KYAUKPYU Myanmar (Reuters) - A campaign to isolate Muslims living under apartheid-like conditions is gathering steam in western Myanmar, driven by Buddhist activists emboldened by the country’s transition from military rule.
Religious violence since 2012 has killed hundreds of Rohingya Muslims and displaced more than 140,000 in Rakhine State. Survivors live as virtual prisoners in camps or in segregated villages, subject to restrictions on travel, and, in some areas, marriage and the number of babies they can have.
In recent months, Buddhist Rakhine activists and politicians have spearheaded a campaign to restrict healthcare and other aid for many of the estimated one million Rohingya living in the state, aid workers say.
At the forefront of the movement are the Rakhine Social Network (RSN), an umbrella grouping of activist organizations, and the newly-formed Arakan National Party (ANP).
“We are worried that this country will not remain Buddhist,” Nyo Aye, the chairwoman of the Rakhine Women’s Network, which is part of RSN, told Reuters.
“We Rakhines are strongly guarding Myanmar’s western door,” she added, referring to the widely accepted belief that the Rohingya are illegal Muslim immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The step up of the campaign against the Rohingya comes as Rakhine leaders use Myanmar’s democratic reforms to seize greater local autonomy and a slice of billions of dollars in infrastructure development and oil and gas revenue.
Such bigotry is proving a stumbling block to Myanmar’s opening to the world after nearly 50 years of military rule. Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama cited abuses in Rakhine State as one reason for extending some economic sanctions against Myanmar.
“There has been a very active campaign to both isolate the Rohingya population and drive them out from what the Rakhine regard as their homeland,” said Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, an NGO which monitors Rakhine State.
Even relatively moderate Rakhine leaders are calling for “essentially apartheid-like conditions for the Rohingya and a continuation of abuses that amount to crimes against humanity,” said Smith.
Win Myaing, a spokesman for Rakhine State’s centrally appointed state government, denied there was a humanitarian crisis in the area. Most displaced Rohingya live more comfortable lives in the camps than before the violence, he said.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 86,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar by boat since 2012 to escape the oppression.
A conference involving hundreds of Rakhine leaders in the coastal town of Kyaukpyu in late April and early May was widely seen as a coming-out party for the ANP, which hopes to dominate the state parliament in an election next year. The party is not officially linked to the RSN but shares many of its goals.
Conference delegates passed resolutions calling for Rakhines to grab a 50 percent share of oil and gas revenue in the state, as well as for constitutional changes to drastically shift power to the state and its elected parliament.
Dominating the discussion was what to do with the Rohingya.
“The estimated population in Rakhine State is three million people. More than one million are Bengalis,” said ANP leader Aye Thar Aung, using the term preferred by Myanmar’s government, which refuses to recognize the existence of a Rohingya ethnic group.
“How can we allow people whose nationality is unknown to vote in Myanmar?” he said.
“It is clear that our border, our state are under threat of invasion.”
The solution favored by Rakhine leaders interviewed by Reuters is simple: Grant citizenship to perhaps 200,000 Rohingya, then forcibly remove the remaining majority to “detention camps,” where they will be held in perpetuity unless rich nations take them.
Moves would also be made to tighten the border with Bangladesh to prevent what Rakhine leaders believe to be an influx of illegal Rohingya immigrants.
The aim, Aye Thar Aung said, is to neutralize the demographic threat that the Rohingya pose to Rakhines gaining control over their state.
In the Rohingya camps and settlements, foreign aid workers say the campaign to staunch healthcare has worsened already dire conditions.
Last year, the workers began receiving anonymous death threats and Rakhine landlords began turning away humanitarian groups, said a former official with an international agency focusing on Rakhine State, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Rakhine activists, mostly grouped in the RSN, first led a lengthy campaign against Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF-H), an aid group which had been the primary healthcare provider for half a million Rohingya, claiming the group was biased against the Rakhine.
They closed in on MSF-H after the group said it had treated people for violent injuries in an area where the United Nations reported at least 40 Rohingya were massacred in January. Protests led the central government to expel MSF-H in February.
On March 26, the attack on foreign aid groups widened. Enraged by a rumor that a foreign worker from the aid group Malteser International had desecrated a Buddhist flag, mobs trashed offices and warehouses of the United Nations and humanitarian groups in the state capital, Sittwe, causing the withdrawal of foreign aid workers.
Rakhine leaders deny any connection to the violence.
More than two months later, only about 60 percent of the evacuated aid workers have returned to the state, according to the United Nations.
Both MSF-H and Malteser remained blocked by Myanmar’s government, leaving more than 600,000 people in camps and villages with little or no healthcare.
In the village of Inn Din in the north of the state, Norjan, a 60-year-old tuberculosis patient, told Reuters the expulsion of MSF-H meant the end of treatment in her Rohingya settlement.
Since then, she has only seen a doctor once, after a bone-rattling journey to the town of Maungdaw, several hours away. The trip and medicine cost her 50,000 kyat (USD 51.54).
“I used whatever money I had and then borrowed the rest from relatives and neighbors,” she said. “I will have to pay them back somehow.”
In the aftermath of the March violence, the same Rakhine leaders who agitated against foreign aid groups have assumed power over monitoring their work.
A new body, called the Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC), has overseen foreign aid groups since late March. The Rakhine State ECC is dominated by Rakhine Social Network members.
Than Tun, a state ECC member and RSN patron, told Reuters that neither MSF-H or Malteser has a chance of returning to the state. Other aid groups are being closely watched to make sure they do not favor the Rohingya.
“Speaking as a Rakhine, if I were to put it bluntly, if all of the U.N. agencies and international NGOs were to leave Rakhine, it would go half way to resolving the conflict in Rakhine state,” he said.
Additional Reporting by Min Zayar Oo in Kyaukpyu, Paul Mooney in Sittwe and Thin Lei Win in Inn Din; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Andrew R.C. Marshall