The capital of Rakhine state in western Myanmar is a picture of outward calm. At lunchtime on Saturday, the main street is crowded with bicycle-riders, motorcyclists, a few cars, lots of pedestrians and people eating at roadside cafes. Work continues at the site of the port, which the Indian company ESSAR is constructing as part of the India-funded Kaladan multi-nodal transport project. There are even tourists.
But just a 20-minute drive from the town, beyond Sittwe University, amid paddy fields and shrimp farms, is the evidence of the deep divide that tore apart this coastal town, and other townships in Rakhine, between its Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists twice this year, and that has raised fears for the democratic transition in Myanmar.
Housed in a string of squalid camps along both sides of a sandy track are thousands of Rohingyas — or Bengalis, as the government prefers to call them — displaced since June this year when clashes first erupted in the state after an alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman. As many as 78 people were killed in that violence, 5,000 houses burnt, and more than 75,000 people displaced.
More arrived in these camps after the second round of violent incidents in the last two weeks of October, in which, President Thein Sein announced recently, 89 people were killed, 136 injured, 5,351 houses burned, and more than 32,000 people displaced.
Emergency regulations remain in force in the entire state, and in Sittwe, there’s a 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew.
Located within the town are four camps housing the Rakhine Buddhists who were also displaced in the June violence. The conditions in these camps are better than in the Rohingya camps. They live in temporarily constructed houses, or in barracks. Their numbers are fewer; each camp houses about 1,000 people.
The separation of the camps is one sign of how divided the town is. Rakhines in Sittwe will refuse to go anywhere near the Rohingya camps; no Muslim will go to a Rakhine camp.
“They hate us, if I go anywhere near the Bengali camps, they will kill me. They get angry just seeing us,” a young Rakhine man said, flatly refusing to take me to the camps, offering to accompany me only to the ones with the Buddhists.
Te Chaung camp, the first in the series of the Rohingya camps, is overflowing with people, young and old, men and women, boys, girls, toddlers, newborns. The official number in this camp is 18,500, but it could be more, particularly with the new arrivals.
Many of them are huddled 80 or 100 to a tent, each measuring about 20’x10’. Women from each of the 20 or so families in the tent are sitting in a row outside, preparing the evening meal on wood fires, with rations given by the World Food Programme.
The new arrivals in Te Chaung are from Kyaukphyu. Last week, Human Rights Watch released satellite images that it said showed more than 800 houses razed to the ground in the township on October 23. An estimated 2,500-3,000 people who came from there have found place in a madrassa and in houses in the village where Te Chaung camp is located
“In eight hours, a mob of Rakhine set our houses on fire. I think there must have been 5,000 in the mob. A hundred people died. We had to flee the area in boats,” said Muriam Bibi.
It took 20 hours for them to arrive at Te Chaung by river, but it took another three to four days, said Murium Bibi and others who had come with her, before the authorities permitted them to disembark from their boats and enter this camp.
“We cannot think of ever going back to the village. The Rakhine people will surely kill us if we return. Anyway, there is nothing left of that place. It’s all been burnt down,” said Muriam Bibi, who has camped with her family on the first floor of the madrassa.
On the other side of the camp are the people who arrived in June when their homes in Nazir quarter in Sittwe were burnt down. A group of them are fighting over a sack of clothes donated to them. None of the clothes looks wearable: torn underwear, dirty, muddied and stained shirts, and a garment that looks neither like a shirt nor a blouse.
“How do they expect us to wear this?” asks a man angrily, displaying the incomprehensible piece of cloth.
The garment evokes much laughter in the crowd, but also angry comments that the “good clothes that are being sent from Indonesia and Malaysia are being stolen by the authorities, and this is what they are giving us instead.”
He speaks a language that resembles Bengali, but a surprising number of people in the camp speak fluent Urdu, and explain they learnt it from Bollywood films.
“The government calls us Bengali because our language is Bengali. They are trying to show we are from Bangladesh, but we are Rohingya, and we’ve been living in Rakhine for many generations, that’s our parents and grandparents have told us,” said Abdul Karim.
Omar Ali, who was among the thousands who fled Nazir Basti, said the troubles for them began when news spread about the rape and killing of a girl in Khauknimon, a township to the south of Sittwe, in June.
“The situation for us is really bad. The government does not accept us. We really have a big problem,” he said. Members from an investigation team set up by the government had visited the camp, said Omar Ali, but that had not improved either the conditions in the camp or their long-term prospects.
A 27-member investigation commission has been set up by President Thein Sein to go into the cause of the conflict, but the commission was unable to finish its work and has asked for a deadline until the middle of November.
Things are more orderly in the Rakhine camps. There isn’t the crush of people evident in the Rohingya camps. Each camp houses about 700-1,000 people. They live in shelters made of wood, bamboo mats and tin roofs. Each camp has a row of toilets.
In the Nazir camp, U Cheit Maung, who was displaced in June, said a mob of Muslims had set his neighbourhood on fire. “It’s difficult to say why they did it, but I know they have a long-term plan in Rakhine state,” he says.
A man called Kyaw Thar Baruah, who says his forefathers settled in Myanmar from Assam, claims the plan is to “convert us all to Islam and take over Rakhine. We will not allow that, we are Buddhists.”
Another man alleges that the aid organisations working in the relief camps are taking money from “Islamic countries,” therefore they are biased towards the “Bengali camps.”
Last month, Rakhine Buddhists demonstrated in Sittwe and other places against international aid organisations. But aside from the UN and WFP, others such as Médecins Sans Frontières, Action Against Hunger and others have continued to provide relief to the displaced people, working with security provided by the government.
Ashok Nigam, United Nations Resident & Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Yangon, told The Hindu earlier this week that the Rakhine displaced in the June incidents had been accommodated in shelters constructed by the government and the UN.
The UN was working with the government to build similar shelters for the Muslims displaced in June and at present housed in the Sittwe camps, he said. In addition, the largest number of people displaced in the October incidents, going by the government numbers, are Muslims.
“So those are the people we have to address. But at the UN, we do not discriminate between Rakhine and Muslims. People who are in need are those that we address and provide support.”
The one common element between the Rohingya camps and the Rakhine Buddhist camps is the curiosity about the riots in Assam in August. In the Rohingya camps, people ask: “We heard thousands of Muslims have been displaced. Is this true?” In the Rakhine Buddhist camps, they ask: “We heard many Boros have been killed. Is it correct?” Both sides are quick to draw their own parallels between their conflict and the recent riots in Assam.