Sittwe. Keep out!

Rakhine driving around Sittwe June 2012 at time of first attack.

Rakhine driving around Sittwe June 2012 at time of first attack.

We are being followed. Everyone we speak to is then in turn spoken to. We are being watched, our movements, what we buy, what we say, what we eat. The regime is scared of something.

In Sittwe where the Rohingya Muslims were murdered last year the attitude towards us has further darkened. Some of the local Rakhine women, who first received us with smiles and waves, possibly thinking we were tourists, now have dropped all the niceties after word has gotten around that we are visiting the Rohingya IDP camps.

I have become increasingly aware that my skin complexion makes me seem less of a Westerner than others around me, especially now that I am being associated with the Muslim Rohingya.

We took a walk to the local internet café in the Rakhine part of town where we are staying. That night as we walked a man said “Why don’t you guys go down here,” pointing towards a side road. The last remaining Rohingya ward, surrounded by barbed wire and guns, is in that direction. We politely said “No, thank you,” and moved on. On the way back he said it again, looking me directly in the eyes, but this time adding, “The Muslims are down there.”

Further up the road a man pulls up next to us whilst we are walking back to our guesthouse and aggressively asks, “Where are you going?” We answer, “Our guest house,” and he continues to speak aggressively and coldly.

“Come with me!” he demands. At any point I was expecting him to pull out a police badge or even attack. We say, “No thank you,” he drives off and shouts some words that we do not understand.

Associating with Rohingya is very dangerous. The local Rakhine do not like it, and neither do the authorities. The Rohingya are who we are here to see.

Last night as I returned to my hotel, a man signalled at me whilst talking to another man and called me a “Rohingya”. The implication is clear; the brown guy is a Muslim, Rohingya, the same as the people they massacred and continue to persecute today. I see men riding on the back of motorcycles at night whilst carrying long blades, the same blades, maybe, that were involved in the hacking of the Rohingya, including children, last year.

Men on motorcycles follow us. Thuggish looking men, overly fed and built, wait outside our hotel, constantly informing someone on the phone of when we leave and come back. Men sit close to us when we have dinner. Our hotel that advertises wifi internet connection suddenly has connection problems, we are unable to contact the outside world via the net. What are they preventing from getting out?

Local Rakhine, who attempt to help the Rohingya, or try and bring goods into the camp markets face being ostracised. Last week, three such Rakhine were beat up in the Rakhine part of town then forced to wear and parade around with signs calling them traitors. They are considered traitors or ‘kalar’ lovers. Kalar is a racist term that is used for the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in Burma.

Although the attitude towards us has changed, it is nothing compared to what the Rohingya face. I am a foreigner. I was born In England and because of that I am a British citizen with all the rights and protection that come along with my nationality. The British consulate is about an hour’s plane ride away and could be on hand to help if need be. I have the option of flying out; I have the protection and privilege that a foreigner usually has.

The Rohingya have no such protection. They cannot leave their areas as the military impose curfews and roadblocks. The Rohingya cannot fly out of the airport; they don’t have passports or travel documents. They have to pay and apply to the police and military for official permission to leave their villages, wards and camp restricted areas. The Rohingya are always watched and tracked. Their only escape is to risk death by going out to sea or escape by death itself, not much of a choice. They continue to live in imposed sub-human conditions because they are not recognised as Burmese citizens, not even recognised as human with simple and basic human rights.

The Rohingya that talk to me risk their lives. Even in the IDP camps we are being watched and followed. If the regime so wants, anyone that talks to us can end up in a jail, tortured or just disappear. The Rohingya we meet are brave and loving people. A day has not gone past that we have not been received with hospitality, access to their lives and harrowing accounts. We will soon leave; the Rohingya will continue to endure.

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Listen to the Children

Muhammed sits sketching a stick man and then he picks up a green pencil crayon, colouring in the man he has drawn. No one has bothered to ask these children about what they witnessed during last year’s massacre of the Rohingya in Burma. No one seems to care what children have to say.

Ten or so children sit in a bamboo hut, in what is now a make-shift Rohingya village at the end of a dusty road. The village is nothing but a collection of huts and tents put up in sand. This is not where these children are originally from, they were forced here after they were chased to the water amid sword, spear and gun attacks while their homes in the Kyauk Phyu village were burnt down last year.

The sun beats down; the children surround us, wanting to see the foreigners. The American doctor, (I won’t reveal her name for her protection) works with the Rohingya and pays special attention to these children. She seems like the only one that wants to hear what they have to say.

They are all drawing away, boys and girls. Then they hold up their drawings and share their stories with the rest of the class. Some children look-in from outside, through the cracks in the bamboo and the plastic sheeting that covers the outside, peering in to see something and hear something that no-doubt they have heard before. But now, it is being shared in a manner that it has not been shared previously.

