Wed, Feb 14, 2018 - Page 9 News List

‘I feel trapped’: Violence fuels fear among Burmese Muslims

By Foster Klug  /  AP, YANGON, Myanmar

For four straight days last month, Rahim Muddinn watched, amazed, as Myanmar’s state-run newspapers published special supplements showing Rohingya Muslims accused of being terrorists — nearly 250 photographs each day.

For the 41-year-old Rohingya man, it was a surreal moment. He was born and raised in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and far from the western state of Rakhine, where bloody military operations that followed Rohingya militant attacks in August last year have driven nearly 700,000 Rohingya into refugee camps in Bangladesh.

“When we first saw those pictures, we started laughing. We wondered: When will it be our turn to have our pictures in the paper?” Muddinn, a teacher, said in an interview in his Yangon home.

However, behind the laughter there is genuine fear.

The pictures are the latest in a series of chilling realizations for Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. Although Yangon’s tree-lined boulevards and weathered colonial architecture seem a world away from the rice paddies and isolated villages of Rakhine — let alone the tarp-walled huts of the teeming refugee camps — the government is increasingly linking Rohingya across the country with what it calls a terrorist threat, Muddinn and others said.

Rohingya in Yangon describe a sense of rising persecution and hatred, of vanishing freedoms and opportunities, of Buddhist neighbors and friends suddenly more willing to publicly express sympathies with the military’s destruction of Rohingya villages in Rakhine.

“One day it really could be my picture in the paper,” Muddinn said.

Like most of the other Rohingya who spoke with The Associated Press (AP), he used his Rohingya name because of safety worries.

“I do have anxiety. The government can detain anyone it says is a supporter of terrorism or anyone viewed as a threat to the state,” he said.

Although Rohingya have always been persecuted in the country, it got much worse after 2012, when violence in Rakhine killed hundreds and drove about 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya, from their homes to camps.

Violence flared again in 2016 and, most dramatically, following the August attacks, when refugees report widespread killing and rape by Burmese forces.

The AP last month confirmed, through extensive interviews with survivors and time-stamped video, a massacre and at least five mass graves, all previously unreported, in the Rakhine village of Gu Dar Pyin.

Many Rohingya have been in Myanmar for generations, but, increasingly, the government and media have played up their claim that they are not citizens, but “illegal Bengali interlopers” who entered Myanmar from Bangladesh with the help of corrupt immigration officers.

There are non-Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and they often report rising discrimination, especially those in Rakhine.

The Burmese government denies discriminating against Rohingya and other Muslims.

“It’s totally not true that Muslims in the cities like Yangon have no freedom of movement or lack the same rights as other populations,” Burmese Ministry of Religious Affairs Director-General Aung San Win said. “Everyone is granted rights to freedom by the constitution, including Muslims. There is no discrimination in the country.”

However, in Yangon, hate speech against Rohingya has risen, and Buddhists who were once friends and colleagues now shun Muddinn’s family.

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