Fear of attacks keep Rohingya imprisoned in Rakhine capital Sittwe

Rights activist says the plight of Muslims in the capital of Rakhine state is worse than apartheid

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 2:43am


Barbed wire and armed troops guard the Muslim quarter of a violence-wracked city in western Myanmar, a virtual prison for the families that have inhabited its narrow streets for generations.

The security forces outside the ghetto in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe are not there to stop its residents leaving - although few dare to anyway - but to protect them from Buddhist mobs after an outburst of sectarian hatred.

In the nearby city centre, life has regained some semblance of normality since the authorities imposed a state of emergency in June in response to Buddhist-Muslim clashes that left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless.

But inside the tense enclave of Aung Mingalar, hundreds of families from the Rohingya Muslim minority group say they are living in fear for their lives. "Rakhines will attack us today," a man said at Friday prayers recently.

That same evening groups of Rakhine Buddhists - who have also accused the Rohingya of attacks on their communities - gathered outside the barriers, prompting troops to fire warning shots and sparking panic inside.

On three separate days before that, hundreds of ethnic Rakhines - sometimes led by Buddhist monks - marched near the perimeter demanding the "relocation" of Aung Mingalar.

"In my opinion, living in the Sahara desert in Africa would be better than living in this situation," said 28-year-old Mohamed Said, tears welling in his eyes.

Between 3,000 and 8,000 people are thought to live in an area roughly half a square kilometre, where there's no traffic and almost all shops are shuttered.

Supplies of food - mainly rice - are provided by the authorities and some benevolent Buddhist locals, forced to deliver aid discreetly for fear of fanning local resentment. But there is not enough to eat.

Some Rohingya have dared to breach the barriers - which vary from bamboo and barbed wire to simple security cordons - hiding their faces under hoods to prevent people identifying them.

But most people have not ventured outside in four months.

"This bamboo fence is like a psychological barrier, symbolising the fear that separates the two worlds," said Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, which campaigns for Rohingya rights.

The segregation recalls South African apartheid in the 1980s, "but worse" because the Rohingya are unable to leave their camps, Lewa said.

The UN, active in the region for decades, is more hopeful.

"We are informed by the government that it is for the purposes of bringing the unrest under control, that this is a temporary separation, not a segregation," said UN country chief Ashok Nigam.