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Rakhine’s divided minorities

By Fiona Macgregor and Nyan Lynn Aung
July 15, 2016

The mainly stateless Muslim people who identify as Rohingya have been called the most persecuted people in the world – but in the IDP camps and surrounding villages in Rakhine State, where an estimated 140,000 are interred, members of another, often-overlooked Muslim minority are also suffering. The Kaman ethnic group, who say they are ignored by the international community, report facing abuse and discrimination at the hands of the Rohingya, and it seems even those who claim to represent the Kaman politically refuse to stand up for those in the camps.

Muslim IDPs haggle good-naturedly over the price of a lobster in a camp outide Sittwe in June, but relations between residents is not always friendly. Phoyos: Fiona MacGregor / The Myanmar Times

“Sometimes when I want to sell fish, some of the Rohingya people say, ‘Don’t buy from Kaman people.’” says Kyaw Myint, a 53-year-old displaced Muslim living in Tae Chaung IDP camp in Rakhine State. 

A fish-buying boycott is hardly the worst form of discrimination to be found in a country where people from ethnic minorities have for decades suffered murder, torture, rape and rights abuses at the hands of the authorities. 

Indeed, Kaman people interviewed for this article also spoke of death threats, assaults, intimidation and eviction by their Rohingya neighbours from the shelters they had taken refuge in after being forced to flee violence from Buddhists who had attacked the two Muslim groups without distinction. 

Yet the irony of a Muslim in Myanmar staging a sectarian shopping boycott is evident to anyone who watched the Buddhist nationalism promoted by the monk-led group known as 969 grow from a relatively low-key boycott of stores owned by Muslims into support for violence and gross human rights abuses. 

No one in the IDP camps or surrounding villages suggested tensions between the two Muslim populations equals that which both groups face from Buddhist extremists and state-backed oppression. But for the “forgotten” Kaman – trapped between Rakhine Buddhist extremists, hardline Rohingya activists and apathy from the international community – the present is a fearful place and the future one that often seems hopeless. 

“We had to move to this house three weeks ago after our [Rohingya] landlord put our rent up so much we could not afford to stay there. We had been living there for three years, but he didn’t want us any more,” says Kyaw Myint. “If we had a chance to go back to [our home] in Kyaukphyu I wouldn’t stay here a minute longer, but there is no way.” 

A place in history 

According to history books, the Kaman people, also known as Kamein, arrived in Myanmar in the mid-17th century along with the Mughal prince Shah Sujga. Eventually, they were banished to Rambre Island off southern Rakhine in 1710. 

Unlike the Rohingya, most of whom are stateless and denied citizenship rights despite many having lived in the  country for generations, the Kaman belong to one of Myanmar’s 135 recognised ethnic groups. 

But the conflict that broke out between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhist communities in northern Rakhine State in 2012 also sparked religious violence in the state’s southwest, including the town of Kyaukphyu on Rambre. Several thousand Kaman are estimated to have fled their homes and joined the Rohingya in IDP shelters that would soon become, in effect, open prisons. 

The displaced Kaman found themselves subject to the same rights abuses suffered by the Rohingya. Many had lost their identification papers when they fled, but even those who still have them say, like the Rohingya, they too face restrictions on movement. 

“I have an ID card and an NRC [national registration card], but the government does not allow us to go home or even visit Sittwe even if we have an ID card,” says U Kyaw Myint. “Even if we have an ID card, the government calls all of us Bengali because we stay in the same place and they treat us and consider us the same.” 

‘They threatened they would kill me’ 

Camp residents say initial relations between the two communities were good. Kaman community leaders say Rohingya rights campaigners were happy to have the Kaman included in camp numbers as they sought foreign aid and international support for their plight. 

But in 2014 – with the backing of the UN and other international actors – Myanmar held its first national census in three decades. Despite initial guarantees that the Rohingya would be allowed to use the controversial name, a volte-face by the government just before the big day meant enumerators were told not to count those who called themselves Rohinyga. 

The betrayal, though widely predicted, sparked anger and protests by Rohingya in the camps. Those residents who said they were Kaman, and therefore eligible to be counted, were accused of betraying the cause. 

“My problems started at the time of the census,” says Maung Win (not his real name). “I was staying in another village, Da Paing, at that time, and afterward my Rohingya neighbours said to me, ‘You identified as Kaman, so get out of here.’” 

