Once bitter foes separated by violence, religion and competing historical claims, Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists have shared rare moments of solidarity in recent months, finding common cause in demanding justice as victims of Myanmar’s bloody military campaigns.
“They have suffered bad things, and now we are suffering bad things too," said Toe Toe Aung, a 21-year-old ethnic Rakhine man who wants to build peace between the two communities.
Going back to fierce battles fought in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State during World War II, Rohingya and Rakhine have been pitted against each other for decades, usually at the behest of more powerful forces. Rohingya fought with the British, and Rakhine threw their lot in with the Japanese, who were ultimately defeated.
While there have been long stretches of peaceful coexistence, hundreds were killed during riots in 2012 that saw Rohingya sent to displacement camps and ghettos where they remain today. In 2017, local Rakhine residents participated, cheered or were indifferent to the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, helping drive hundreds of thousands into Bangladesh.
Empty benches in the segregated Rakhine state capital of Sittwe. Photo: Verena Hölzl
The Burmese-Buddhist majority that runs the country recognizes the Rakhine as citizens but views the Rohingya as outsiders, leading to a severe imbalance in rights, access to education and freedom of movement. But a shift started occurring this year as the military stepped up its campaign against the Rakhine people during an attempt to crush an insurgent group called the Arakan Army. The military launched indiscriminate airstrikes, disappeared men, and carried out extrajudicial executions, according to rights groups.
This has led to now almost-weekly cordial and sympathetic exchanges between the two groups. In October, Toe Toe Aung received a donation of about $380 from Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to help people displaced by conflict in Myanmar, where soldiers are once again being accused of committing war crimes, this time against the Rakhine population.
“The suffering is bringing the two communities together. The Rakhine people have finally discovered who the common perpetrator is,” said Nyi Nyi Lwin, a Rakhine activist in Kuala Lumpur who is monitoring abuses against civilians.
At least 100,000 people have been displaced, according to the United Nations, with regular reports of killings by shelling or landmines.
Three years after the military’s campaign against the Rohingya, which is the subject of a genocide case at The Hague, the emerging alliance is growing stronger. According to Nyi Nyi Lwin, Rohingya who did not flee to Bangladesh are now watching Rakhine property and cattle when they have to abandon their villages during raids, air strikes or searches for insurgents. Younger people looking for new ways to forge ahead and heal old wounds appear to be leading the charge.
In July, Toe Toe Aung and his colleagues from the Rakhine Student Union met with displaced Rohingya in a camp in the state capital Sittwe. Photos on Twitter show them smiling and chatting, a simple but extraordinary act in a place governed by apartheid-like rules. When three Rakhine students protesting against the military and government were arrested in September, Rohingya youth in the Bangladesh camps issued a statement calling for their release. They staged a small protest in solidarity. Members of student groups also say they have regular video call meetings.
Facing shortages in aid, crowded shelters during the pandemic, and uncertain futures, the two communities also found themselves pushed out of Myanmar’s recent election. Lacking citizenship rights, Rohingya were not allowed to vote. Rakhine living in conflict areas were disenfranchised after Myanmar cancelled balloting across several townships, citing security reasons.
“Driving both communities apart was a master plan of the military. They wanted to reduce the power of our unity,” said Sayed Ullah, a religious leader living in Bangladesh who is part of the Rohingya Student Union. “Both sides are trying to convince their community to reconcile… it can’t be done over night. But it will happen.”
The solidarity movement has gone beyond the grassroots level. At the end of Ramadan this year, the Commander-in-Chief of the insurgent Arakan Army, which fights on behalf of the Rakhine community, sent warm holiday greetings to Muslims.
Earlier this year, the Arakan Army threatened to make public GPS data of the locations where massacres of Rohingya have taken place in areas sealed off from international investigations. They delivered in September with explosive videos of two soldiers describing mass murder and rape of Rohingya civilians. The confessions were filmed by Arakan Army members. The revelations were a blow to the military that denies major wrongdoing against Rohingya, and the two men are now believed to be in The Hague where they could possibly testify.
“On justice, we are all on the same page,” Tun Khin, a prominent Rohingya activist based in the United Kingdom, told VICE World News.
At an online conference in July organised by Rohingya diaspora groups and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, activists urged reconciliation with the Rakhine. Back home, Rohingya have also noticed that taboos among the public over expressing sympathy with their plight is slowly crumbling.
Earlier this year, Sawyeddollah, a young Rohingya activist living in the Bangladesh camps, was stunned when he saw a statement of more than 100 civil society organizations from all over Myanmar demanding the country’s leadership be held accountable for atrocities.
“We had no idea that they wanted justice for us,” he said recalling the moment. There were phone numbers, so he started reaching out and connecting to other activists.
Propaganda about the Rohingya is also receiving more scrutiny. A Rakhine village administrator who resigned because he was tired of being trapped between compliance with the military or rebels told VICE World News that he stopped believing the Rohingya burnt down their own houses, a major message of the Myanmar government. “We started doubting what the military had told us. They used us a lot.”
In a forthcoming survey of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, human rights watchdog Fortify Rights found from data collected in 2018 that more than 60 percent were in favor of living together with Rakhine people in harmony.
"We’ve seen mutual solidarity grow since the completion of the survey, with the escalation of fighting and atrocities in Rakhine,” said chief executive Matthew Smith. “The Myanmar army works hard to divide ethnic communities, and in this case their abuses are having the opposite effect.”
One Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh who did not want to provide his name for safety reasons said he experienced firsthand how hatred between the two communities was whipped up. When he was in jail for almost two months a few years ago, he said authorities encouraged Rakhine to torture Rohingya like him.
But he is not interested in revenge. “Even if they suffer now, it won’t undo what happened to us,” he said, adding that a Rakhine university friend told him that he now understands their pain. “We can’t forget what happened, but it is enough if they can understand what we went through."
Diaspora Rohingya activist Tun Khin said fake social media accounts in his name recently tried to sow new distrust with the Rakhine community. “The government and military are happy when Rohingya and Rakhine are fighting. But they won’t divide us anymore.”
Zaw Min Htun, a Rohingya student activist in Rakhine State’s capital Sittwe, hopes for the same. But he says as long as they live separated under different rules, there can be no real coexistence. Rohingya need basic rights. "What really needs to change is the government policy."
With additional reporting by Cape Diamond