The helicopter cuts a sharp arc away from the sea and sweeps over pagoda-topped hills and dusty farmland until a mass of dirty white tents comes into view. Soon throngs of people can be seen coming out of their makeshift homes and rushing towards the airfield, until they resemble a human fence, snaking five-deep around the camp. There are mothers in pastel hijabs, men in T-shirts and longyis, and naked children clutching on to grandparents, jostling for space among puddles and dust, held back by guards with rifles.
Here at Pauktaw refugee camp in Rakhine state – home to the inhabitants of five Rohingya Muslim villages who fled intercommunal conflict in western Burma this year – there are no schools, no work and no fields to cultivate – because no one is allowed to leave. When a helicopter lands, they hope it will bring either more supplies or some end to a way of life that has been unchanged for six months.
Since June Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh, has been ripped apart by violence between the majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims, sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, 200 people have been killed and more than 115,000 displaced.
Communities that once co-existed peacefully have been sent to segregated refugee camps all around the state, the majority of them filled with Rohingya – a population of roughly 800,000 who claim to be rightful citizens of Burma but whom the Burmese government widely calls “Bengali immigrants”, denying them citizenship and placing restrictions on their rights to travel, attend higher education and even marry.
Accompanying a high-level delegation of Burmese officials and British diplomats – including the British ambassador to Burma, Andrew Heyn, and the minister for south-east Asia, Hugo Swire – to five refugee camps over a two-day period, the Guardian was escorted by gun-wielding Buddhist border guards to meet Pauktaw camp’s Muslim leaders, who sit cross-legged on plastic sheeting underneath ripped tents suspended by salvaged wood.
Entirely reliant on aid, they said they needed greater medical care and want recognition as an ethnic group. “Rakhines came to our villages and burned down our houses, that’s why we’re here,” said one elder, his hands clasped tightly at his waist. “We’ve been living here for generations and never had a situation like this, so I don’t know why it happened. But now we have no documents – everything was burnt.”
Tents are so scarce that many families have cobbled together thatch-and-corrugated iron shelters, sleeping on hay and torn blankets. Those that do exist bear Saudi Arabia’s logo, but they are torn and thin – leftovers from a huge aid donation during cyclone Nargis. Aid workers said the UNHCR has been forbidden to provide the camp with new tents, but the reasons were unclear from both U Hla Maung Tin, chief minister of Rakhine state, and General Zaw Winn, Burma’s deputy minister for border affairs, both of whom were part of the visiting delegation.
The British government is Burma’s largest aid donor and through various NGOs is providing water, sanitation and healthcare to about 58,000 Buddhists and Muslims across the state. But camp conditions vary wildly in their size and ethnicity. In Mingan, a Rakhine camp of 300 people in Sittwe, water pumps, kitchen crops and rubbish bins make neat little rows next to the newly issued tents and their inhabitants are allowed to go into town and work. In contrast, none of the Rohingya the Guardian met said they were allowed to leave – “for their own security”, officials explain – and they have watched instead as their farmland and animals have been taken over by Rakhine Buddhists.
Villages razed since the conflict began this summer, and reignited in October, have turned into breeding grounds for discontent. In Sittwe, the regional capital where much of the violence took place, the city is segregated along Muslim and Buddhist lines and a tight curfew is still in place. “It is impossible for the Muslims to stay here now,” said Cho Cho Lwin, 41, from her tent in Mingan. “If we forgive them, they’ll just do it again. They have always wanted to expand their land but until now didn’t have the chance.”
Many Burmese believe the Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants who crossed over from Bangladesh during the British occupation, and who aim to turn Rakhine into a Muslim state. As many Rakhine are fervent nationalists – Rakhine was an independent kingdom until 1784 – they worry that the Rohingya are extremists in disguise.
“There are outside radical elements [at play] and [the Rohingya issue] is a tool of Islamicisation,” said Oo Hla Saw of the Rakhine Nationalities Development party (RNDP). “That is why we are afraid.”
Most Burmese refuse to consider the Rohingya as an ethnic group and claim the name has been fabricated and used to win international support. Anti-Rohingya animosity is so strong that it can be felt ddown in the former capital, Rangoon, where discussions on the issue turn into rants about Burma’s porous borders and a government that has been too soft on the “illegal Bengalis”.
