By Sitt Thway Naing
BAW DU PHA IDP CAMP, Rakhine State, Myanmar (AA) – Much has changed for Myanmar in the four years since Muslims were driven from their homes in the country’s west, but talk to Rohingya subsequently rehoused in Rakhine State’s numerous internally displaced persons camps and it’s as if life has stood still.
While Aung San Suu Kyi — the leader of the country’s first democratically elected government since 1962 — offers a voice to the previously politically oppressed, Muslims placed in the camps after deadly rioting enveloped Rakhine in 2012 are still not allowed home.
Camp elder Mohamad Horli says he has spent the last week worried about fellow Rohingya in Baw Du Pha camp who lost their temporary homes last week when fire ravaged the camp, but adds that the latest suffering is symbolic of a bigger goal.
“What we want to demand from the new government is the chance to live as human beings, because here [in the camps] we are treated like prisoners and animals,’’ the 57-year-old Rohingya Muslim told Anadolu Agency from the small tatty tea shop he runs at Thet Key Pyin camp.
With the monsoon season on its way, Horli highlights the failure of the old ramshackle shelters to protect inhabitants from the rain.
“Whenever the raining season is coming, we face a lot of trouble… But no authorities care for us. What we need more than anything right now is enough roofs and walls,” he says.
Since 2012, around 140,000 Rohingya — and some Muslim Kaman — have been confined to a swathe of land in the camps after Buddhist rioters rampaged through villages in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, torching Rohingya homes and attacking people with machetes and other crude weapons.
They lack citizenship, are denied the most basic healthcare, and are reliant on aid due to restrictions placed on their movement — measures Rakhine authorities have defended, saying that under the continued threat of conflict they are safer where they are.
Since the riots, nationalist Buddhist monks have seized on the Rohingya issue, demanding that they be referred to as “Bengali” — a term used to suggest that the ethnicity is not from Myanmar as they claim but interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh –and pressured the previous government to enact four controversial laws that opponents have claimed are aimed solely at Muslims.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has been so strong that Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party was unable to field Muslim candidates in the Nov. 8 elections for fear of the damage it would do to their chances.
Many Muslims were not allowed to vote, and most politicians daren’t even breathe their name.
“If we talk about Rohingya Muslims, people won’t listen to us,” a Western diplomat who did not wish to be named as he was not authorized to talk to media told Anadolu Agency in March.
He added that even politicians who appear open-minded would say the ethnic minority is not one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnicities.
“Rohingya is the most sensitive word in Myanmar… They always say this is the legacy of the former junta, [but] it [dealing with the Rohingya issue] is like a bomb waiting to go off,” he says.
For those in the camps, the NLD — for long celebrated as the voice of the oppressed — represent their only hope. Despite Suu Kyi appearing hesitant to offer help, Rohingya say they hope that international pressure will eventually lead to government help.
Human Rights Watch has claimed that Myanmar authorities and members of Rakhine groups have committed a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya, and the United Nations considers them to be among the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities
“We are hoping that they will be taking action in order to see further improvement over the coming year for us’’ says Muslim elder Horli.
Fellow Rohingya Ali Ramiz was a first year English major at Sittwe University when the riots broke out, but he lost his place soon after and now lives in Baw Du Pha.
“I really want go back to university and I believe the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government will be able to take care of us so our education can resume,” the 21-year-old told Anadolu Agency from the squalid camp where a fire destroyed 56 wooden homes last week.
The camp — near Sittwe — has been home to around 10,000 people for almost four years, mostly Rohingya.
Horli says that not only do those in the camps face limited educational chances, water shortages, not enough food, and a lack of job opportunities — there is also a growing problem with healthcare.
One of the few occasions Rohingya are allowed to leave the camp is when they get ill, and even then they have to pay for a police escort.
Such limited freedoms, however, may soon be coming to an end as, according to Muslim community leaders, authorities in Rakhine have imposed new restrictions on Rohingya access to medical treatment in the commercial capital Yangon — which has the country’s best hospital facilities.
Aung Win, a Rohingya rights activist from Thae Chaung camp, tells Anadolu Agency that the reason for the restriction is that up to 80 percent of those who traveled from the camps to Yangon for medical care don’t return.
“Now, the sick people must first visit the Sittwe public hospital for an assessment of their condition. When further treatment is needed, they can apply for permission to travel to Yangon,” he says.
“Unfortunately, the application is just an application,” he underlines, saying that frequently they get no response at all.
Harji Maung Bar, 60, from Thae Chaung camp, tells Anadolu Agency that he has terrible pain in his rectum, and even though he has been unable to go to the toilet for a week he has still been refused permission to travel to Yangon for treatment.
“I got permission for treatment only in Sittwe. My rectum has not healed so far,” he says. “The new government should realize healthcare opportunities for all.”
At each turn of the camps, people have stories of neglect, hunger, and a need for the most basic items, but most however, just want to go home.
The state of emergency imposed after the riots was lifted in March, yet hose in the camp are still not allowed to return.
Rolar Martular from Baw Du Pha camp tells Anadolu Agency that he just wants to go back to the village he was forced to leave as soon as possible.
“Living in the camp is hell,” the 35-year-old Rohingya man says. “I don’t want to stay any more in the camp, and I don’t want to move anywhere else, but it really is beginning to feel like I have no choice.”
He adds that the new government frequently talks human rights, yet Muslims in the camps are restricted in everything they do.
“I believe that the NLD may have been put under some pressure regarding us, but they will not take any risks [to their popularity] to deal with us,” he says.
Martular’s eyes appear to glaze over as he looks at the ashes of the burnt shacks around him.
“Soon the only thing we have left will be our faith,” he says.
Rakhine is one of the poorest states in Myanmar, and scarcity and under-development affects the majority Buddhist, and Muslim and Christian communities — a situation that was exacerbated by the violence of 2012, which led to ruptures in inter-communal social and economic links.
U Nyi Pu, the NLD’s new chief minister for Rakhine, tells Anadolu Agency that although he has empathy for those in the camp, resettlement could take five years.
“Even though the state of emergency has been lifted, we need to limit Muslims from leaving the camp as we don’t want any conflict while we are trying to economically develop the state,” he tells Anadolu Agency.
“If the state was developed, there would be less suspicion between the two communities and everybody could travel freely.”
But for now, the minister has an immediate answer for Horli as he says they will rebuild the burnt huts before the rains come.
“We are planning emergency procedures to help Rohingya Muslims cope with the upcoming monsoon season,” he says.