Barricaded In, Myanmar's Rohingya Struggle To Survive In Ghettos And Camps

Jul 29, 2015
Originally published on July 29, 2015 8:25 pm

Habibullah is an ethnic Rohingya Muslim. He lives with his family in a wooden house in Sittwe, the capital of western Myanmar's Rakhine State. Like all Rohingya, he is officially considered stateless.

The 46-year-old father is luckier than many. He did not join the thousands of Rohingya fleeing abroad in rickety boats earlier this year. Nor were he and his family forced into grim internment camps in Rakhine State, as thousands of other Rohingya were in the wake of communal violence between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.

But that doesn't mean things are easy. Habibullah, who uses just one name, struggles to survive in Aung Mingalar, a Rohingya ghetto. All but 4,000 of the neighborhood's 15,000 mostly Rohingya residents either fled or were forced to move to the camps after the 2012 violence. The enclave is isolated from the rest of the city by barricades covered with barbed wire, and it is guarded by armed security forces.

"It's like a prison without walls," Habibullah tells me. "Instead of walls, there are police checkpoints."

Restricted Movements

The situation of Habibullah and people like him is important to understanding the recent crisis of boat people in Southeast Asia. The Rohingya's plight has affected the entire region and focused international attention on ethnic tensions that have complicated Myanmar's democratic reform efforts.

I met Habibullah earlier this month in an internment camp outside Sittwe, dressed in a white robe and skullcap. He suffers from diabetes, but the government won't allow Rohingya to go to hospitals in Sittwe. So every couple of weeks, Habibullah has to make a 4-mile journey — in a police truck, under armed escort — from Aung Mingalar to the camp at Depaing to get rudimentary medical care at a government clinic.

The summer monsoons have turned the camp into a sea of mud, lapping at rows of thatched bamboo huts. Fewer desperate Rohingya are taking to the rough seas at this time of year than they did in the spring.

After being seen by a doctor at the camp, Habibullah puts his name on a list to return home to Aung Mingalar. Then he boards a truck full of other Rohingya, which is escorted back to the ghetto by shotgun-toting police.

The truck arrives in a pouring rain and residents offload bamboo, foodstuffs and other supplies brought from the internment camp.

Aung Mingalar is not affluent, but its wooden, brick and concrete buildings are certainly more solid than the thatched huts in the camps. I follow Habibullah back to his house, where he has lived for decades, and which is decorated with pictures of Mecca and the Taj Mahal. He lives there with nearly a dozen family members.

Habibullah tells me he used to sell dried fish over the border to Bangladesh. During the 2012 violence, he lost his business. All of his fish rotted in a warehouse. He has been unemployed since.

His brother, also unemployed now, used to run a spice shop in the local bazaar, Habibullah says. But police confiscated it in 2012, when all Rohingya stalls and shops in the bazaar were either closed or seized.

Now Habibullah says he and his family are struggling to survive on the small daily rations the state government provides — one 16-ounce can of rice per person per day. Other food, scarce in Aung Mingalar, is brought in from the camps. Residents of Aung Mingalar are not considered displaced persons, so they receive less food aid than the Rohingya in the camps.

Habibullah worries about his 4-year-old son, Mohamed Harris, who he says has had a fever for almost a month.

"He's not getting good medical treatment and he is malnourished," he says. "He has become weak, and now he is unable to walk."

Man-Made Boundaries, Jihad Fears

Walk for a few minutes in any direction in this ghetto, and you come to a man-made boundary — metal barricades patrolled by police and soldiers. Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists are allowed in to trade with the Rohingya here. Foreign journalists and nongovernmental aid groups require authorization to enter. But Rohingya cannot leave without permission.

Myanmar's government insists the security forces are necessary because, for now, the Rohingya and the Rakhine can't live together in peace. It denies accusations by human rights groups that it is committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. It says it is providing humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya in cooperation with international non-governmental organizations.

Tin Maung Swe, executive secretary of the Rakhine state government, says the government will resettle the Rohingya who now live in camps into new homes. For now, he says, travel by the Rohingya remains restricted. But the government helps them get around.

"If they want to go to town, we have arranged a car every day," he says in an interview in his office in Sittwe. "They can go by this car. In case of emergency, if they want to go to hospital, to Yangon or to other places, OK, we can arrange."

Fellow Muslims across Asia have expressed sympathy and outrage about the plight of the Rohingya. Islamic political parties and civic groups in Indonesia and Malaysia have called on their governments to give refuge to the boat people. More ominously, the Pakistani Taliban last month encouraged the Rohingya to fight back against their oppressors.

