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Scorched earth and squalid camps in Myanmar

Refugees International - USA - Thu, 8 Nov 2012 13:59 GMT
Author: Refugees International
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Melanie Teff, a senior advocate for Refugees International, recently visited western Myanmar (Burma) where tensions between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya have exploded into violence. This is a photo diary of her trip in September following clashes in June which left scores dead and displaced 75,000 people. Further unrest last month has uprooted many more.

This photo shows a plot of land in the capital of Rakhine State - Sittwe - which was home to a large Rohingya community. Now eerily silent, all of the houses were burned down, and the area then bulldozed, during the June violence. All the inhabitants who survived fled. Both sides suffered in the June violence, but the Muslim Rohingya suffered the greatest numbers of deaths, house-burnings and forced displacements.  

The conditions in almost all the Rohingya displacement camps I visited ranged from squalid to abysmal. The worst conditions I saw were in this government school, where 1,800 people were living in a couple of unbearably overcrowded rooms, with almost no clean water or sanitation. They had been living here for weeks hoping to get moved into a camp. 

These camps now house over 100,000 Rohingya. Many shelters are made of inadequate materials and do not provide proper protection from the heat and rain. Malnutrition is a serious problem in the camps - an August assessment identified 2,000 acutely malnourished children at high risk of dying. Residents also told me they had great trouble accessing health care, and that several people had died before they could get medically evacuated.

I saw many new "temporary" shelters being constructed by the Burmese government and humanitarian agencies. One reason conditions in the camps are so bad is that some donor governments and humanitarian agencies have been reluctant to fund improvements, fearing the camps might become permanent, prolonging segregation.

This makeshift barrier separates the only remaining Rohingya quarter of Sittwe (Aung Mingalar) from neighbouring Rakhine areas. As a foreigner I was lucky enough to be able to cross between the two communities and talk to people on both sides. But residents cannot cross the barrier, and they told me that they would be terrified to do so. The Rohingya are now confined to an area outside the town, which cuts them off from the market and the port where many of them used to work. As a result, they are being made dependent on humanitarian aid.

I visited this Buddhist monastery where some displaced Rakhine people were staying. There are far fewer displaced Rakhines, but they have also suffered the trauma of losing their homes and being forcibly uprooted. Both communities expressed great anger to me about what they had suffered and great fear of the other community. The government must urgently provide protection to both communities. The longer segregation continues, the harder it will be to overcome the damage it is causing and to restore the Rohingyas' rights to freedom of movement.

I met this little boy down at the port. He looked like a Rohingya child, and I wondered how he was able to be at the port when this area is now off-limits to the Rohingya. My translator told me the boy was Hindu, not Rohingya, and that you can tell because of the tag he is wearing. The tag was issued by the community leader in the area where the boy lives to protect him from attack. It indicates where he is from and that he is a Hindu.


This is a Kaman Muslim family I met in Sittwe. Unlike the Rohingya - who effectively lost their citizenship with the passing of Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law - the Kaman are Burmese citizens. But they are now suffering the same restrictions on movement in Sittwe as the Rohingya. This family told me their children had been attending school and university, but could no longer do so after June because they are confined to their area.

In the violence at the end of October both Rohingya and Kaman Muslims were attacked. Over 5,300 homes were destroyed, and 35,000 more people were displaced. These attacks were overwhelmingly against the Muslim community and 98 percent of the newly displaced are Muslims - both Rohingya and Kaman.

See Melanie Teff and Sarnata Reynolds’ report for Refugees International: Rohingya in Burma: Spotlight on Current Crisis Offers Opportunity for Progress

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