinking that there were no Muslims in the town at all.

Rohingya men sit in a shop in Sittwe’s Aung Mingalar neighbourhood. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

Just a few blocks back from the main street, however, 4530 Rohingya Muslims reside in an area known as Aung Mingalar – and the vast majority have not left for the better part of three years.

Comprising five quarters and occupying at most a couple of square kilometres, the area is protected at several checkpoints manned by a handful of young police officers.

They sit beyond the barbed wire blockades, swatting at flies, rifles between their knees, playing on their smartphones.

A legacy of the violence that shook the state in 2012, many Rakhine taxi drivers refuse to go past these checkpoints, convinced they might fall victim to retributive attacks.

A November 10 preliminary statement from the Carter Center’s election observation mission noted that former white-card holders – the vast majority of whom identify as Rohingya – are “marginalised from the political process and living in conditions that prevent them from exercising most civil and political rights, including basic freedom of movement”.

While the entire Muslim population of Rakhine State faces varying degrees of restrictions on movement, the enclave of Aung Mingalar has often been described by rights groups as a ghetto.

During the state-wide conflict that left scores dead and more than 100,000 displaced, security forces blocked angry mobs from entering Aung Mingalar. The neighbourhood has been under guard for over three years. Residents report that two weeks out from the elections, a mob formed outside and yelled threats before being dispersed by the police.

For Aung Mingalar’s residents who voted in 2010 and 2012, the November 8 ballot saw them take on the role of anxious spectator.

Just 26 of the enclave’s inhabitants cast advance votes, but all of them were Kaman Muslims – recognised as one of the state’s national races.

Two disenfranchised men said that, if they had been able to cast a ballot this time around, they would probably have opted for the National League for Democracy. Another said he had been a staunch Union Solidarity and Development Party supporter.

Speaking with The Myanmar Times after results had begun to trickle in, one man who requested not to be named sounded a note of cautious optimism over the NLD’s landslide win around the country.

“We welcome their victory. It is some sort of hope for us, even though they are not talking about us. Maybe all the citizens of Myanmar will become safe ... and have stability [provided by] the state. But there are many things they need to do [first]. They need to find a president.”

Sittwe’s Aung Mingalar has been described by some rights groups as a ghetto. (Kayleigh Long/The Myanmar Times)

On the success at the polls of the Arakan National Party, which defends the interests of the state’s Rakhine Buddhist majority, he is tight-lipped: “We are worried about it.”

While some taxi drivers now use the road that skirts Aung Mingalar as a shortcut, and some maintain contact with friends and colleagues, the communities remain almost entirely separate. There has been a minimal resumption of trade.

With the enclave’s economy reliant on private donors and internal grey markets there is little in the way of work. People who had jobs before 2012 are cut off from their means of earning a living. Food is brought in from the outside.

Not considered refugees, the almost 5000 men, women and children are given meagre rations – less than a cup of rice per day per person.

Young children attend the state school, which was built with assistance from Japan in 2005. There are three mosques and three madrassas.

The Myanmar Times visited prior to the elections, on November 4. A 21-year-old named Jamal Hussein had died in the early hours of November 2, following a drawn-out battle with TB.

Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, doctors enter Aung Mingalar. Patients requiring more complex treatment must apply to be transferred under police supervision to the hospital, or to an IDP camp mobile clinic. Residents report a high infant mortality rate.

Despite being less than 1 kilometre from the state hospital, administrative hurdles and a near-total distrust of hospital authorities means many are unlikely to seek out treatment.

Some of the former Muslim areas around Sittwe no longer exist. One major Rohingya stronghold called Narzi village was all but razed and most of its former inhabitants now reside in one IDP camp several kilometres from Sittwe proper.

One man described the difference between life in Aung Mingalar and an IDP camp he had seen on an authorised visit. Those in the camps, he says, “have only [their] body, and identity”. He gestures at the buildings around him: “For us, things haven’t changed. But we cannot leave.”

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