Pho Thein Aung, 67, a father of three, recalls in vivid detail the day an angry mob of Rohingya Muslims gathered outside his home during last year’s sectarian violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. Today he is one of more than 1,200 ethnic Rakhine internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the Set Yone Su camp outside Sittwe, the provincial capital.
Of the estimated 140,000 displaced in the violence, most were Rohingya Muslims. However, more than 5,000 ethnic Rakhine were also displaced and are now living in five camps in and around Sittwe. Many feel misunderstood. Pho Thein Aung spoke to IRIN outside his shelter in the camp.
“Everyone talks about the Bengalis*, but few know the truth of what really happened. Our story isn’t being told. We barely escaped with our lives. We lost everything. Most of the people in my area were Bengali Muslims but we had always got along. In fact, I owned a small grocery store and had many Bengali neighbours; many of whom were my customers.
“Sure there were problems in the past, but never like this. We had always lived together in peace so I was shocked at what happened.
“On 11 June 2012, I heard a large mob outside my home in Nazli in Sittwe, but never thought it would escalate any further. After all, many of them were my neighbours so we were never prepared for what happened next.
“Suddenly, the mob went crazy and we had no choice but to flee for our lives. From a distance we could see our home had been set ablaze, as was my grocery store. Knowing we couldn’t return and with nowhere to go, we fled to a nearby monastery where we stayed for three months along with 30 other Rakhine families before coming to this camp. Today my wife and I live in one room and my son lives in another. Neither of us work so life is pretty dire. My two daughters have moved to Yangon.
“I would like to return to my home and rebuild, but we haven’t been given permission to return to the area so I have no choice but to stay here. I lost everything in the violence and have no idea how I will ever be able to rebuild.
“Should the Bengalis be allowed to return? No, that’s impossible now. We lived together in peace before, but that’s no longer possible. Too much has happened between our two communities for that to happen now. Even after 10 years, I don’t see that ever happening. There is no trust. Ask anyone you want here now. They will all say the same.”
*Like most ethnic Rakhine, Pho Thein Aung uses the term “Bengalis” when referring to Rohingyas.