Members of Burma’s Muslim minority fill camps to form archipelago of misery

Stateless and unwanted Rohingya are an easy and vulnerable target

Abdulkareem and his wife Robeza have not given their tiny week-old baby boy a name, because they fear he will not live for much longer. Born with a rectal abnormality, he needs emergency medical treatment but there is no way of getting help.

The family are members of Burma’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. They are among tens of thousands of Rohingya confined to a miserable archipelago of camps, ringed by armed guards, strung along Burma’s southwest coast. When international aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was evicted by local authorities early this year, life for the Rohingya became even more precarious.

“We can’t leave the camp and we have never seen a doctor here,” says Abdulkareem as his wife wraps their shivering, shrunken son in white cloth. “Our situation is impossible.”

The story of Abdulkareem and Robeza is just one of countless tales of desperate interrupted lives at this camp near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. More than two years ago they lived alongside Buddhists in a stable – if strained – coexistence. Neighbours often referred to them pejoratively as Bengalis, a frequently heard insult that attempts to convey the impression the Rohingya do not really belong in Buddhist- majority Burma, though most have lived there for generations. Documents dating back to the late 18th century refer to the Rohingya population, yet they remain stateless and unwanted.


In June 2012, tensions that had long simmered erupted into deadly violence when Buddhist mobs went on the rampage after rumours spread that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim man. More than 200 were killed, some of them hacked with machetes, and 140,000 driven from their homes. Most of the victims were Rohingya.

Anti-Muslim sentiment

The episode has become a cause célèbre for hardline Buddhist monks at the forefront of an extremist nationalism movement that has grown in tandem with Burma’s much-trumpeted tentative embrace of democracy. Leading figures in this movement have visited Sittwe to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment.

The Rohingya are an easy – and vulnerable – target. Burma’s government refuses to recognise its 1.3 million Rohingya as citizens and has subjected them to restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education. The curtailment of Rohingya rights amounts to what Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based human rights organisation, calls deliberate state-designed “policies of persecution”.

The outgoing United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma was also highly critical, saying the pattern of “widespread and systematic human rights violations” against Rohingya communities in Rakhine state may constitute crimes against humanity. The plight of the Rohingya has become a blot on the image Burma seeks to present to the world as it transforms itself from a decades-old military dictatorship to fledgling democracy.

The MSF story says much about how high emotions run in Rakhine. After decades of providing healthcare in the region, the agency was ordered to suspend operations in February after it was targeted by Buddhists who accused it of bias towards the Rohingya. Vigilantes ransacked MSF’s local offices. On the streets of Sittwe today, people wear T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “MSF out!” in Burmese and English. Earlier this month the Burmese authorities invited MSF to resume work in Rakhine, a move welcomed by foreign diplomats, but local activists have warned they will resist any such attempt.

Tarpaulin homes

The lack of medical services is having a devastating effect, explains Zayed Hussein, an imam in one camp. Sitting outside a makeshift mosque, he says conditions have been particularly bad during monsoon season, when heavy rains fill the camp’s rutted tracks and sometimes sweep away flimsily constructed homes made of tarpaulin.

“It affects children and the elderly the most. Our children are dying of malaria and diarrhoea and there is nothing we can do to help them,” he says. “The government is keeping us here like chickens under a net. It is like living in a prison.”

Hussein says life before they were driven to the camps was also difficult. “It was clear the Buddhists didn’t want us here. They beat us, insulted us on the streets and made life very difficult for us. It seems they hate Muslims.”

One group that is trying to step into the gap left by the enforced dearth of humanitarian aid is the Tableeghi Jamaat, a transnational Islamic missionary movement that calls on Muslims to be more observant. It adheres to a particularly conservative interpretation of Islam and has been accused in some countries of fostering more radical groups.

“They are becoming more popular because when people face difficulties they turn to their faith more,” says one Rohingya man who admits he is uneasy with their growing presence in the camps. He gets into an argument with one Tableeghi leader, also a Rohingya, over his advice to women to don the full-face veil or niqab – a rare sight in Burma but a handful in the camp have started wearing it.

Some in the camp say they are worried about their young men. The Rohingya’s plight has been taken up by hundreds of Muslim campaign groups worldwide but it has also become a rallying call for extremists. Islamic State, the group that has swept across Syria and northern Iraq, has cited the crisis in some of its communiques.

“Our youth are stuck, they cannot leave the camps and they cannot continue their studies or work,” says another imam, Hafez Idris. “They are fed up and frustrated, and that is not a good mix.”

Such desperation has led scores of Rohingya to risk a perilous escape by sea on boats bound for Thailand and Malaysia. Many have not made it, falling victim to traffickers running overcrowded vessels that have often sunk on the way. Rights groups fear the situation will get much worse: Rakhine leaders are considering a plan that would force all undocumented Rohingya to live in detention camps, essentially making the current segregation official and permanent.

The squalid camps near Sittwe have already taken on a grim semblance of permanency. Small markets have popped up, where Rohingya trade aid rations from the UN for basic medicines sold by local traders who see an opportunity in their misery. Some new schools and mosques have been built with sturdier materials, as if there for the long haul.

Surveying the patchwork of squalor, one older Rohingya who often acts as an interlocutor with the local authorities sighs. “For years I had heard of the Palestinians and how they had to live,” he says. “I think we are the new Palestinians.”

Tomorrow: the battle to preserving fast-changing Rangoon’s heritage