Rohingya flee as Burma tightens restrictions on Muslims
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Rohingya flee as Burma tightens restrictions on Muslims

Two stark choices now face the Muslim population in western Burma: the first is that they take to the high seas on over-packed boats bereft of navigational equipment and adequate supplies to last them the journey to Malaysia, or Australia, or wherever they hope to find refuge and respite. The voyage is perilous: the UN says that last year, 485 of around 13,000 Rohingya who fled Bangladesh and Burma on boats drowned, equivalent to one in 26 people. The chances of survival are not favourable.

The second is that they stay in Arakan state, which for the non-Buddhist community is increasingly resembling a vast open-air prison. The overwhelming majority of Rohingya are now living in either refugee camps or in towns in northern Arakan state that are strictly off limits to foreigners. Inhabitants of towns like Maungdaw and Buthidaung are starved of outside assistance, in a country that denies them the most basic of social protections.

Contrary to the narrative of a country lessening restrictions on its inhabitants, quite the opposite is happening in Arakan state. DVB last week quoted local authorities in the town of Sandoway (Thandwe) who said they had been ordered to block all Muslims from leaving their townships, Kaman included. Previously the restriction had been applied only to Rohingya without ID cards – now it is a blanket ban, and suggests the discriminatory policy that until recently targeted only Rohingya has evolved into something more sinister.

The refugee camps are another story. Many sprung up in the aftermath of the June 2012 rioting and quickly became overcrowded as Rohingya fled urban areas, later to be joined by Kaman as attacks from Arakanese nationalists widened. Close to 120,000 Muslims are thought to be living in camps of varying quality: some are clusters of flimsy wooden frames covered by rags that qualify as the most basic and fragile of shelters, and will not withstand the coming rainy season.

Others, like the newly built huts at Ohne Dawgyi, are much sturdier. They are in dire need, but have been built as if they are there to stay – one may wonder whether the government intends their inhabitants to stay put too. UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana touched on this in a statement last week in which he said that despite government assurances to the contrary, “the information among stakeholders is that this [return of displaced to their villages] won’t take place and the current settlements will become permanent”. Past fears that an apartheid state is developing are given extra strength.

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An immigration officer fills out forms during an operation to verify the citizenship of Muslims living in the western Burma village of Sin Thet Maw late last year. Pic: AP.

Quintana added that one camp he visited “felt more like a prison than a camp”, and warned that lack of freedom of movement for inhabitants lessened the chances of “rebuilding trust between communities through interaction”. Outside of the camps, the prison theme gets worse – reports have emerged of children as young as 10 being held in jails in northern Arakan state on charges of inciting the unrest that has plagued the region for eight months.

Most would consider this environment, and the physical and psychological burden it carries, uninhabitable. But the other option is equally dire. The Sri Lankan navy is currently searching for around 100 ‘boatpeople’, in all likelihood Rohingya, adrift at sea. They may have been on the water for up to two months. Each day matters hugely, given how scarce supplies, particularly food and water, often are on these boats.

Now we are well into the annual ‘boat season’, a perversely evocative term for the time of year when thousands of Rohingya set sail, often to their deaths. The timing coincides with an apparent worsening of conditions in Arakan state, so expect the number of drownings to rise.