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 toward 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 Myanmar 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 that was 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 coexisted 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 Myanmar, 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 British Ambassador to Myanmar Andrew Heyn and British Minister of State Hugo Swire — to five refugee camps over a two-day period, I 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 burnt down our houses, that’s why we’re here,” one elder said, 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 burned.”
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 UN Human Rights Commission 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, Burmese deputy minister for border affairs, both of whom were part of the visiting delegation.
The British government is Myanmar’s largest aid donor and through various non-governmental organizations is providing water, sanitation and healthcare to about 58,000 Buddhists and Muslims across the state. However, it seems that camp conditions vary wildly in their size and ethnicity. In Mingan, a Rakhine camp of 300 people in Sittwe, water pumps, kitchen crops and trash cans make neat little rows next to the newly issued tents and their inhabitants are allowed to go into town and work. In contrast, no Rohingya I met said they were allowed to leave — “for their own security,” officials said — and they have watched instead as their farmland and animals have been taken over by Rakhine Buddhists.