Rohingya: Myanmar's Forgotten Muslims

After decades of military rule, new civilian-led government is in power in Myanmar. What will it mean for country's Muslim Rohingya population? TRT World's Duncan Crawford travelled to Rakhine State to find out.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Plywood with the words ''We are Myanmar Rohingya'' is seen in an abandoned boat which carried Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants from Thailand, found off the coast near the city of Kuta Binje, Indonesia's Aceh Province May 20, 2015.

Updated Apr 15, 2016

Hasinah Baegoon sits on the floor, her face consumed by grief, holding a picture of her dead husband Mohammed.

The widowed mother of two says the 33-year-old was murdered by a Buddhist mob in Sittwe, Rakhine state, during a wave of violence between Muslims and Buddhists in 2012.

“It is so difficult to survive,” she says. “My husband passed away four years ago. My children don’t have a father. They have so many difficulties.”

She wipes a tear from her face as she and other family members begin to cry.

They are one of the hundreds of families torn apart by religious and ethnic conflict four years ago.

The Buddhist and Muslim communities in Sittwe had lived together as fairly amicable neighbours for years, but several outbreaks of violence in 2012 changed everything.

Hundreds of people died, mostly Muslim Rohingya, and vast numbers of Rohingya were displaced and forced to live in dusty camps.

Mohammed’s uncle, Shorfi Alam, is one of those who fled his home and now survives in a makeshift hut on the outskirts of Sittwe.

“How can we be friends with Buddhists again? Before we could be friends and go anywhere we want,” he says.

The 67-year-old previously worked with Buddhist colleagues at the local airport, but can’t imagine the two communities living together again.

“Now we are separated. It’s like being in a prison,” he says.

More than one million Rohingya Muslims live in Myanmar, most of them in Rakhine state, and their movements and rights are heavily restricted.

They are denied citizenship, voting rights and have little access to education or healthcare.

The United Nations describes them as a persecuted religious and linguistic minority.

Many have tried to flee the country, paying smugglers to sail them to Malaysia.

“130 of us were stuck on a boat for eight days. The last three days we had no food,” Mohammed says while sipping tea with his friends.

He made it to Malaysia but the authorities there forced him to return to Myanmar. He now spends his days waiting for another opportunity to leave.

“I left because I had no job. I was depressed and couldn’t afford to feed my children,” he says. “I have nothing to do. I do nothing.”

The human trafficking trade has subsided in recent years but the sense of hopelessness in the camps has not.

Most Rohingya say they have lived in Myanmar for generations and can’t understand why they are not accepted by the majority Buddhist society.

The former military-backed government, on the other hand, argued the Rohingya are migrants from the Indian sub-continent.

Many in the camps are now waiting to see whether the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will intervene.

She said little about the issue during last years election and the country’s new civilian-led government is yet to specifically speak about the Rohingya.

“I heard about the election,” 55-year-old Noorjan says while staring at a police checkpoint.

“I am waiting. I would like conditions to get better with the new government.”

Author: Duncan Crawford