Sun, Apr 08, 2018 - Page 7 News List

The Rohingya left behind face fear and isolation in Myanmar

Some have been protected from violent army crackdowns because their villages are in remote locations, but their daily lives are shaped by tension and distrust

AFP, MRAUK U, Myanmar

By the twisted standards of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Abdullah is one of its more fortunate Rohingya residents.

The 34-year-old is alive, his village is intact and he is able to make a living — albeit a meager one — in his homeland as a farmer.

Abdullah’s Rohingya Muslim minority are disappearing fast from Myanmar.

Nearly one million of them — about two-thirds of their entire stateless community — have been forced over the border to refugee camps in Bangladesh by successive waves of persecution.

The latest has expelled some 700,000 Rohingya since August, when the army launched a campaign of violence that the UN says amounted to “ethnic cleansing.”

Abdullah’s village of Shan Taung is near the temple-studded town of Mrauk U, not far from the epicenter of the most recent crackdown in northern Rakhine, but partly sheltered from its worst excesses by a range of forested mountains.

He is among the 500,000 Rohingya that the UN estimates remain in Myanmar, some confined to camps after previous rounds of violence, while others are spared by wealth, luck or — like the villages in Abdullah’s area — simply by isolation from the latest military campaign.

Yet their lives are still shaped by tension and fear in a mainly Buddhist country that has methodically stripped the Muslim minority of legal rights and security.

The status of the Rohingya in Rakhine hangs by a thread in the wake of the army crackdown, which has seen Myanmar troops and ethnic Rakhine mobs accused of burning Rohingya villages and of raping and murdering their residents.

Shan Taung, with its 4,500-strong Rohingya population, appears peaceful.

Fishermen dry their catches in the sun, farmers tend to rice paddies and children play at the side of the road.

However, fear has sharply segregated the Rohingya Muslims and the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists living nearby.

The Rohingya say they risk a beating — or worse — if they stray into territory the Rakhine regard as their own, while few trust the police to protect them.

It was not always this way, Abdullah said, explaining he once had Rakhine friends and stayed with a Rakhine family while studying at university in the state capital, Sittwe.

“They no longer treat me like they used to,” he said. “They do not say good things.”

Communal relations have disintegrated in the past few months around Mrauk U town, where several people died recently after police opened fire on an ethnic Rakhine nationalist protest.

“We do not trust each other anymore,” a Rakhine youth said, asking not to be named. “Rakhines are also watching each other to make sure no one from the town is friends with Muslims.”

About 150,000 Rohingya are thought to be living in northern Rakhine, spread among disparate villages spared in the violent crackdown.

Rights groups say many of those communities are hungry and scared, unable to work freely and hemmed in by hostile neighbors, as the army beefs up its bases around them.

Ye Htut, the administrator of Maungdaw, the most populous district in the north, played down strife between the communities that remained.

“Muslims still living here do not say they are afraid,” he said. “Many houses are still left.”

Further south, another 130,000 Rohingya fester in internment camps, a grim legacy from rounds of intercommunal violence since 2012.

Another 200,000 fare only marginally better, living in their own villages, but under restrictions on movement that UN spokesman Pierre Peron said “severely compromise” basic rights and access to health and education.

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