Abdul is mute. This is his first time drawing and he is eleven. His drawings are detailed. They show death, houses burning, soldiers, monks and local Rakhine carrying weapons. All the drawings are similar; they all show things that children should not be subjected to.

The children’s accounts are vivid and graphic. They all say they saw people hacked into pieces. In one drawing Hussain draws a stick man, with his heads, arms and legs separated, he says he saw someone chopped to pieces. There are bodies in red water.

“I saw dead people in the water, I saw Rakhine stab them whilst they were trying to swim.”

That’s why the colour of the water is red.

All of the children are still scared, they have been dispelled with deadly force out of their village, and their homes burnt to the ground, all of them told me that they suffer from nightmares. Even in their sleep they cannot escape the horror of what took place. Of how the military, monks and civilians slaughtered Rohingya and drove them out, now forced to live in IDP camps, cut off from the rest of the world. They are not allowed to leave the area. The Rakhine on the other hand have no such restrictions.

He doesn’t smile. Sharp face and defined features, his eyes are striking, they are painful to look into, wise beyond their years and have seen things that no human being should have to see. He explains how they ran from the sword wielding Monks.

“A boat was set on fire. People jumped into the river and tried swimming. The Rakhine came on boats and stabbed people with their spears as they tried swimming away.”

There was one disturbing story that a number of the children drew and explained to me. A mentally ill child, was killed, he was beheaded.

“Did you see it with your own eyes?” I ask. “Yes,” they all reply.

The picture that emerges after speaking to the children is that themilitary, the police, the monks and Rakhines were involved in the massacre last year. The doctor tells me that these children are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress disorder. One child has since saw a Rakhine man and passed out.

In one village, the water buffalos were late coming back. Whilst the children were playing, someone shouted, “they’re coming!” the children began to run and scream, they thought the mobs were returning to finish them off.

“These kids need a child psychiatrist,” the doctor tells me. “I’m doing what I can.”

The children have coloured in the monks orange, green for the military and police, and just black for the Rakhine mobs.

“The Rakhine and the mobs came first, then when some of our family defended themselves and fought back the army came in and shot them,” says Ramina.

She’s 13-years-old and acts like a woman twice her age. She is clearly the one that the children look up to, mature, controlled and has a sense of authority about her.

Abdul draws a bike amongst the death and destruction, he points to himself to indicate it belonged to him, and then rolls his hands forward symbolising the cycling of the feet. “Where is your bike now?” He waves his hand away, and pushes his arms back and forth like he is running; he had to leave it behind, a sullen sadness in his eyes.

The doctor lets the children take one pencil crayon each, their faces light up, smiles beaming, it is the first gift they have received in a while.Their childhood has been interrupted, simply because they are Rohingya. As soon as they were conceived they were destined to be persecuted by this state that professes to be moving towards democracy whilst actively engaging in the brutality and cleansing of the Rohingya.

The Rohingya are not recognised as citizens of Burma and have no rights. I suppose this fact is a mere inconvenience to World leaders and Corporation CEO’s as they compete for Burma’s natural resources. Human rights abuses are not spoken about when you have the potential to sign multi-million dollar deals.

The world has remained silent at the cycle of violence. Rohingya is not just a word, they are real people, with feelings; they are children who want to draw pictures; they are people who just want to be able to live; they are the Abduls and Ramina’s just like the Billys and Janes who just want to be able to ride their bikes.

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Massacre in Meiktila: That was my friend

A burnt property in Meiktila following attacks on Muslims,March 2013. photo by Hein Aung

A burnt property in Meiktila following attacks on Muslims,March 2013.
photo by Hein Aung

Following recent attacks in central Myanmar against Muslims, the displaced have been fleeing to the central city of Mandalay. Buildings were burnt down and the ‘official’ death toll stood at 32, as angry mobs roamed the streets. The reality of events is very different from what we have heard on our TV screens. Burmese state media is not the most reliable of sources and very few independent or Western journalists have reported directly from the ground.

The displaced are scattered across the city, accommodated by fellow Muslims and are still very scared to return to their homes in Meiktila, a hundred miles away.

I traversed through side streets to the site of one building housing the displaced. Young men stood guard, looking wary and suspect. After a long discussion we were allowed in to interview some of the refugees, they asked for their faces to be blurred out on camera. The metal gates to the building were unlocked and we were allowed in.

Hafiz, a seventeen-year-old student, had been in school at the time when the violence began. His teacher told him to run,

“we ran, we saw the younger children falling over, the older kids had to help them,” he said, recalling his account. “We hid, and then moved from place to place until we were rescued and brought here. I’m not sure where some of my other friends are.”

