Evacuation under way in Myanmar, Muslims reject

The Myanmar government had planned to move 38,000 internally displaced people, most of them Muslims, but many have refused, afraid of the authorities' intentions.

Evacuation under way in Myanmar, Muslims reject

World Bulletin/News Desk

Authorities in Myanmar struggled on Wednesday to evacuate tens of thousands of people, most of them Arakan Muslims, before a cyclone reaches camps in low-lying regions that have been their home since ethnic and religious unrest last year.

Cyclone Mahasen has already killed at least seven people and displaced 3,881 in Sri Lanka, its Disaster Management Center said on Tuesday.

The storm is moving north over the Bay of Bengal and is expected to reach land early on Friday, hitting north of Chittagong in Bangladesh.

The Myanmar government had planned to move 38,000 internally displaced people, most of them Muslims, by Tuesday but many have refused to relocate from camps in Rakhine State in the west of the country, afraid of the authorities' intentions.

At least 192 people were killed in June and October last year in violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by the government in Myanmar and considered by many Buddhists to be immigrants from Bangladesh.

At a camp near the sea by Hmanzi Junction on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, several people told Reuters they would rather perish in the storm than evacuate.

"We arrived here last year because of the clashes between Rakhine and Muslims. I lost everything. Both my mother and my two young daughters died," said Hla Maung, 38, a Muslim.

"If the cyclone hits here, I will pray to Allah. Everyone here wants to die in the storm because we lost everything last year."

The U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is helping Myanmar's government in Rakhine State, said the storm appeared to have weakened but could still threaten 8.2 million people in northeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Authorities in Bangladesh have told residents of outlying islands to start evacuating. Fishing boats and other small boats were warned to remain near the coast and not venture out to sea.

PRESIDENT URGES HELP FOR ALL

The evacuations in Myanmar are seen as a test of the government's willingness to help the Arakan, an impoverished, long-persecuted people who bore the brunt of sectarian violence in Rakhine State and suffered before that during half a century of military rule.

Hla Maung and others had rejected efforts by the U.N. refugee agency on Tuesday to move them to a nearby army barracks. They were told early on Wednesday they could take shelter in a school, but many still refused to go.

Most of the people in the camp had lived in Thandawli, a village in the Sittwe region destroyed in last June's violence.

About 140,000 people were displaced in June and a second wave of violence in October.

Even before the storm developed, the United Nations has said about 69,000, most of them Muslims, were living in Rakhine State in accommodation at risk of flooding and other damage during the rainy season, which starts this month.

It warned last week there could be a humanitarian catastrophe if people were not evacuated.

One of a small convoy of boats carrying Arakan Muslims capsized at around midnight on Monday after hitting rocks off Pauktaw in Rakhine State. Official media said 42 people had been rescued but 58 were missing. Some reports have said eight bodies were found.

Speaking at a coordination meeting for Cyclone Mahasen in Yangon on Tuesday, President Thein Sein urged officials to use the experience gained in 2008 after Cyclone Nargis killed up to 140,000 people in the Irrawaddy Delta, south of the main city, Yangon. He stressed the need to treat everyone equally.

"Security, safety, food and health care are crucial. And it's very important to carry out relief work on humanitarian grounds for all regardless of race and religion," official papers quoted him as saying.

Myanmar is a mainly Buddhist country but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. They face a growing anti-Muslim campaign led by radical Buddhist monks and a Reuters Special Report found apartheid-like policies were segregating Muslims from Buddhists in Rakhine State.

APARTHEID TACTICS

A 16-year-old Muslim boy lay dying on a thin metal table. Bitten by a rabid dog a month ago, he convulsed and drooled as his parents wedged a stick between his teeth to stop him from biting off his tongue.

Swift treatment might have saved Waadulae. But there are no doctors, painkillers or vaccines in this primitive hospital near Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar. It is a lonely medical outpost that serves about 85,300 displaced people, almost all of them Muslims who lost their homes in fighting with Buddhist mobs last year.

"All we can give him is sedatives," said Maung Maung Hla, a former health ministry official who, despite lacking a medical degree, treats about 150 patients a day. The two doctors who once worked there haven't been seen in a month. Medical supplies stopped when they left, said Maung Maung Hla, a Muslim.

 These trash-strewn camps represent the dark side of Myanmar's celebrated transition to democracy: apartheid-like policies segregating minority Muslims from the Buddhist majority. As communal violence spreads, nowhere are these practices more brutally enforced than around Sittwe.

