Hell in our Time – The Rohingya of Sittwe


Here’s an account of my visit to Sittwe, home of many Rohingya, in August 2012.

This is not a particularly hands-on story, nor did it involve any courage on my part. Better reportages on the same subject have surfaced in the media in recent days. But as Sittwe is now sealed off and as no one knows what’s really going down there, I have decided to post my journal on what I saw there in relation to the Rohingya and their dire and precarious situation. And what I thought about it after talking to many Burmese across the country on the subject for the past three weeks or so.

I was in Sittwe, Rakhine State on a travel assignment in late August. Since then, Sittwe has been closed to foreigners. I did not talk to a single Rohingya while I was there, nor did I manage to go to a refugee camp. I did get picked up by the security forces in Sittwe and they were expectedly aggressive and went through my pictures on my camera, but did not find anything they disliked enough to make me delete it or to arrest me. A Dutch national I met there was not so lucky, having photographed a mosque and he lost all his images.

A Burmese commentator recently compared the Rohingyas’ predicament and the hate they experience from almost all sections of Burmese society as comparable to the pursuit of Jews in Nazi Germany. It’s on one level a dangerous, incendiary and somehow superficial comment, but the coming months will tell us more about how bad the Rohingya will fare at the hands of a dominant and unsympathetic people and I hope that such comparisons are exaggerated and will remain just that.

I am on my way to Mrauk-U, an ancient capital of a long gone empire in Arakan or Rakhine State in north western Burma, near the Bangladesh border. I am traveling with a couple of foreign tourists and their guide, Michael. We take a morning flight from Yangon to Sittwe, the former British capital in the early 19th century, and the recent site of Rakhine Rohingya conflicts. The town is under curfew from 6am to 6pm. Most of the other passengers on the small prop plane are Chinese and none of them get off when we reach Sittwe in pouring rain.

In Sittwe, the mood is savage. The main road is full of military. Wagons packed with riot shields stand by the roadside in front of the market which is guarded by machine gun toting soldiers and armed police.

A local Muslim, not a Rohingya, who works as a tailor in the market, tells me that he is too scared to leave his stall. The fish market is almost deserted. The Rohingya who used to bring their catches in on small boats are no longer coming. It’s a damp miserable hell hole of a market, drowning in mud and bad vibes. The usually smiling Burmese wear closed faces, everyone rushes past one another, eyes locked to the ground. The mistrust between people is palpable. Along the main roads, every fifth or so building has been gutted, wooden skeletons stand in the downpour, a red sign in Burmese planted amidst blackened stumps. Michael tells me that most of the arson was done by Muslims.  After a brief run through the market, we head for the jetty and jump onto the boat to Mrauk-U that Michael has organized for his clients.

Michael comes from Maunghaw, in the far north west of Rakhine State. He is 40, a licensed tour guide, and has been living in Yangon since the late 90s. He runs regular tours to his homeland. He speaks fluent English and is probably as worldly as it gets in Sittwe. He is the new Myanmar, he supports the NLD and conducts luxury tours across the country, including to troubled Rakhine State. He is articulate and smooth and I can’t say I particularly like him. He is always right. He is not prone to debate. He is a man it is better to listen to than to discuss with.

“They should all leave. I don’t care where. There is no difference between the Rohingya and any other Muslims in Myanmar, they just don’t belong here. They cut off our heads. If one of them touches you, you die.”

Michael is amongst Myanmar’s intellectual elite. He started his professional career as a school teacher in Rakhine state. “In the beginning, I used to teach Muslim children in Maunghaw. It was not well paid, but the parents gave me food and looked after me. Later I transferred to a school near Sittwe. I taught Muslim boys in a big Muslim village there. Then in 1994, these Muslims attacked a neighboring Rakhine village and killed four people. It was my students who killed those Rakhine people. I think all these Muslims are the same.”

Michael is a consummate professional, well versed in the history of his state, the legendary and mythical Arakan. He can list past kings and knows about each and every building in Mrauk-U, the former Arakan capital that ruled the region between the 15th and 18th century, our destination. But he doesn’t have a bad word to say about the Burmese government because it is seen to be doing something about the ‘Muslim problem.’

“For us, the UN and Bangladesh are the biggest problem. They get involved in Myanmar affairs. And Myanmar is not the aggressor. These people came during the British time and again in the 1950s, but they are aggressive, they have machine guns, the explode bombs in Maunghaw and they are well financed by the Saudis, Qatar and the Emirates. And UNHCR supports these people by giving 90% of its budget spent here to them. They are well financed, just like the rebels in southern Thailand.”

The subject is close to his heart and Michael’s usual cool detachment slips as he gets deeper into the story that’s on everyone’s mind here.

“There are more than a million Muslims in Rakhine, I don’t know how we can get rid of them. The government must get rid of them. We don’t want them here. They don’t speak Burmese, they are not like us. If these people suddenly came to the US and Germany, the government there would not let them stay. They are illegal immigrants. They would all be arrested. Why would this be any different in Myanmar?”

After an eight hour rain drenched boat journey up the Kaladan River, we reach Mrauk-U, a place almost too wondrous and beautiful for words. The remnants of the ancient Arakan capital, temples and chedis, stand amongst the village homes and in paddy fields, as if an ancient civilization had packed up and left centuries ago and a new lot had moved in. But it is not as peaceful as it first looks. As I check into a guest house, the friendly owner gives me a map and tells me not to visit temples more than a mile or so from town or I might be attacked by angry Muslims. “It’s not a good time now”, he says. “So much danger from the Muslims.”

