“We want peace,” were the Rohingya’s sentiments expressed to me again, as I recently revisited the Rakhine State in Myanmar/Burma, where a population of Muslims has been living for centuries.
Once again, I was immersed into widespread Rohingya individual and communal resilience, strength of character, and wholesome peace-loving-and-seeking outlook on life. Much hasn’t changed, i.e. the kindness, playful children following and calling me Feri, fathers carrying around their small children, and women worrying where my husband and children were.
The Rakhines, aka Rakhine Buddhists, that I encountered have changed from when I was last in the Rakhine State. Before, Rakhines on the street were usually nice and returned a foreigner’s smile, Rakhine shop owners were helpful, and they were also beneficiaries of multiple NGOs services. Now, there is palpable animosity and mistrust on most Rakhine faces in the streets and businesses. My hotel desk hostesses went out of their way to not help me.
The Rakhine anti-Rohingya aggressors, I believe, do not see themselves as wrongdoers. Too many Rakhines have forgotten decades of government military oppression and human rights abuses that have limited their economic, education, and healthcare opportunities and control. Since June 2012, the Rakhine aggressors have been standing with and supporting their oppressors who still run the country and the Rakhine State and continue to oppressively control the Rakhine land.
The Rakhine aggressors blame their misfortune on their Rohingya neighbors, who clearly have been targeted with much worse government human rights violations and persecution. Rakhines, in a frenzy of manufactured offenses, have willfully committed verbal and physical attacks under the leadership of nationals and Rakhine politicians and religious figures. Yet they act as though they are the victims and aggression is defensive.
The continuous multipronged assault on the Rohingyas of the Rakhine State since June 2012 is an acute escalation of decades of government human rights violations and brutal persecution with variable discrimination from the Rakhines.
The major change that took place since June is the new role of the Rakhine politicians, authorities, monks, and civilians as the frontline soldiers of brutality against the Rohingyas. Yet, the national army and border security forces, aka NaSaKa, still determine and enforce the same policies that strangle what little life is left out of Rohingyas living in camps and villages.
Meanwhile, Rakhine roam freely spewing Nazi-like vitriol, raising alarms that additional assaults on Rohingyas are pending.
Before government restricted all access to international journalists, they were only allowed in some Sittwe Township Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camps but nowhere else. Sittwe Rohingya IDP’ conditions are far from acceptable, but they have the possibility of access to some international relief. Outside of Sittwe Township, there are multiple and growing dire IDP emergencies that the government still does not allow meaningful relief access for.
Also, Rohingyas elsewhere living in homes and IDP camps are surrounded by government-imposed Rakhines and military personnel that launch attacks, arbitrary arrests, and impose taxation, in addition to absolute restriction of movement and widespread rape.
Also, Rakhine reporters have often contributed to international news outlet stories covering the Rakhine Crisis. One of the October 2012 attacks was followed by multiple stories and photographs of Rakhines being treated in the local hospital for wounds sustained in Rohingya attacks on Rakhines. In the photographs I only saw one person with physical evidence of injury out of 20 photos without any blood on skin, clothing, sheets, or the tons of bandages applied to victims.
Since June 2012, the “inter-communal” label of the Rakhine State Crisis persists and is contrary to most Rohingya’s experiences in addition to my research and observations. Human Rights Watch reported that inter-communal violence, i.e. from both Rakhines and Rohingyas toward each other, lasted 48 hours from June 8-10, 2012. On the 10th of June, President Thein Sein declared a State of Emergency authorizing the national military to take control over the state. Only Rohingyas were subject to curfews, which were enforced with deadly force.
Since June 10, the aggressions have disproportionately been conducted at the hands of the national authorities and the local Rakhines, segregating and persecuting Rohingyas. All attacks since October have been against Rohingyas.
Struggle for Peace
In Sittwe Township, Rohingya adults and children still suffer from the trauma of attacks, death, and destruction as additional human rights abuses and other injustices are compiled via government restrictions, forced relocation, encampment, and NaSaKa’s arbitrary taxation. The government has denied many Rohingyas an IDP status and has offered registration to some IDPs if they move to designated IDP camps. Many want to stay in Sittwe Township, others want to return to their own villages and townships. But, none want to move where the government designates.
Sittwe registered and unregistered Rohingya IDPs are living in densely populated areas with insufficient land and other opportunities for self-sufficiency. When registered IDPs rations are delivered on time they are not sufficient to cover their basic human needs.
Simultaneous to Rohingya’s struggles with multiple traumas, the government’s propaganda continues to label Rohingyas as equal aggressors and offenders. In Sittwe, there are 12,000 Rohingya IDP families, which clearly outnumber the few military and NaSaKa soldiers near the camps. But, Rohingyas do not want to fight. They are secure in their identity and do not have the irrational need to diminish others. They want the peace that they have been working and praying for over 50 years. They want the peace that comes through the immediate cessation of aggression, not through battle.
Rohingyas fear for their children’s safety and well-being in the present conditions; most believe that there will be other worse assaults against Rohingyas and they are caged prey.