In an echo of what happened in the Balkans after the fall of communist Yugoslavia, the loosening of authoritarian control in Myanmar is giving freer rein to ethnic hatred.

Here, emergency shelters set up for Arakan Muslims last year have become permanent, prison-like ghettos. Muslims are stopped from leaving at gunpoint. Aid workers are threatened. Camps seethe with anger and disease.

In central Sittwe, ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and local officials exult in what they regard as a hard-won triumph: streets almost devoid of Muslims. Before last year's violence, the city's Muslims numbered about 73,000, nearly half its population. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 left.

 "THEY ALL TELL LIES"

 Sittwe's last remaining Muslim-dominated quarter, Aung Mingalar, is locked down by police and soldiers who patrol all streets leading in and out. Muslims can't leave without written permission from Buddhist local authorities, which Muslims say is almost impossible to secure.

Metal barricades, topped with razor wire, are opened only for Buddhist Rakhines. Despite a ban against foreign journalists, Reuters was able to enter Aung Mingalar. Near-deserted streets were flanked by shuttered shops. Some Muslims peered from doors or windows.

On the other side of the barricades, Rakhine Buddhists revel in the segregation.

 State spokesman Win Myaing, a Buddhist, explained why Aung Mingalar's besieged Muslims were forbidden from speaking to the media. "It's because they all tell lies," he said. He also denied the government had engaged in ethnic cleansing, a charge leveled most recently by Human Rights Watch in an April 22 report.

"How can it be ethnic cleansing? They are not an ethnic group," he said from an office on Sittwe's main street, overlooking an empty mosque guarded by soldiers and police.

His comments reflect a historic dispute over the origins of the country's estimated 800,000 Arakan Muslims, who claim a centuries-old lineage in Rakhine State. The government says they are Muslim migrants from northern neighbor Bangladesh who arrived during British rule from 1824. After independence in 1948, Myanmar's new rulers tried to limit citizenship to those whose roots in the country predated British rule. A 1982 Citizenship Act excluded Arakan from the country's 135 recognized ethnic groups, denying them citizenship and rendering them stateless. Bangladesh also disowns them and has refused to grant them refugee status since 1992.

The United Nations calls them "virtually friendless" and among the world's most persecuted people.

BOAT PEOPLE EXODUS

The state government has shelved any plan to return the Arakan Muslims to their villages on a technicality: for defying a state requirement that they identify themselves as "Bengali," a term that suggests they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

All these factors are accelerating an exodus of Arakan boat people emigrating in rickety fishing vessels to other Southeast Asian countries.

From October to March, between the monsoons, about 25,000 Arakan left Myanmar on boats, according to new data from Arakan Project, a Arakan advocacy group. That was double the previous year, turning a Rakhine problem into a region-wide one.

The cost of the one-way ticket is steep for an impoverished people - usually about 200,000 kyat, or $220, often paid for by remittances from family members who have already left.

Many who survive the perilous journeys wind up in majority-Muslim Malaysia. Some end up in U.N. camps, where they are denied permanent asylum. Others find illegal work on construction sites or other subsistence jobs. Tens of thousands are held in camps in Thailand. Growing numbers have been detained in Indonesia.

MOB VIOLENCE

Rakhine State, one of the poorest regions of Southeast Asia's poorest country, had high hopes for the reform era.

In Sittwe's harbor, India is funding a $214 million port, river and road network that will carve a trade route into India's landlocked northeast. From Kyaukphyu, a city 65 miles southeast of Sittwe, gas and oil pipelines stretch to China's energy-hungry northwest. Both projects capitalize on Myanmar's growing importance at Asia's crossroads.

But the violence kept spreading. Anti-Muslim unrest, whipped up by Buddhist monks, killed at least 44 people in the central city of Meikhtila in March. In April and May, Buddhist mobs destroyed mosques and hundreds of Muslim homes just a few hours' drive from Yangon, the country's largest city.

On the morning of April 26, a group of state officials entered the Theak Kae Pyin refugee camp. With them were three policemen and several Border Administration Force officers, known as the Nasaka, a word derived from the initials of its Burmese name. Unique to the region, the Nasaka consists of officers from the police, military, customs and immigration. They control every aspect of Arakan life, and are much feared.

Documented human-rights abuses blamed on the Nasaka include rape, forced labor and extortion. Arakan cannot travel or marry without the Nasaka's permission, which is never secured without paying bribes, activists allege.

