Displaced Rohingya yearn to return to normal lives but anti-Muslim sentiment runs high in Myanmar’s Rakhine state
Aung San Suu Kyi has shied away from coming to their defence, wary of Buddhist backlash, instead appointing Kofi Annan to advise her government
Four years after fleeing religious riots that emptied her Muslim Rohingya neighbourhood in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Myee Shay yearns for the trappings of a normal life: a job, a school for her children and the chance to buy her own food. But the 35-year-old, like tens of thousands of others displaced by the violence, remains stuck in a displacement camp, unable to return home in a region ruptured by conflict between Muslims and a majority-Buddhist population.
“We eat when we get our quota,” said Myee Shay, a mother of four, referring to monthly rations of food, mostly rice, that families receive from aid groups in the camps. “If we do not get it, we cannot eat.”
She spoke while preparing plant stalks collected from the outskirts of the Thet Kae Pyin camp – an attempt to enrich the meagre meals and break the tedium of days spent waiting for change that never seems to come.
Flooded during the monsoon and dust-choked in the hot season, the camps are clustered on the outskirts of the state capital Sittwe. They mostly hold Rohingya, a stateless group that became the target of riots after long-running discrimination against Muslims boiled over in 2012 – although several thousand ethnic Rakhine Buddhists also lost their homes in the violence. That bloodshed left more than 100 people dead and saw thousands of homes torched by mobs.
Anti-Muslim sentiment still runs high in the impoverished region, fanned by hardline Buddhist nationalists who revile the Rohingya and are viscerally opposed to any move to grant them citizenship. They insist the roughly 1 million strong group are intruders from neighbouring Bangladesh, even though many can trace their ancestry in Myanmar back generations.
Today, the state is effectively segregated on religious grounds, with no major moves to see the displaced return home.
International rights groups have urged Myanmar’s democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi to grant the Rohingya citizenship. But the Nobel Laureate has shied away from coming to their defence, wary of the dangers of a Buddhist backlash. She recently appointed former UN chief Kofi Annan to advise her government on how to heal the state’s caustic divides.
This week he met with local leaders and visited internally displaced people from both communities in Rakhine, where he was jeered by angry Buddhist protesters on his arrival.
“We are here to advise, not to impose,” Annan told reporters in Yangon after returning from the two-day visit, stressing his commitment to remain “rigorously impartial”.
The trip was the first of many his team will make to Rakhine before submitting a report to the government within one year, he added.
“Security is everywhere, we cannot go anywhere,” said Shwe Sin, Myee Shay’s mother, of a web of government restrictions that heap misery on daily life.
Their family of 14 lives in a cramped hut made of thatched bamboo and plastic scraps. The family can not leave the camp to work and they are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid.
“Without freedom of movement, farmers can’t go to their fields, fishermen can’t go to the sea, traders can’t go to the market,” said Pierre Peron, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Myanmar.
Most of the barracks-style shelters in the camps were only built to last three years and now, battered by annual deluges of rain, need to be rebuilt.
Health care and education is at best patchy inside the camps, with aid groups desperately plugging the yawning gaps in the system that see frequent outbreaks of sickness. While aid groups say the ultimate goal is for displaced people to go home, the immediate priority must be to ensure “minimum living standards are met,” Peron added.
Myee Shay laments the grinding reality of her family’s life, one that means her children go without medical care when they are sick.
“I have no money,” she said. “My husband doesn’t work as we have no job here. What can we do?”