Plans to relocate Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state promise to dash their dreams of returning to traditional life
Since their homes were burned down seven years AGO, an estimated 128,000 ethnic Rohingya have been detained in camps in the west of Myanmar Photograph: Francesca Morano
For the past seven years, Mohammad has been able to see the beach on the outskirts of Sittwe, and the Indian Ocean beyond, only through a barbed wire fence.
“The only difference between a prison and the Rakhine camps is that in prison at least they know how long their sentence is,” says the 23-year-old, shaking his head.
Mohammad is one of 128,000 Rohingya Muslims forced from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, and into camps after Buddhist extremists burned down their homes in 2012.
For seven years, those who who did not flee across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh have been penned in, denied access to education, jobs, healthcare or even the chance to “to go for a walk along the beach and rest under a tree”, says Mohammad.
Despite pledges by the Myanmar government to close the camps, documents seen by the Guardian show the Rohingya will not be allowed to return to the homes from which they fled.
Instead, rows of modular housing blocks being built next to the camps will be their new homes. There will be no land to grow crops or tend animals, no resumption of a traditional way of life or return to the city, where easy access to markets would allow them to sell their goods. Their movements will be restricted and, without identity documents, they will remain stateless, denied access to services and at risk of arrest if they should leave the compound.
“I want to work back in the community, I want my generation to be educated,” says Mohammad.
The bamboo houses with tin roofs in which Mohammad and his fellow Rohingya live are packed tightly together. The camps are connected by a dirt road, along which Myanmar police sit at checkpoints behind fences made of bamboo spikes.
Men loiter at a makeshift teashop while children play with a tin can and a piece of string. Manual water pumps and wells are the main source of water in each camp, while electricity is minimal, generated by a solar panel connected to a battery setup or generator.
Sitting in her hut in the compound, Ma Hla Than, a mother of four daughters who lived in Sittwe before the conflict, says: “I want to go back to my place of origin. I want to return there, as I feel safe there. Here the entire population is living together in one room, speaking and listening to each other. It’s too much.”
Myanmar’s minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, Win Myat Aye, has said construction of the new housing development is a response to an independent report published in 2017 by the advisory commission on Rakhine state, appointed by state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and chaired by the late Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary general.
However, one of the commission investigators, diplomat Laetitia van den Assum, former foreign affairs minister of the Netherlands, says the Myanmar government was cherry-picking from the 88 recommendations made in their final report and failing to address the root causes of the conflict.
“The priority was to ensure that the Rohingya could return to their place of origin,” she says. “But it has to be made hand in hand with allowing them freedom of movement, and access to education and healthcare.”
Many Rohingya fear they will be pressured to move to the new resettlement sites.
Kyaw Aye, who has lived in the camp for seven years, says: “We don’t want to depend on rations, we are ready to stand on our own two feet. If we accept moving to the new resettlement sites we will lose the attention of the international community and any hope of returning home to our place of origin.”
A Rohingya Muslim woman poses at a camp in Myanmar’s Rakhine state
Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Rohingya Muslims who did not flee over the border to Bangladesh when violence erupted in 2012 are now living in camps surrounded by barbed wire fencing. Photograph: Francesca Morano
The Rohingya, the majority of whom live in the western state of Rakhine, were recognised as citizens after Myanmar gained independence in 1948. But in 1982 the government stripped them of their national registration cards, and many in Myanmar see them as illegal immigrants. They have experienced decades of persecution and discrimination.
Rohingya survivors: ‘Why do they want to destroy us?’ – in pictures
Some Rohingya say they need more protection. The powerful Buddhist nationalist group, Ma Ba Tha, infamous for vitriolic hate speech against Muslims, must be constrained, they say.
With the daytime heat is unrelenting, it is impossible to stay inside the tin-roofed camp shelters. At night, meanwhile, the mosquitoes come out. “It’s impossible to sleep and the smell of the clogged drains is sickening,” says Aye Mura, who longs to leave the camp and return home so that she can find work as a seamstress in Sittwe to fund her daughter’s education.
She sometimes sells her food ration cards to save money to send her daughter to school in another nearby camp. “I have nothing, what can I do?” she says.
“We were people before, and we were used to surviving without international support,” says Mohammad, outside his hut. “We can survive on our own, but we need freedom of movement and true rights.”