Myanmar has finally emerged from decades of military dictatorship. But its new democratic government has yet to confront the persecution of the country's Muslim minority.
It's a place where children pass the time by skipping stones against the stagnant sludge in crude open-air sewage canals, where women peer out from behind the frayed tarpaulin doors of their rotting thatched huts when food rations arrive, and where men like 85-year-old Abdul Azid sit outside on red plastic stools and talk in hushed tones about what it's like to lose their freedom.
For more than four years, Azid and his wife, children and grandchildren have been imprisoned in a government-designated, internally displaced persons camp on the outskirts of the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe in western Myanmar. They have not committed a crime, but dtey are not allowed to leave. Ohn Taw Gyi South, located along the Bay of Bengal, is one of at least 80 such camps across the state, which together hold about 140,000 people. Labeled concentration camps by groups and individuals ranging from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to The New York Times to Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, they are jammed with Muslims: former students, shop owners and employees, mechanics, fishermen, caretakers, teachers, food vendors--and thousands and thousands of children.
Azid vividly recalls the day, October 24, 2012, when violence erupted between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State. First, police surrounded his home and those of other Muslims in Kyaukpyu and told them to stay inside to remain safe. Then, mobs armed with bottles of petrol lit house after house on fire. "On that day, the Rakhine [Buddhists] forced us to the ocean," says Azid. "They made a C-shape around us so that fleeing by boat was our only option if we wanted to stay alive."
Over a three-day period, riots spread across nine townships, engulfing both Muslim and Buddhist communities: More than 100 people were killed, and 40,000 people lost their homes. This was the second of two rounds of ethnic violence in Rakhine that year: The first occurred in June, days after three Muslim men were sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Thida Htwe, a 28-year-old Buddhist woman. The exact truth of what happened in the grisly attack may never be known, but the violent aftermath exposed the belief pervasive among Buddhists that Muslims are terrorists who want to take over the country and rape Buddhist women.
It's a prejudice steeped in history and exacerbated by the rising fear of Islamic extremism around the world. Traditionally, it has been directed toward one Muslim ethnic group, the Rohingya, who are often described as among the most persecuted minorities in the world. The Rohingya practice a form of Sunni Islam mixed with elements of Sufism and speak Rohingya, an Indo-European language related to Chittagonian, which is common in neighboring Bangladesh. Of the 3.5 million Rohingya, nearly a quarter live in Myanmar, a country of 53 million that is more than 85 percent Buddhist. Despite their numbers, they are not recognized as one of Myanmar's official minorities--as are the Kaman, of which Azid is a member. "While other Muslims in Myanmar also face prejudice, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship and singled out for particular persecution," says Dan Sullivan, a senior advocate at the humanitarian organization Refugees International. "The Rohingya Muslim population has been concentrated near the Bangladeshi border [in Rakhine State] and has been historically less integrated than other Muslims in Myanmar. Location and lack of integration have helped to fuel views of Rohingya as illegal immigrants and made them more susceptible to false portrayals as a rapidly growing existential threat to Buddhist Bunnese culture."
Back in the camp, a man in his mid-20s is standing nearby, listening to my conversation with Azid. His name is Abbas Ali, and he is a Rohingya. "See these roads here?" Ali interjects, pointing past the gate and its armed guards. "The army lined both sides, and after they pulled us out of work or school they marched us by gunpoint down these roads and into the camps, telling us it was for our own protection," he says.
Azid says: "We all just want to go back home."
This year, Myanmar--formerly Burma--has made headlines in the West for a very different reason. The largest country in mainland Southeast Asia has finally emerged from decades of brutal military rule to become a fledgling democracy with the world's fastest-growing economy and a booming tourist industry. Last March, Htin Kyaw of Myanmar's long persecuted National League for Democracy (NLD) took over as president--though he is widely considered a proxy for the charismatic and internationally renowned human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Although this transition is a triumph for Myanmar's pro-democracy movement, the arrangement belies a key weakness of the new government: Suu Kyi is forbidden by the military to hold the presidency, and the military controls 25 percent of the seats in parliament, making it impossible for the nation's constitution to be changed.
Some of the challenges facing the new government are daunting. Civil wars with armed insurgents have been raging for years, including what many consider the world's longest-running civil war, the Karen people's fight for an independent Karen state, which began shortly after the British withdrew from Burma in 1948. The country is also riddled with ethno-religious nationalism stemming from bitter memories of British occupation, which has led to yet another turbulent front: a violent campaign by a powerful organization of radical Buddhist monks to stigmatize and isolate Muslims, which has been backed by the policies and practices of the military.
A major part of this effort has been focused on erasing the Rohingya from the nation's history. This is why the government refers to them officially as "Bengalis," as do most Buddhists. (The racial epithet kalar, meaning "black," is also widely used for the Rohingya and other Muslims of South Asian appearance.) Calling the Rohingya "Bengalis" denies their long-term presence in the country by linking their arrival to the first British incursion into Burma in Arakan, now Rakhine State, in 1824. "Bengali" implies that the Rohingya, who are darker-skinned than most Buddhists, are foreigners who emigrated from Bangladesh and India during British rule. Not so, says Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia Fellow at the Center for Strategic...