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Rakhine sectarian violence - one year on

SITTWE, 13 June 2013 (IRIN) - One year after Myanmar's worst sectarian violence in decades, tension between the Buddhist ethnic Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in the country's western Rakhine State remains high.

An estimated 140,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), mainly Rohingya Muslims, are spread across some 80 camps and makeshift sites, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Many more who were not directly affected by the violence have lost their livelihoods as a result of movement restrictions imposed by the authorities.

IRIN visited the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, scene of much of the violence, to ask members of both communities about the prospects for peace and reconciliation.

Noon Na Ha, 35, Rohingya* IDP at Thea Chaung camp

"Sure I would like to return to my village, but don't know if that is possible. My house was destroyed in the violence and I lost everything. Since then I have been living hand to mouth in this camp which is very difficult, particularly with the rainy season upon us. I don't have anything and have five children to feed. To get by I sell tea to the other camp residents and earn around 50 US cents a day. My children used to go to school, but now they don't, which is particularly hard. I don't know what will happen to them. Moreover, I don't know if we will ever be able to go back to our village. Reconciliation? That depends on the government at this point. Before the violence, I used to have a Rakhine friend, but I haven't seen her since everything happened and have no idea what happened to her. What would we say to each other?"

Daw Aye Nu Sein, ethnic Rakhine, spokeswoman for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party

"Conflict is nothing new between our communities, but given what happened last year [violent clashes in June and October] tensions are still high. Nothing is for sure. We don't want conflict. We don't want violence, but there are more and more Muslims [in Rakhine State] than ever before. The simple fact is they have more children than Rakhine people as they don't practice birth control. If we don't take control of the situation soon, the Muslims will take over as they did in the north. Even today, an increasing number of Bengalis * are crossing the border into Myanmar and nothing is being done to stop this. The government needs to sort this out, otherwise there will be more violence, and the only way to do that is by ensuring law and order, starting with the 1982 Citizenship Law. I would like to believe peace and reconciliation is possible, but it will take time. The vast majority of these people are not Burmese citizens, but illegal migrants. Of all the Muslims in Rakhine, maybe just 5 percent are actually citizens. Those that are citizens can stay - I don't have a problem with that - but the rest have no right be here. In the 17 townships of Rakhine, the ethnic Rakhine are still the majority. However, we need to keep this under control. We used to have mutual respect between the two communities. We viewed the Bengalis among us as guests in our house. Now the guest wants to take over the house, something we will never accept."

Daw Khin Htwe, 40, ethnic Kaman IDP and mother-of-three

"I'm not Rohingya, but ethnic Kaman.** However, last year's violence did not differentiate between us. I am, after all, Muslim and married to a Rohingya man. Many ethnic Kamans are now displaced like me. My house was burned by an angry mob and I saw with my own eyes my mother-in-law struck down with a sword when she tried to stop them. As she lay bleeding, both she and her younger sister were hacked to death by an angry mob. My children witnessed this with their very eyes and two of my children were injured. Even today, they continue to have nightmares. We know who did this, but also know nothing will come of it. How can our communities ever reconcile if such crimes go unpunished? Will there be any accountability? Only if the authorities arrest and punish those responsible is there any real prospect for reconciliation. What will happen to us if we return to our homes now? It could happen all over again."

U Aria Van Sa, 40, ethnic Rakhine, head monk of the Shwe Zaydi Monastery in Sittwe

"The root cause of this conflict is really about land occupation. The Bengalis have already taken over much of the north of the state and are now trying to do the same in Sittwe. Even today, more and more Bengalis are entering the country illegally and the authorities aren't doing anything to stop it. We will never allow this. If we do, there will be no place left for the ethnic Rakhine people. In Maungdaw Township, 96 percent of the population are Bengalis, while just 4 percent are ethnic Rakhine. This is proof of what the Bengalis are trying to do. It's all part of a grand design by Muslims to take over the world. We've seen this already in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia which were once Buddhist countries. Now they are Muslim. How did this happen? Clearly this is what is happening in Rakhine State today.

As for the Bengali IDPs who are not citizens under the law, clearly they are refugees and should be treated as such. They should be kept in camps and provided humanitarian assistance. Otherwise, they can return to Bangladesh. Under no circumstances should they be allowed to settle outside the camps, nor enter the community without proper authorization. If a third country wants to take them, that's fine. That's for them to decide. They are refugees and have this right. Reconciliation? The Rakhine people have lost their trust with the Bengali people living amongst them. It will take a long time to rebuild that."