A tall man in his late 20s, he says he did not face physical violence, but the threats were enough to make him move to Tae Chaung. 

“They threatened that if I identified as Kaman they would hit me or kill me. I thought if I stayed, violence might happen – so I left.” 

He now lives surrounded by other Kaman, but tensions and fear of violence remain. 

“Almost a month ago, a man, about 30 years old, who was mentally disabled ran out of his house at midnight. He was detained by the guards. When he was released the next morning, Rohingya people beat him up because they knew he was Kaman,” says Maung Win. 

The victim, he adds, was attacked by five or six people who beat him up and burned him with cigarettes, leaving him hospitalised for several days. 

“The big problem started at the census, but the tensions go on,” says Maung Win. “I think the problem will continue. Even if they live together as neighbours the Rohingya and the Kaman will be strangers.” 

Another Kaman community leader points out that relations are not always bad and that some Rohingya help their Kaman neighbours on the basis of their shared religion. But he adds it is often a problem when Kaman people want land to build a house and the Rohingya leaders won’t allow them to have it. 

“The Kaman are the minority here, so we face the same problems that minorities everywhere,” he says. 

A tragedy reveals a forgotten people 

According to U Chan Kyi, a Kaman community leader living in Tae Chaung, the Kaman people are not widely recognised by the international community and have few public representatives of their own. Those who do claim to represent the Kaman in the wider political realm have been accused of putting self-interest above that of those living in the camps. 

U Chan Kyi’s claims are backed by an incident in April when a boat carrying IDPs from a remote camp near Sin Tet Maw village sank en route to a Muslim village outside Sittwe, claiming at least 21 lives

The story of the “Rohingya tragedy” soon hit social media and made international news headlines, particularly when the US embassy used the controversial name in a statement on the event, prompting a protest by nationalists in Yangon. 

The UN, which keeps details of the ethnicity of camp residents, also released a statement on the sinking. It did not mention the Kaman. No one, it seems, noticed or cared that most of those on board were Kaman, originally from Kyaukphyu. 

Even more bizarrely, when The Myanmar Times revealed the true identity of those who died after speaking to dozens of relatives, survivors, community leaders and medical staff, the claim was denied by a Yangon political party that claims to support Kaman rights. 

A spokesperson for the Kaman National Progressive Party insisted to reporters that no Kaman had drowned and that only a handful of Kaman lived in the Sin Tet Maw camp. But UN records show the number of Kaman living in the camp is close to 2000. 

“There is no organisation here [specifically] helping the Kaman and just one organisation in Yangon – the development party [KNPP],” says U Chan Kyi, expressing disappointment that the party, which he said had sent letters to the camp about elections, had denied Kaman people had been on board. 

Betrayed by their own 

Why would a group that claims to represent an ethnic group deny the existence of its own people when they are trapped in camps living under an abusive regime? 

Writing in Islam and the State in Myanmar, Nicholas Farrelly of the Australian National University notes that the KNPP – whose executive committee is made up of retired government officials and businessmen – stresses national race status in Myanmar politics. 

Mr Farrelly quotes party chair Zaw Win – a former joint director of the Yangon Region High Court – as telling the magazine Mizzima in the lead-up to the 2010 election, “In Arakan State, Muslims are not allowed to travel freely. So, if we win some seats, we’ll address these and other problems. Though we should limit the rights of people who are not Burmese citizens, all Burmese citizens should get their deserved rights.” 

In choosing to focus on Kaman entitlement to recognition as a national race, is it possible that party leaders have been willing to sacrifice those who have lost their identification cards and are accused of being Rohingya/Bengali to safeguard the rights of the city-dwelling elite? 

This claim is backed up by a seemingly unlikely source. U Aung Win, a well-known Rohingya activist in Sittwe, denies there are disputes between the Rohingya and the Kaman in the camps, but says Kaman people in Yangon are determined to distance themselves from those who live close to the Rohingya in case it affects their citizenship claims. 

“The Rohingya and the Kaman in Rakhine live peacefully without discrimination,” U Aung Win says. “But some Kaman people in Rangoon don’t want to communicate with Rohingya people and want to say we are very different people and we don’t mix.” 

Kyaw Myint says Kaman IDPs face discrimination.

What’s in a name?

KNPP general secretary U Tin Hlaing Win continues to deny that those on board the sunken boat or most of those living in Sin Tet Maw are in fact Kaman, insisting such claims are a ploy to trade on Kaman ethnic recognition to gain citizenship. 

