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Why were Kaman Muslim deaths ignored?

By Fiona Macgregor

The Myanmar Times
May 8, 2016

I must start with a correction. My column last week spoke about the abusive system of apartheid in Rakhine State that means Muslim people are kept in camps and forced to make dangerous, sometimes fatal, journeys to access basic supplies because they are not allowed to travel freely.

Children born in the Kaman-majority Sin Tet Maw IDP camp have little to no access to healthcare or education. Photo: Fiona MacGregor / The Myanmar Times

My error was that, like everyone else who wrote about this, I misidentified the people who died when a boat making one such journey from the Sin Tet Maw camp in Pauktaw township sank on April 19. I said they were Rohingya: the stateless group of people denied citizenship by Myanmar authorities who have sanctioned serious rights abuses against them.

This week I visited Sin Tet Maw. Community leaders there and relatives of the dead told me that the majority of those on board, including the estimated 21 who died, were in fact Kaman Muslims originally from Kyaukphyu. They are one of the country’s 135 recognised ethnic groups and most are legally entitled to citizenship rights of some sort.

This tragedy highlights the fact that thousands of Kaman people remain trapped in IDP camps and villages facing the same restrictions as the Rohingya. It points to the lie behind the message consistently cited by many of those with power in Myanmar that what is happening in Rakhine is principally about illegal immigration.

The truth that is too often skirted round by international organisations and governments is that people are being kept in camps and denied rights not because they are illegal immigrants, but because they are Muslim.

It is four years since the Kaman people now in Sin Tet Maw fled their homes by boat and travelled to that remote spot, where there was already a significant Muslim population, and where the government told them they would be safe. They are still being held there and are not allowed to go home.

Claims that they are “Bengalis” (Rohingya) pretending to be Kaman do not stand up. While I can’t say there is no person in Rakhine who considers themselves Rohingya but publically identifies as Kaman, the majority of the more than 2200 people living in the Sin Tet Maw camp - around three-quarters according to UN estimates – are known to come from Kyaukphyu, which is home to Kaman Muslims, not Rohingya ones.

Despite many losing identification papers while fleeing the conflict, some in Sin Tet Maw do have ID cards proving they are Kaman. According to Kaman people I spoke to their language is also noticeably different from that used by the Rohingya community.

If the government actually wanted to help the people in Sin Tet Maw prove they are Kaman and give them back their rights, it should not be so very difficult to do so. That they don’t highlights the anti-Islamic nature of the entire camp system.

I wrote my piece a week after the tragedy and following numerous reports in local and international media which identified those involved as Rohingya. Neither the US embassy, which provoked a street demonstration by using the controversial name in its statement on the drownings, nor the UN which did not use the name but was widely quoted in articles erroneously describing the dead as Rohingya, moved to correct the mistake.

While it is very possible the US did not have immediate access to the ethnic make-up of the Sin Tet Maw IDP population, the UN certainly did.

It is perhaps understandable that the UN took at face value initial social media and local reports that it was a “Rohingya” boat, but why they did not find out the error in the course of following up on the tragedy – and then highlight the misidentification – raises very important questions.

Did they simply not care enough to ask people about their ethnicity nor think it important that they were correctly identified?

Or, given the UN has records on the ethnic identity of those in the camp and know most are Kaman, did it not suit its agenda to highlight the fact that it is not only Rohingya that are facing these rights abuses?

Why would this be? Certainly there is a huge amount of international funding available to assist the Rohingya community in Rakhine that ensures the international aid and development sector will have jobs there for as long as the camps continue to exist. The more people counted, or treated, as Rohingya, the more funding is on hand. It suits both the Rohingya and those trying to find funding for them for Kaman to be counted as Rohingya, in the same manner that it suits those campaigning for Rohingya rights that the recent drownings are counted as another Rohingya tragedy.

But it is also true that the anti-Islamic nature of these camps makes it far more difficult to justify international involvement in them at all. It is one thing to provide the food and resources that allows a government to keep an IDP population of stateless people in camps. It is quite another thing to provide the food and resources that allows a government to keep its own citizens in internment purely on the grounds they are Muslim.

We are yet to see exactly how the new administration led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is going to handle the situation in Rakhine. Early indications are that nothing is likely to change for the better any time soon.

International organisations operating in the state, particularly the UN, have a duty to ensure the government cannot hide behind claims that the persecution of Muslim people in Rakhine is about illegal immigration.

Yes, illegal immigration, or perceptions about it, is a key source of tensions. But ignoring the fact there are thousands of other Muslims, who are entitled to citizenship rights but also facing severe rights abuses, allows the government to avoid taking responsibility for the strongly anti-Islamic aspect of what is being perpetrated.

It might make international relations more complicated – but what is happening to the Kaman must no longer be ignored.

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