Burma’s boat people
Today we met the boat people of Burma. There are thousands of them now, perhaps as many as 10,000, living in fishing boats or sleeping under lean-to structures off the coast of Rakhine state. They were driven from their homes in the country’s north-west by mobs with petrol bombs and wooden clubs in the latest wave of violence to sweep the region – and it’s a conflict that an increasing number are now likening to ethnic cleansing campaign.
There have long been tensions between the ethnic Buddhists of Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya minority here but vicious fighting broke out between the two groups following an allegation of rape in June. More than 65,000 Rohingya were burnt out of their homes in the state capital Sittwe and later placed in a series of barely adequate refugee camps outside the city.
The creation of these camps formed part of government’s strategy to keep the two groups apart but the segregation policy hasn’t stemmed the violence. Two weeks ago, Rohingya communities and those of another Muslim minority, the Kaman, came under attack in six separate townships in Rakhine state. Unlike the Rohingya, the Kaman is a recognised group in Burma whose members are entitled to citizenship – but increasingly, that doesn’t seem to matter.
Recent events suggest this regional conflict is turning into a broader religious one – and in a diverse nation like Burma, this is a deeply worrying development.
We found a group of Kaman people who had taken shelter on a small fleet of 80 fishing boats off the Rakhine coast. They told me that they had been forced from their homes in a coastal town called Kyauk Phyi. You may have seen satellite images of the damage to their community, released by Human Rights Watch last week. The pictures seemed to suggest that an entire district had been razed and the people we spoke to said that this was indeed the case. They provided harrowing testimony of the violence in Kyauk Phyi on the evening of 24 October. They accused the army and the police of participating in the attacks and claim an army colonel gave them 30 minutes to leave the town on the morning of 25 October.
We will have much more on this in our upcoming report.
I have two other things to share from our trip. Firstly, we have heard extremely disturbing reports from a Rohingya village called Yin Thay, located near a popular tourist spot called Myauk-U. Our contacts tell us that 67 people were killed on 22 October by a Rakhine Buddist mob. Of the village’s 473 houses, only seven remain and I’m told that the survivors are now living in rice fields and under trees. Burmese troops have surrounded the village in order to protect it from the local population but it seems nobody from the international aid community has yet to reach Yin Thay. The conditions there are desperate said one villager who we managed to reach by phone.
Interestingly, we also bumped into a group of Burmese police and immigration officers on an island in Rakhine state called Pauk Taw. We went to see it because several Rohinya villages had been destroyed on the island during the recent violence. While we were there, the officers told us something that we found to be both surprising and significant. They said they had just started taking a census in five remaining Rohingya villages in order to determine whether members of the community would qualify for Burmese citizenship.
They explained that Rohingya will need to prove ancestry dating back to the time when Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. Few people are going to have the sort of documentation required, particularly if they have been burnt out of their homes, but this seems to represent a major shift by a government which officially at least, claims the Rohingya are foreigners with no right of abode.
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