While the government has seemingly taken steps to address the issue, a Rakhine inquiry commission set up in August raised eyebrows after it emerged there was not a single Rohingya representative on the commission, yet its chairman, Aye Maung, heads the RNDP, and another of its representatives, Ko Ko Gyi, has previously stated that Rohingya are “invading” Burma.
Multiple allegations of abuse against Rohingya by security forces, including rape and torture, have been lodged with human rights groups, who have expressed concern about the prevalence of Muslims in detention. According to official figures released last week, more than 1,100 suspects have been detained in connection with this year’s violence, three-quarters of whom are Rohingya.
Abu Tahay, of the Rohingya political group National Democratic Party for Development, says the authorities have acted without warrants and Rohingya detainees have been held without bail or access to lawyers.
The Burmese government has been quick to deny international media reports of genocide and has described the situation as an intercommunal conflict caused by underdevelopment in the state. Last month President Thein Sein promised that his government would look at a range of solutions – among them resettlement and citizenship – in what has become Burma’s most pressing conflict since its transition to democracy last year.
Local immigration authorities recently began the mammoth task of verifying the citizenship of Rakhine’s Muslim population in an effort to settle the explosive question. While some Rohingya hold temporary registration cards that grant them the right to vote but little else, citizenship revolves around a contentious 1982 law requiring proof that the past three generations of an applicant’s family have lived in Burma. It is a touchy subject for Rohingya, many of whom lack any documentation but insist that their ancestors were born and bred in the state.
The census is expected to continue until 2014, although it is still unclear whether Buddhist and Muslim communities will be expected to live together once more or will continue to be segregated. It is also unknown what will happen to those who are incapable of providing documentation.
Swire – who initially travelled to Burma to lead a trade delegation – said “conditions [in Rakhine] remain extremely worrying” and stressed that without greater determination and urgent action “this tragedy will continue to deepen for all concerned”.
To date, Aung San Suu Kyi – who is considered internationally as Burma’s most unifying political figure and who has previously stressed the significance of ethnic rights – has been largely absent from debates on the issue and it is unclear why she has not played a greater role.
However, analysts largely believe her reticence may stem from a political desire to maintain majority Burman votes for her NLD party, particularly in the runup to the 2015 presidential elections.
According to Swire, who briefly met Aung San Suu Kyi and raised the Rohingya issue, the Nobel laureate is prepared to help in the reconciliation process if invited by the Burmese government to do so. “[Suu Kyi] herself has been very clear about this– she is extremely busy. She can’t do everything in this country,” said Swire. “If she is formally invited to get involved, she has indicated to me that she would be very willing to do that.”
With aid workers expecting Rakhine’s refugee camps to remain in place for at least another year, it seems many Rohingya are still at the mercy of the Burmese government and the few media and foreign dignitaries able to visit.
When one teary-eyed Rohingya man pleaded with Zaw Winn, telling him, “We are real Rohingya – please recognise us”, the minister looked at his colleague and laughed.
So iIt is perhaps no surprise that, at the end of the tour of Pauktaw, a few brave Rohingya slipped handwritten letters into the hands of the delegation, including one to the Guardian that read: “We are real citizens of Burma … We hope that you will save and rescue [us].”
Who are the Rohingya?
• The Rohingya are an 800,000-strong Muslim minority in Rakhine state, western Burma, which borders Bangladesh. Though many claim to have lived in Burma for generations, they are not recognised as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups.
•A document on Burmese languages dating back to 1799 refers to “Rooinga” as “natives of Arakan [Rakhine]“, but it is widely believed that most Rohingya came over from Bangladesh around 1821, when Britain annexed Burma as a province of British India and brought over migrant Muslim labourers.
• Large-scale Burmese-government crackdowns on the Rohingya, including Operation Dragon King in 1978, and Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation in 1991, forced hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh. Thousands of others have also left for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, many of them by boat.
• This latest crisis to befall Rakhine state, which has seen 200 killed and 115,000 displaced – most of them Rohingya – tests Burma’s recent transition to democracy and its commitment to establishing full human rights for those within its borders.