Thursday, September 21, 2017

In Maungdaw, a fire still rages

The first sight as you approach Maungdaw along a bumpy dirt road, after taking the daily ferry from Sittwe to Buthidaung, is a “Welcome to Maungdaw” gateway erected in 2000.

A devastating blaze and alleged clashes between security forces and Muslims which rights groups say left dozens killed and a policeman missing have once again pitted Maungdaw township’s Rakhine and Rohingya communities against each other. (Si Thu Lwin/The Myanmar Times)A devastating blaze and alleged clashes between security forces and Muslims which rights groups say left dozens killed and a policeman missing have once again pitted Maungdaw township’s Rakhine and Rohingya communities against each other. (Si Thu Lwin/The Myanmar Times)

There are hints of trouble – the glass in its clock tower was cracked during violence in June 2012 and remains unrepaired; signboards in town carry messages such as “People can be safe if there is rule of law” and “Our town will be developed if there is peace and stability” – but for the most part Maungdaw appears peaceful.

In reality, it has for many years been torn between two very different – some would say irreconcilable – societies.

In the nearby village of Du Chee Yar Tan West, the ashes where homes once stood are testament to the extent of the conflict. More than a dozen homes were torched on January 28, 15 days after a policeman went missing in the area.

The flames have been extinguished, but a fire of hatred and anxiety still burns.

The Buddhist and Muslim communities now blame each other for the fire. Some have accused the police force of involvement; not only does the government deny this, but it has accused the Muslims of burning their own homes.

“Police, ward administrators and ethnic Rakhines set fire our houses,” said Rohingya man Lailar Bacon, as he sifted through the remains of rice that was burned in the fire.

“All our staple foods – rice, oil and so on – were lost in the fire. Why would we burn our own homes?”

Rakhine living near Du Chee Yar Tan expressed concern about the safety of their families and businesses, as well as access to education for their children – following last month’s violence, teachers posted to schools in Rakhine villages ran away and schools remain closed.

A Muslim boy stands beside burned homes in Maungdaw’s Du Chee Yar Tan West village on February 1. (Si Thu Lwin/The Myanmar Times)A Muslim boy stands beside burned homes in Maungdaw’s Du Chee Yar Tan West village on February 1. (Si Thu Lwin/The Myanmar Times)

“We dare not go outside our village to catch frogs and crabs because the Bengalis are provoking us,” said U Tun Hla Aung from the Rakhine village of Khayay Myine.

“At night they also destroyed the crops we had grown with loans from the bank because they know that if we can’t pay back the interest we will be arrested.”

Locals – Rakhine locals, at least –are in no doubt as to the cause of the conflict.

There are 381 villages in Maungdaw. Of those, 86 are Rakhine, Kathe and Hindu, while 288 are Muslim – Bengali or Rohingya, depending on your sympathies. Just seven are a mix of Rakhine and Muslim.

State records put the Rakhine population at 21,355 and the Muslim population at 444,725. Muslim households, at 51,241, outnumber Rakhine 10 to one.

“Ninety-eight percent of population growth is among the Bengali population. Rakhine account for 1pc and civil servants another 1pc. The population gap is now very big,” said Maungdaw resident Ko Kyaw Kyaw Tun.

“We are suffering the consequences of poor border control,” he said.

A Muslim man holds burned rice in Du Chee Yar Tan West village. (Si Thu Lwin/The Myanmar Times)A Muslim man holds burned rice in Du Chee Yar Tan West village. (Si Thu Lwin/The Myanmar Times)

Rakhine residents frequently decry what they describe as a growing lawlessness in the township, typified by the attack on a police patrol in Du Chee Yar Tan Middle village by a Muslim mob on January 13.

The head of the patrol, Police Sergeant Aung Kyaw Thein – along with his M20 gun – remains missing.

“There is no rule of law in Maungdaw,” said Rakhine political activist and Maungdaw resident Ko Win Thein. “Because there is no law and order, a policeman was killed and his weapon taken. The authorities couldn’t even resolve the case yet. We feel like we are living in a rebel area.”

Authorities say they are doing their best to implement the law in difficult circumstances.

“There may have been some problems with border control management but we are now carefully checking all border crossings,” said a senior officer from the state’s police force.

In the case of the attack on Police Sergeant Aung Kyaw Thein, the authorities have issued arrest warrants for 27 people, said Police Colonel Nay Myo, the head of the Rakhine State Police Force.

“Eleven of those are going to the other country to receive an award and the rest are hiding in the Bengali villages,” he said. “We’ve got a list of their names and taking steps so that they can be arrested as soon as possible.”

But Rakhine residents say the authorities are fighting a losing battle.

“If we stay in our village, we feel like we are just waiting for death,” said U Tun Hla Aung from Khayay Myine. “One day our village will disappear.”

Translation by Thiri Min Htun and Zar Zar Soe