Most of Abdul Solay’s family joined last year’s vast exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar, as government troops torched homes and opened fire on villages in a spasm of ethnically motivated violence. Mr Solay decided to stay behind—and now he is struggling to survive. Jobless and landless, the 22-year-old ekes out a living catching fish in a nearby stream. His family’s five cows—once a source of wealth—were confiscated. If he ventures into town, he says, he is taunted by members of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, who call him “kalar,” a derogatory term for foreigners. More than 700,000 Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority group, have fled to Bangladesh, where they are jammed into crowded refugee camps. For the roughly 600,000 still in Myanmar, according to United Nations estimates, the situation is precarious.
On a recent government-organised trip to Maungdaw district in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, The Wall Street Journal spoke to nearly a dozen Rohingya residents who said they lacked access to sufficient food, had been stripped of land and belongings, and faced severe restrictions on movement. Maungdaw, home to Nga Khu Ya, was the centre of last year’s bloodshed. A Rohingya militant group launched attacks on Aug. 25 on police posts in the district, and the army responded by ethnically cleansing the Rohingya, according to the U.N., citing the Rohingya testimony of soldiers burning villages and shooting those who fled. All along the main road in Maungdaw, there are destroyed and abandoned Rohingya villages. In one, only an outhouse remained standing. In another, an orange door hung on its hinges amid the charred ruins. Empty farm fields stretched for miles. Myanmar’s government says Rohingya terrorists are to blame and denies that the military burned houses.
Aung Tun Thet, the chief coordinator for the Myanmar government’s Rakhine resettlement and development office, said the government is meeting minimum food needs and has granted access to international humanitarian organisations to assist in these efforts. International organisations that once provided food, supplies and medical services to Rohingya populations in Rakhine say their work has been sharply limited by new government restrictions on humanitarian operations. “When you cut that lifeline, there is a very real human impact,” said Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar. Rohingya villagers interviewed by the Journal spoke warily, frequently glancing at nearby government escorts and generally declining to offer details of last year’s violence.
In Nga Khu Ya, Mr Solay said he used to work as a day labourer on other people’s fields. The destruction of villages and mass departure of Rohingya, however, has devastated an already weak farming economy. Local Buddhist communities are reluctant to hire Rohingya. “It’s really difficult,” said Mahmet Inus, one of Mr Solay’s neighbours. “There’s no farm work and no jobs.” One Rohingya who used to work for an international aid agency said he lost his job when the group halted its operations amid the upheaval last year. He said he and his family hid in an isolated village during the worst of the violence when security forces burned his house down. “We lost everything,” he said. The man said he was determined to make his way to Bangladesh, but was talked out of it by relatives who said the local land was Rohingya soil and that they shouldn’t abandon it. He now lives in the poorly-lit attic of a small house in Maungdaw, where he was interviewed out of sight of government minders.
In Inn Din, a tiny village in northern Rakhine where Myanmar’s military has acknowledged killing Rohingya last year, local Buddhist villagers said they hoped the Rohingya who had fled town would stay away. “Now the village is peaceful,” said Theng Sein, 59, a grandmother with grey hair, sitting on the steps of her small wooden house. Kyaw Soe Moe, a local administrator, said authorities had seized multiple acres of Rohingya farmland to erect a fenced police compound to guard against terrorism in the area, which is now patrolled by pairs of rifle-toting officers. Under international pressure, Myanmar has said displaced Rohingya can return, but the country imposes high hurdles on who is allowed back—steps the government says are necessary to prevent illegal immigration and keep out terrorists. In Nga Khu Ya, the government has commandeered land where it has built neat rows of brightly painted rectangular buildings to process returnees. Administrators there said they were frustrated that so few Rohingya—just five—had come through the centre, though they had made preparations for hundreds. “I don’t know why Muslim people don’t want to come back to Myanmar,” said Soe Tun, the facility’s supervisor, referring to the Rohingya.
Rohingya representatives in Bangladesh say they won’t return until they are guaranteed full citizenship rights and safety. Myanmar says there will be no blanket offer of citizenship to Rohingya in Bangladesh but will consider granting it case by case. Abu Hossain, a skinny 19-year-old, is one of the rare Rohingya to have returned to Myanmar, after crossing over to Bangladesh last year and living in a refugee camp for a few months. He returned earlier this year to check on his elderly uncle but was caught by border police, charged with illegally crossing the border and thrown into prison. He was released in May and now lives with his uncle in a rural village in Maungdaw. Life is tougher than it was in the refugee camps, he said. “There aren’t enough people in the village, so it’s hard to find jobs,” Mr Hossain said. “I’m the only one who came back.”
Credit: Jon Emont and Myo Myo for The Wall Street Journal, 8 August 2018.