State spokesman Win Myaing said the Nasaka's mission was to compile a list identifying where people had lived before the violence, a precondition for resettlement. They wanted to know who was from Sittwe and who was from more remote townships such as Pauktaw and Kyaukphyu, areas that saw a near-total expulsion of Muslims in October.

Many fled for what Win Myaing said were unregistered camps outside Sittwe, often in flood-prone areas. "We would like to move them back to where they came from in the next two months," said Win Myaing. The list was the first step towards doing that.

The list, however, also required Muslims to identify themselves as Bengali. For Fukan Ahmed and other Arakan leaders, it sent a chilling message: If they want to be resettled, they must deny their identity.

Agitated crowds gathered as the officials tried to compile the list, witnesses said. Women and children chanted "Arakan! Arakan!" As the police officers were leaving, one tumbled to the ground, struck by a stone to his head, according to Win Myaing. Arakan witnesses said the officer tripped. Seven Arakan were arrested and charged with causing grievous hurt to a public servant, criminal intimidation and rioting.

Compiling the list is on hold, said Win Myaing. So, too, is resettlement.

Boshi Raman, 40, said he and other Arakan would never sign a document calling themselves Bengali. "We would rather die," he said.

Win Myaing blamed the Arakan for their misfortune. "If you look back at the events that occurred, it wasn't because the Rakhines were extreme. The problems were all started by them," the Muslims, he said.

SCORCHED EARTH

In Theak Kae Pyin camp, a sea of tarpaulin tents and fragile huts built of straw from the last rice harvest, there is an air of growing permanence. More than 11,000 live in this camp alone, according to U.N. data. Naked children bathe in a murky-brown pond and play on sewage-lined pathways.

A year ago, before the unrest, Haleda Somisian lived in Narzi, a Sittwe district of more than 10,000 people. Today, it is rubble and scorched earth. Somisian, 20, wants to return and rebuild. Her husband, she says, has started to beat her. In Narzi, he worked. Now he is jobless, restless and despondent.

 "I want to leave this place," she said.

Some of those confined to the camps are Kaman Muslims, who are recognized as one of Myanmar's 135 official ethnic groups; they usually hold citizenship and can be hard to tell apart from Rakhine Buddhists. They fled after October's violence when their homes were destroyed by Rakhine mobs in remote townships such as Kyaukphyu. They, too, are prevented from leaving.

Beyond Sittwe, another 50,000 people, mostly Arakan, live in similar camps in other parts of the state destroyed in last year's sectarian violence.

Across the state, the U.N relief agency has provided about 4,000 tents and built about 300 bamboo homes, each of which can hold eight families. Another 500 bamboo homes are planned by year-end. None are designed to be permanent, said agency spokeswoman Vivian Tan. Tents can last six months to a year; bamboo homes about two years.

The agency wants to provide the temporary shelter that is badly needed. "But we don't want in any way to create permanent shelters and to condone any kind of segregation," Tan said.

Aid group Doctors Without Borders has accused hardline nationalists of threatening its staff, impairing its ability to deliver care. Mobile clinics have appeared in some camps, but a U.N. report describes most as "insufficient."

Waadulae, suffering from rabies, was treated at Dar Paing hospital, whose lone worker, Maung Maung Hla, was overwhelmed. "We have run out of antibiotics," he said. "There is no malaria medicine. There's no medicine for tuberculosis or diabetes. No vaccines. There's no equipment to check peoples' condition. There are no drips for people suffering from acute diarrhea."

State spokesman Win Myaing said Rakhine doctors feared entering the camps. "It's reached a stage where they say they'd quit their jobs before they would go to these places," he said.

The treatment of the Arakan contrasts with that of some 4,080 displaced ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in central Sittwe. They can leave their camps freely, work in the city, move in with relatives in nearby villages and rebuild, helped by an outpouring of aid from Burmese business leaders.

Hset Hlaing, 33, who survives on handouts from aid agencies at Thae Chaung camp, recalls how he earned 10,000 kyat ($11 a day) from a general-goods stall in Sittwe before his business and home went up in flames last June. Like other Muslims, he refuses to accept the term Bengali.

 "I don't want to go to another country. I was born here," he says, sipping tea in a bamboo shack. "But if the government won't accept us, we will leave. We'll go by boat. We'll go to a country that can accept us."

 

Last Mod: 15 Mayıs 2013, 13:33
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