Abdul Hakim, an imam at the mosque next to Habibullah's home, worries that some Rohingya could take that advice seriously. Too much suffering, he warns, could radicalize Rohingya youth and force them to consider jihad, or holy war.

"Jihad would require radical ideology and foreign support," he says cautiously. "But if we had those, the Myanmar government would destroy us. So we don't dare to use the word 'jihad.' "

Back in Aung Mingalar, Habibullah cradles his feverish son. As bad as things are here, he says he feels lucky to be in his home — and not in the camps.

He says it's important for Rohingya to hang onto this foothold, to show that they have the right to live in this place. They were born and raised here, and have lived here for generations.

"We'll never move out of this quarter," he says resolutely, "no matter what problems we face, including lack of food. God willing, those who had to leave will be able to return."

He asks for the faithful to pray that his neighbors may soon come home.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Southeast Asia is also dealing with a migrant crisis. In recent months, the number of people fleeing Myanmar has ballooned. Many countries in the region blame the way that government treats Rohingya Muslims, who are not recognized as citizens of any country. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Western Myanmar, many of those who have not fled are struggling to survive.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The summer monsoons have turned this Rohingya internment camp into a sea of mud lapping at rows of thatched bamboo huts. I meet a man, named Habibullah, with a wispy beard, wearing a white robe and skullcap. He uses just one name. Habibullah has come to the camp to get medical treatment. Now he's going to return with a police escort to his home, a Rohingya ghetto called Aung Mingalar in the city of Sittwe.

HABIBULLAH: (Through interpreter) It's like a prison without walls. Instead of walls, there are police checkpoints.

KUHN: Most of Aung Mingalar's residents fled or were forced into the camps three years ago during violence between the Rohingya and members of the mostly Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group. Today, about 4,000 of the original 15,000 are still hanging on in the ghetto. I decide to head to Aung Mingalar so that I can be there when Habibullah arrives.

The trucks from the camp have arrived. In a pouring rain, people are unloading bamboo and other supplies to go into the enclave of Aung Mingalar.

I follow Habibullah back to his wooden house. The area is not affluent, but the buildings are certainly more solid than those in the internment camps. Habibullah used to sell dried fish over the border to Bangladesh. During the 2012 violence, he lost his business. All of his fish rotted in a warehouse. Now, he says, he and his family are struggling to survive on the small daily rations of rice the state government provides. He holds up his 4-year-old son who, he says, has had a fever for almost a month.

HABIBULLAH: (Through interpreter) He's not getting good medical treatment, and he's malnourished. He has become weak, and now he's unable to walk.

KUHN: Walk for a few minutes in any direction in this ghetto, and you come to a man-made boundary.

So here, I've come to a checkpoint, a metal barrier with barbed wire on it that separates the neighborhood of Aung Mingalar from the Rakhine neighborhood outside. And there are armed police and soldiers separating the two neighborhoods.

Myanmar's government says the soldiers are necessary because for now, the Rohingya and the Rakhine cannot live together in peace. It denies accusations that it's committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. It insists that it's treating them humanely even though it considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Tin Maung Swe is executive secretary of the Rakhine state government. He says the government will resettle the Rohingya in new homes. For now, he says, their travel is still restricted, but the government helps them to get around.

TIN MAUNG SWE: If they want to go to town, we have arranged a car every day. They can go by this car. In case of emergency case, if they want to go to hospital, to Yangon or other places, OK, we can arrange.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking in Arabic).

KUHN: The call to prayer goes out from a Rohingya mosque. Fellow Muslims, particularly in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, have expressed sympathy and outrage about the plight of the Rohingya. Abdul Hakim is an imam at the mosque next to Habibullah's home. He says he worries that too much suffering could radicalize Rohingya youth and force them to consider jihad or holy war.

ABDUL HAKIM: (Through interpreter) Jihad would require radical ideology and foreign support. But if we had those, the Myanmar government would destroy us, so we don't dare to use the word jihad.

KUHN: Back at his home, Habibullah cradles his feverish son. He says that as bad as things are here, he's lucky to be in his own home and not in the camps. He says it's important for Rohingya to hang on to this foothold to show that they have the right to live in this place.

HABIBULLAH: (Through interpreter) We'll never move out of this quarter no matter what problems we face, including lack of food. God willing, those who had to leave will be able to return.

KUHN: He asks for the faithful to pray that his neighbors may soon come home. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Sittwe, Myanmar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.