He looked around to his classmates in the small open space opposite a mosque in the mainly Muslim district of Mandalay. I showed him some pictures from a local journalist; two of them were of dead teenagers. He put his hand up to the camera touching the screen,

“that’s my friend,” he said.

We showed him another and he struggles to speak

“and this one, those are Osama and Karimullah,”

he paused; his friends surrounded the camera and inspected the pictures of bodies on the ground, in unnatural poses

Hafiz’s friend. Murdered in Meiktila, March 2013. Photo by Hein Aung

 One body, Osama’s, has a massive gash to the back of the neck, which looks like it was caused by a machete. The other boy had a massive laceration in a similar place, both bodies had been there for three days before a local journalist, Hein Aung, took the pictures. They are too graphic to print. The class mates consoled each other, two friends lost. The pictures confirm their fears, but there are still friends unaccounted for, but we have no more pictures that can be identified, the rest are of burnt corpses. Not that that was a comfort to these young men, to anyone. Nearby, one hundred and five year old Kairunbi, laid on the floor, exhausted. Her seventy-one year-old daughter watched over her.

“We had to use a stretcher to get her here,” she told me. “We will go back when it is safe to do so,” she added. “We could be here for a while.”

Muslims have long been an oppressed minority in Myanmar. Last year’s massacre of the Rohingya Muslims caused outrage in the Muslim world but the Western media gave it little attention. The Rohingya are not recognised as Burmese citizens. The darling of the West Aung San Suukyi, a former political prisoner, democracy advocate, and current member of the Burmese Parliament, remained silent when asked about the Rohingya, an action further cementing their fate, as the leader of democracy in Burma refrained to speak out for their freedom.

This time, the Muslims are Burmese citizens, not Rohingya, but this did not stop them from being attacked. Every person interviewed said that the police stood by and did nothing whilst they were being attacked. Many here believe that this was pre-planned and that the official story, that it began with a dispute in a gold shop, is just a cover for violence against Muslims. The extremist Buddhist monk, Wirathu, had only given one of his sermons ten days before the violence. His group, 969, is infamous for their extreme views and protests against Muslims who they call ‘invaders’ and ‘Kalar’ – a racist term used to describe Muslims. He is known in the country for his anti-Muslim stance, he has even published a book called ‘From the jaws of a wolf”, which tells a story of a Buddhist woman married to an abusive Muslim man.

We continued throughout Mandalay, interviewing person after person displaced by the riots. But this violence was different from that in the Arakan state last year, although the anti-Muslim sentiment was the same. This time, local Buddhists and student groups from nearby Mandalay city launched a rescue operation saving hundreds of lives. The local Buddhists from Mandalay city, who have lived side by side with Muslims for centuries, were not prepared to have their neighbours slaughtered.

Myint Myint, who was saved by a Buddhist monk, said she blames the Buddhists in Meiktila, not the ones in Mandalay. Her nephew, Farooq, aged just fourteen, saw people beaten to death and then burnt. His voice crackled recalling the events, he and others hid in some houses and looked on as the slaughter took place. None of the above interviewed wanted their face on camera; they fear reprisals from extremist Buddhists if they are found out to have spoken to a foreign journalist.

Khin Htay Yee, was not afraid, though. She broke down in tears as she recalled how her Buddhist factory manager sheltered them in the factory as the slaughter took place outside. The mob outside threatened the manager that if he did not let the women out that they would break in and rape every last woman. She managed to make a phone call to Mandalay where some Buddhist monks had already left to rescue Muslims from the onslaught of the enraged mob.

The violence took place over three days and only stopped once the army came in and restored order to the streets. The majority of the displaced are still being kept in a sports stadium in Meiktila, guarded by the military.

Muslims in Burma are now afraid that the violence will spread even further and there is even a strong indication, due to protests, leaflets and military movement that a third massacre against the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan is planned for the coming days. The language of propaganda is reminiscent of that in the Balkans before the Bosnian genocide, Muslims are accused of invading, of waging jihad, of acts of violence against Buddhists, but many here believe that the military is behind the increase in violence, something Human Rights Watch pointed out in their report on the violence in Arakan last year accusing the military of complicity in the massacre. The Burmese military junta ruled Burma until recent political reforms, which has opened up the country somewhat to the West.

A Muslim in Yangon told me

“the military want to assert their power, and want to prove they are the ones that can restore order, they are using us to prove their point.”

If this is the case, then we will see more deaths in the coming weeks.

You are free to share (copy, distribute, transmit), remix (adapt) and make commercial use of this article. Please just credit to Assed Baig, include link to and consider supporting @rj_fund a crowd funded project that made this report possible.