Buddhists in Myanmar's Rakhine state hit back at Rohingya help

Long oppressed under the junta, residents say world has unfairly sided with Rohingya Muslims amid recent sectarian tensions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 2:33am


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Disgruntled by international support for Muslim Rohingya in unrest-hit western Myanmar, ethnic Rakhine Buddhists are demanding recognition of their own plight and venting a rage that veers into racism.

More than 150 people have died in communal clashes in western Rakhine State since June and thousands of homes have been torched, leaving some 75,000 people displaced, in a convulsion of violence that has torn apart neighbourhoods.

Human Rights Watch yesterday released satellite images showing "extensive destruction of homes and other property in a predominantly Rohingya Muslim area" of Kyaukpyu - where a major pipeline to transport Myanmese gas to China begins.

The images show a stark contrast between the coastal area as seen in March this year, packed with hundreds of dwellings and fringed with boats, and in the aftermath of the latest violence, where virtually all structures appear to have been wiped from the landscape.

But many Rakhine, whose state is one of Myanmar's poorest, say it is they who have been wronged, first by grinding years under the iron-fisted junta rule and now by rising numbers of Rohingya on their land.

"We have no right to speak, we are marginalised in the international arena," said Oo Hla Saw, general secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

In an attempt to push their point, hundreds have taken to the streets in recent weeks. Led by robed Buddhist monks, the demonstrators openly spoke of their desire to drive out the Muslim minority. They also protested against plans by the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to open an office in the country.

"We can live with many kinds of people, but not with the Muslims from here," said U Ohattama, a senior monk at Klak Kha Mout monastery. "The Muslims from here are like animals."

Despite their own difficulties, ethnic Rakhine are quick to heap scorn on the assistance provided to the Rohingya by the United Nations and foreign charities.

"Rakhine society always relies on itself. Muslim people are always eager to rely on international aid," said U Nya Na, head of a monks' association in Sittwe. "Rohingya are like beggars in a market."

The international community helps only the kalar, agreed Myar San, a 28-year-old internally displaced Rakhine resident, using a derogatory term for Muslims. She is one of several thousand ethnic Buddhists in the state who have been forced to take shelter in monasteries and camps since the recent communal violence made her homeless.

But whereas displaced Buddhists have freedom of movement and can get to work, tens of thousands of Rohingya are trapped in squalid camps.

Aid agencies refute accusations that their help is partial.

"We are there to help the people who are in need and our assistance is based on that criteria only, it is not based on any other criteria of race, ethnicity, religion," said the UN chief in Yangon, Ashok Nigam.

With 44 per cent of its population living under the poverty line, Rakhine is the second-poorest state in one of the world's most impoverished nations, according to a UNDP report last year. While the state is rich in natural resources, notably oil and gas, locals have benefited little and "this area became very poor because of the military dictatorship", said Oo Hla Saw.

Like other official minorities in the ethnically diverse country, the Rakhines suffered under the yoke of the junta for nearly half a century until a nominally civilian, reformist government replaced it in March last year.

"This is a population that has faced terrible abuses ... everything from forced labour to land confiscation," said Matthew Smith of Human Rights Watch.

Today, it seems many ethnic Rakhine appear to have found a scapegoat for their hardships in the Rohingya community, which they see as threat to the survival of their "race".