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Inside Sittwe, the Point of No Return for Burma's Displaced Rohingya

Visiting one of the major launch points for the estimated 25,000 ethnic Muslims that fled the country in boats between January and March this year.

by Paul Gregoire
29 July 2015, 5:55am

Sittwe beach. All photos by the author

Sittwe is the capital of Rakhine, the second poorest state in Burma. The city sits at the point where the Kaladan River converges with the Bay of Bengal. Fishing is a major industry, and the economy is set to benefit from a deep-water port under construction that's funded by the Indian government. It was also one of the major set-off points for the estimated 25,000 Rohingya—an ethnic Muslim minority—that fled the country in boats between January and March this year.

VICE recently paid a visit to this restive city and found a state-sanctioned system of segregation that has left the Rohingya—a people the United Nations has described as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world —stateless and deprived.

A main intersection in Sittwe

In May, international attention was focused upon the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Andaman Sea, when thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees were stranded in rickety boats after Thai authorities cracked down on people-smuggling routes. As the asylum seekers made their way south, Malaysia and Indonesia began turning back the boats and reports emerged of smugglers abandoning their ships leaving their human cargo adrift.

Later in the month, Malaysia and Indonesia announced they would accept the refugees, as long as they were repatriated or resettled within a year.

Jama Mosque has been closed for three years

Today, Sittwe appears to be Muslim-free, with little trace of its former Rohingya population. One of the most prominent buildings on the main road is the Jama Mosque, but it has been closed for the last three years. The laneway leading to the mosque is cordoned off by barbwire stanchions and armed guards sit at the entrance. Sittwe market was once the site of many Rohingya-owned stores, but now none remain in Muslim hands.

Sittwe was one of the major flashpoints of the 2012 riots, which drove around 140,000 Rohingya people into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps throughout the state. The sectarian violence broke out that June, as extreme factions of the state's majority Rakhine Buddhist population began violently attacking and burning down Rohingya villages.

Rohingya-run stalls are no longer found at Sittwe market.

The violence was instigated by the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist women by three Muslim men in Kyaukphyu township and the reprisal killings of ten Muslim people dragged off a bus in Taungup township a few days later.

In Sittwe, the attacks moved from one Rohingya area to the next while the violence spread statewide from township to township.

In October 2012, a more coordinated set of attacks was perpetrated upon Rohingya villages in nine townships throughout the state. The Burmese government and local authorities are reported to have stood by or participated in the attacks. The official death toll of the 2012 riots was around 200 people.

Attacks perpetrated against the Rohingya have continued periodically over the last three years, with a group of fishermen being attacked in Pauktaw township in January this year.

The Rohingya camp in Sittwe. An estimated 140,000 people live in camps like these in Burma.

Beyond the main road in Sittwe lies Aung Mingalar, a part of the city where an estimated 4,000 Rohingya still live. The area effectively functions as a prison: it's fenced off, the entrances are guarded by police, and the inhabitants are not allowed to leave. On the day I approached the roadblocks, the police were not welcoming foreigners in.

Aung Win, a Rohingyan rights activist, lives in Aung Mingalar with his family. He told me that the situation is dire for those living in the ghetto. They must seek permission to visit the market in government arranged security trucks and have no access to medical services.

"When we have the infection, we cannot go to the hospital that is very close," he said, adding the authorities are tightening security because the Burmese general election is about to take place in November.

But the majority of the nation's estimated 1.3 million Rohingya won't be able to vote in the elections, as their citizenship has been revoked.

The 1982 Citizenship Law doesn't recognize the Rohingya as a national ethnic group and denies citizenship to individuals who cannot provide evidence that their ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the year the British began their occupation of Rakhine state, then known as Arakan.

Even though there is evidence the Rohingya were living in the state between the mid 15th to late 18th centuries, if not more than 1,000 years ago, this law has rendered them stateless. The government refers to the Rohingya as Bengalis, effectively denying them a separate ethic group.

According to Aung Win, it's not average Rakhine people who are the problem, it's the nationalists, extremists, and politicians. "You must understand that. For nearly three years, we're living in the slum area without sufficient food and aid, so many Rakhine people are sending the items we need," he explained.

But the majority of the local Rohingya population are living in IDP camps, west of the city, along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. The conditions are grim: There's little food, no access to medical services, and no employment. Many live in flimsy huts without much protection against the monsoon rains.

Rohingya kids playing on the beach road

Walking down the road heading out to the camps, I again came across another roadblock. A police officer denied access, so I doubled back down to the beach. On the way, I passed a building with large UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) tents out the back.

Vivian Tan, UNHCR spokesperson for Southeast Asia, said the agency has been operating in the area since June 2012, alongside the governmental, UN, and NGO counterparts. "As part of the inter-agency humanitarian response, UNHCR has been leading efforts to provide relief supplies, temporary shelter, protection, monitoring, and advocacy, as well as camp coordination and management," she said.

Making my way down the beachside road towards the strip known as Ohn Daw Gyi—the area where many of the refugee boats leave—I came to a section where the road is no longer paved. In the distance there was a group of people and to the right, across the field, there were newly-built IDP camp shelters and beyond an area of makeshift ones.

On approach, the group made up of Rohingya children, came up close, some barely clothed. One older boy came to the front, putting his hand to his stomach and then his mouth in a gesture showing hunger. Three young women walked up. One, holding a piece of UNHCR tarpaulin fashioned as a bag, communicated that they were from the camps.

These people have been pushed to the edge, deprived of services, occupation, and legal recourse. With no place left to run, they're being forced to risk their lives on the high seas.

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