In the hills around Mrauk-U, the military has set up patrols. Around the ancient moss covered chedis that poke out of the dense vegetation, men with heavy weapons cower in the grass, covering the roads around town, on the look-out for ‘terrorists’ as Michael says.

“They are keeping the town safe, in case the Muslims attack,’ Michael tells me. “The locals feel safer that way.”

I have no way to ascertain this, but in the current frenzied climate of fear, it’s possible. In the market the trishaw drivers tell me the government is bad but no one seems unduly alarmed by the military presence. I walk past a military camp with a bunch of soldiers lounging, more heavy weapons ready in hand, against the perimeter wall.

They are friendly enough until their superior, a sullen boy in his mid-20s shows up and tells me in no uncertain terms to get lost. He is aggressive, anger boils in his eyes as he swings a 2by 4 in my direction. A little down the road, another soldier guards a second gate while eating his lunch. He gets very nervous and shoos me away as I try to approach him.

We travel overland by jeep from Mrauk-U towards the Lemro river and stop in a small village. The usual road to the river is closed. Too dangerous to travel along as attacks by Muslims could happen any time, I am told. The alternative route is mired in mud with hardly a soul in sight, but is considered safe. In the village all the men have gathered in the largest building.

“The local men are waiting for the army. The army goes to a different village every day to talk to people to reassure them that they will keep them safe.”

Surely this is not the same army that has been raping, killing, torturing and arresting people across this country at will for decades?

A few hours up the Lemro River, we reach a couple of Chin villages. Some of the older women have face tattoos which brings a modest flow of tourists and their dollars here. The tradition of facial tattoos – the former masters were all women themselves – has long died out and the few women who have tattoos are in their 60s or older. They are all Buddhist now and feel ashamed to have the tattoos.  They want to be Burmese. Or have been told to be Burmese. Michael tells me that the tattoos have no religious significance. “These women were all tattooed when they were ten years old. It makes them uglier so the chance of kidnapping by the Japanese in WW2, was smaller. The Japanese wanted to use these ladies as comfort women, just like in Korea, but the tattoos put them off.”

Malnutrition is evident amongst the Chin children. In Pan Paung village, UNDP constructed a well 25 years ago, long in disuse. The school is a ramshackle barn with holes in the floor, large enough to swallow a child. The teacher is a teenager who failed his teaching test twice. He shouts at the children in Burmese, all of them Chin, all aged between 5 and 10, and they shout right back at him. By the time they grow up, there will be little left of their culture and customs.

The homes are simple bamboo and rattan huts on stilts, the undersides populated by chicken, pigs and sick looking kids. The most respectable looking building in the vicinity is a Buddhist temple. I feel like I am too late, the moment for these Chin has already gone, they are assimilated without opportunity, not surprising in a country where the ethnic majority does not have any opportunity either.

I ask Michael what he thinks about his neighbors, the Indians, the Chinese and the Thai. “They are no good, none of them. They steal from us and they mistreat our workers.”

This xenophobia is extremely commonplace and a testament to the brilliance of the junta, the genius of Machiavellian manipulation. I have the feeling that everyone has underestimated this government. And that the West knows it’s a 50 year road till this country will be in a position in which it might adopt any kind of egalitarian laws and doesn’t care so long it can sell cans of Coke here and open a front against the economic and political might of the Chinese.

Meanwhile, the generals merely continue what cruel kings did here for centuries, deprive the locals as much as possible, plunder all resources, and when in doubt, play the different communities off against one another. And now they do it with the help of the former opposition. Divide and conquer.

Rakhine State feels like a mass killing in slow motion. It’s Bono’s bone yard. It’s a testament to the disregard for human rights that the government and the NLD display and evidence of how little many Burmese activists and Buddhist monks understand of what equality actually means. Last week’s red-robed protests in Mandalay being a shining though hardly enlightened example.

When I ask one high ranking NLD activist with 20 years of jail-time on his back about the Rohingya, he says the same thing as everyone else, ‘They have to go.’

All those years of struggle, torture and sacrifice become almost meaningless in the face of the hatred ordinary and not so ordinary Burmese display against the Rohingya. And the silence by Noel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been excused by countless Western  liberals and even Muslims with ‘Oh, it would be political suicide for her to stand up for human rights now.’

In fact, it is merely reprehensible. Aung San Suu Kyi has been surfing the wave of freedom and humanity with the kind of global street-cred only the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela can muster, cashed in on her purist super stardom, hobnobbed with the stars from Oslo to London and at the first sign of trouble, post-incarceration, she becomes a thoroughbred politician. There are already too many of those in the world and they all have their fingers in the same pie. And the pie in Burma currently looks like this:

‘They will come and cut off our heads.” Michael says.

Meanwhile the local press, now finally free after decades of repression, reports that this is not a religious issue, and that the Rohingya can apply for citizenship if they can prove that they have been here for generations and that the rest will be deported because they don’t belong.

In Burma, heaven and hell are close together.

I took a few photos in Sittwe, prior to being harassed by security forces. Take a look at Pictures of Sittwe here.

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