Kyaw Hla Aung, 73, IDP and Rohingya activist and lawyer

"I would be arrested if the authorities knew where I was as they see me as a political threat, as an instigator of sorts. However, my only crime is being an educated man and a Rohingya man at that. I stood for parliamentary elections in 1990 with the National Democratic Party for Human Rights, but was arrested by the authorities and sentenced to 14 years in prison due to earlier involvement in a court case involving a group of farmers whose land had been confiscated by the township government. I was later released in 1997 at which point I joined Médecins Sans Frontières Holland as an administrative officer in Sittwe.

I used to live downtown and my family's home of more than 68 years was destroyed on 11 June 2012. All my books and legal documents were destroyed. I lost everything. The mob didn't burn my house because they were afraid my neighbours' home, which belonged to an ethnic Rakhine family, would also catch fire. Instead they destroyed my home by hand and with pickaxes. One year on, the prospects for reconciliation remain poor as neither the government nor the Rakhine people want it. Instead, they are taking the opportunity of our forced segregation to seize our land and property. Our only hope now is with international pressure on the Burmese government."

Noor Nahar, 50, Rohingya IDP and mother-of-four

"My husband lives and works in Saudi Arabia so I'm alone here. When the clashes started, I never expected them to escalate like this. We lost everything in the violence and I couldn't bear to tell my husband that everything he had ever worked for was gone. Now we are IDPs and dependent on outside assistance for everything. It's strange as earlier I had many Rakhine friends and we had good relations. In fact, each Sunday we would visit each other's homes, and they would visit me during Muslim religious holidays. I had no problems with them and simply can't understand what happened. It happened so fast. Surely, there must have been people instigating this as many of these people were my neighbours. I would like to think reconciliation is still possible, but it really depends on the government. I want to be hopeful, but so far they aren't doing anything."

Kaung San Ree, 70, ethnic Rakhine, editor of the Rakhine State News Journal

"We have always had doubts and suspicions about the Bengalis living amongst us [in Rakhine State] and last year's violence proved it. This is a very complex problem and one year on, there hasn't been any progress. Even their insistence on the usage of the word Rohingya is problematic; something we will never accept. There is no such thing as a Rohingya person in Rakhine State, nor has there ever been. The British brought these people here. To be frank, usage of that word is just an attempt to create some kind of new state, to gain some kind of ethnic legitimacy in Myanmar, something we will never accept. As long as they continue to use their word, the conflict will never be resolved. We call them Bengalis because that's where they came from, and that's where they belong. The 1982 citizenship law is the best solution to resolving this problem. Those Muslims who can prove they are citizens - and they are the minority - should be allowed to stay, while the rest should be placed in refugee camps in accordance to the law. And no, under no circumstance should they be allowed back into the community."

Aung Win, 57, Rohingya IDP and father-of-three

"How can we ever reconcile if we are segregated like this? It really depends on what the government does at this point. However, unfortunately they can continue to practice a `divide and rule' policy between us. Even today, you can see that in the levels of assistance being provided which is not equal. I want to live in peace. My neighbours back home were ethnic Rakhine and even today many of them are trying to be supportive to my family and I in the camp, which is very encouraging. Maybe the prospects for reconciliation are not good, but I'm trying to be hopeful.

Khin Myat Wai, 18, ethnic Rakhine, waitress

"I have lived four years in Sittwe and never expected to see the violence I witnessed last year. Sure there had been incidents in the past, but never like this. Relations between the two communities had always been peaceful. Then one night I looked out my window and saw Bengali people running around lighting peoples' homes on fire. It was terrible. Many homes were on fire, both Rakhine and Bengali. I don't have any Bengali friends, but before the violence many of our customers were Bengali. Reconcilation? That might be possible, but it really depends on the Bengali people. After all, they are the ones that started this. However, personally, I think too much has happened between the two communities. It just might not be possible. The trust is gone and now most Rakhine people hate the Bengalis."

*Ethnic Rakhines reject the term Rohingya and use the term Bengali instead.
**The 1982 Myanmar citizenship law recognizes the Muslim Kaman population as one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups.

ds/cb

Theme (s): Conflict, Human Rights, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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