“Since the time of military rule,many people from Rakhine State tried to get NRCs identifying them as Kaman from corrupt immigration officers. That’s why we do not believe those who can’t show an NRC that does not mention the Kaman name,” he told The Myanmar Times this week. 

“Real Kaman people have a long family tree. There are fewer than 50,000 Kaman in the whole country now and fewer than 30,000 in Rakhine State. We will not be approve those people who do not have a long family tree of Kaman history.” 

In reality no one knows for sure how many people who identify as Kaman there are in Myanmar, as the ethnic identity figures from the controversial count have still not been made public more than two years later. 

Yet in Rakhine the claim that Rohingya are identifying as Kaman is rejected out of hand by representatives of both groups. 

“People are proud of their name,” says U Aung Win. “Rohingya people would not call themselves Kaman, and Kaman would not call themselves Rohingya.” 

Kaman community leader U Chan Kyi repeats that idea, saying that even under pressure, whether to avoid discrimination from authorities or neighbours, people don’t give up their name. 

“Everyone loves their own ethnicity. The Kaman say they are Kaman,” he says. “The government does not accept the Rohingya, but the people [themselves] know that is their name, so they do not say they are Kaman.” 

Who are the Kaman?

The Kaman, or Kamein, trace their history back to 1670 when they arrived in Arakan (modern-day Rakhine) alongside the Mughal prince Shah Shuja, who was on the run after a failed attempt to claim the Mughal throne.

Shah Shuja and his followers were initially welcomed to Mrauk-U by the king of Arakan, Sanda Thudhamma, but good relations soon faltered. Within a year Shah Shuja was dead after an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow his host.

But while the rest of the prince’s family soon met a similar deadly fate, his surviving soldiers were given a place in a special archers unit in the Arakan palace guard. It is from this role that the Kaman gained their name – which comes from the Persian word for arrow.

Despite being relatively few in number, the Kaman archers played an influential role in Arakan’s complex politics, but in 1710 they were banished to Rambre Island by King Sanda Wizaya I where their descendents remain to this day.

According to historian U Thant Myint-U, “Unlike in other parts of Rakhine where records from the 1930s show there was a lot of mixing between the different Muslim groups living there at that time, the Kaman - perhaps partly because of their unusual and romantic story - may have kept a clearer sense of separate identity that is still there today.”

Their long and distinct history means that the Kaman were seen to be entitled to recognition as one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups under the 1982 Citizenship Law. There were 2686 Kaman in Arakan in 1931. Figures on ethnic identity from the most recent census are yet to be made public.

Can anyone help the displaced Kaman? 

Humanitarian organisations point to the grim effect that the travel restrictions placed on both Rohingya and Kaman Muslims have on people’s everyday lives. 

“Whether you are a recognised citizen or a stateless person, if you don’t have freedom of movement you will be vulnerable and will face many of the same hardships,” says Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Myanmar. 

“Without freedom of movement, farmers can’t go to their fields, fishermen can’t go to the sea, traders can’t go to the market, students can’t go to university and sick people can’t get to the nearest hospital,” he says. “Restrictions on people’s freedom of movement severely compromise their basic rights to food, healthcare, education, livelihoods and other basic services.” 

Kyaw Myint, who spoke of his hopeless desire to go home to Kyaukphyu, explains the impact that travel restrictions have on the Kaman when discussing the possibility of moving from the camp. 

“There is only one place [outside the Sittwe camps and surrounding villages] we would feel safe: Thandwe,” he says. He is referring to the town in southern Rakhine near the tourist haven of Ngapali Beach where Kaman Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists live in relative harmony, and where the National League for Democracy won a rare victory in Rakhine State at the 2015 election. 

“But even if we had the money to make a home there, how could we travel? We are not allowed.” 

Kaman community leaders express fears that their situation will not be relieved in the foreseeable future. 

The new government has taken to describing those who self-identify as Rohingya as “Muslims from Rakhine State”. 

But the move, while attempting to find a sensitive compromise, has not only angered both Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya but also may further erode distinctions in the state between Kaman and Rohingya. 

For some Kaman living in the camps, the renaming highlights what they see lies at the heart of the problems they face. 

“I don’t think it is a matter of ethnicity for the government,” says U Chan Kyi.

“I think the government wants to restrict the Islamic religion.”

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