It was my second visit to the town of Sittwe, in Burma’s western Rakhine state this year, and my third visit to the country itself in six months. Prompted as much by what seemed like fate as opportunity, I had journeyed once again to this part of the world in order to write about the plight of the Rohingya ethnic minority, a stateless people whose suffering and increasing proximity to disaster are not well-known in the West.
Returning to the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in which they are confined near Sittwe was never going to be a straightforward experience. For one thing, my previous visit to the area had been emotionally wrenching. I anticipated more of the same this time around. Additionally, by the time of my second visit, access for journalists had been severely restricted by the authorities, which meant the probability of getting in was very low.
The site had become increasingly locked down over the last few months, following claims made by human rights groups that inmates had been subjected to a multitude of abuses by agents of the state- in addition to, and including, a murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing in 2012 that involved crimes against humanity.
That the authorities do not want damaging information to leak out from the camps seemed to be confirmed in recent weeks with the arrest of a Rohingya rights activist whose sole “offence” was to share a contentious image on Facebook. He remains in jail, where, according to sources, he has been brutally tortured.
As it stands, over 140,000 Rohingya remain officially stateless and confined in ghettos throughout Rakhine state, following inter-communal violence that took place last year. The minority, who are demonized by the local Buddhist population and regarded by the national government as illegal immigrants (despite evidence documenting their presence in Burma for centuries,) are increasingly regarded as being on the brink of genocide.
When I finally arrived in the camps (gaining access through methods that I can’t divulge for security reasons,) Burma’s seasonal monsoon was in full swing. Everywhere the conditions, shocking enough last time I saw them, were dramatically worsened by the effects of heavy downpours.
Despite the grim context of my visit, I was greeted with smiles by many. “Assalamu Alaikum”, the universal Muslim greeting of peace, was offered with sincerity, sometimes accompanied by coffee.
Anti-Muslim hate literature. Burma, 2013.
I asked about the conditions. “We have very little food. Malaria is spreading” I was told by one man. It had already claimed the life of an infant in his community in the last week, he informed me.
The matter-of-fact way in which I was told this information reminded me of how, on a previous visit, I had been shown appalling photographs of the dead from last year’s violence, many of whom had been found out by a nearby beach. The Rohingya community had documented them so they could be identified. One of the images depicted a woman nearby a child, the putative mother’s body was bloated and her face almost completely effaced, worn by the tide or some other force. Another showed a pile of dead bodies dumped by the police in a structure not far from the beach, others captured the assorted detritus of human beings strewn around the sand.
I remember seeing these pictures and literally swallowing vomit.The one who presented me with these images was surprised at my response (which was involuntary) – death was normal to her- and so it was for many of her community. Whatever my pretensions of worldliness, it was not to me.
Elsewhere, I met an Imam who told me that a delegation of border control guards, police and ministers had entered the camps earlier in the year and threatened his community.
“If we continued to use the name Rohingya, and did not call ourselves Bengalis on an official form used for the census, they said they would let the local people attack us again like they did last year,” he told me.
His words were particularly striking because they independently corroborated the account of others within the camps who told me about similar incidents months ago, and had even shared a photograph of the “visitors” from the government- which I featured in a Vice article- making identical threats. The international press had reported how officials had refused to identify Rohingyas as anything but “Bengalis” in census forms. All of which seemed to confirm, at the very least, that officials at the state or national government level were participating in some way with the hostile local population to deprive these people of their identity- using intimidation where necessary.
Royhinga as serpents.
While being driven toward another section of the camps, contemplating the implications of what I had just heard, something out the window suddenly caught my attention. A series of familiar-looking block-shaped empty stone buildings flitted past, and after a pause, another appeared, isolated, beside a water pump.
I recognised the solitary structure immediately. It was the location for the corpse piles in that set of images I had been shown previously (some of which featured in censored form in a previous article.) The stony building had housed around a dozen mutilated corpses, dumped there by police in June 2012, who ordered locals to dig a mass grave. Among the dead documented in these images was a minor. In other cases, there were people with their arms tied behind their backs, apparently having been killed execution-style. One man’s face had been clearly cut into pieces and was unrecognizable. Maggots swarmed on their legs.
These photographs, and the incident they documented, were cited by NGOs and the international media as evidence that the police knew about atrocities committed against the Rohingya, but had never investigated them.
I wanted to see the building up close. We parked our car on the wet grass just outside, a few feet away from the small bamboo marker that locals had left as a sign of the location of the mass grave. I cautiously entered the small unit, jumping initially at the discovery of a goat sheltering from the rain. Feeling slightly shaken, recognized the building’s features from those horrible images.
I was about to feel a lot worse.
There seemed to be children’s drawings all over the walls- pictures of the usual playful variety. Smiling or monstrous faces, drawings of imaginary creatures all crudely etched into the dull grey of the stone. The idea that minors had been playing in here, after its use as an impromptu storeroom for murdered Rohingya, seemed an obscenity. I asked my translator, who was a resident, if he knew whether children would come into this place.
“Oh yes” he said, with a nonchalance that amazed me. “It was used as a school-room, but now we have better places for children to go to school elsewhere in the camps.” This statement blew me away. I knew that the Rohingya were initially relocated to the camps in June 2012, after their houses were razed by mobs. The incident I saw in the photographs happened just after the outbreak. It confirmed my suspicion that kids occupied this room after it was used as a morgue.
I filmed the drawings, and left the structure, preferring to be under the monsoon rain than breathe the dusty air in that room. Once outside, to my amazement, with a feeling that I was being taunted by coincidence, I could hear the sound of children playing in one of these “better schools” somewhere nearby.
I returned to Sittwe not long after. Before I left, I wanted to have a look around the town. The main street was much as I recalled it from my last visit, except that one side of the road had been improved with a new concrete layer, which raised it up several inches above the other side. I got the usual suspicious looks. I spotted a guy in the street wearing a T-shirt with a Nazi rally pictured on it, complete with Hitler doing a salute beneath a Swastika banner. He didn’t seem to like me photographing him.
Elsewhere in the city, there were books on sale with Hitler’s face on it, swastika graffiti and the headquarters of one neo-Nazi party called the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP.) Having driven up to the front of the building, I politely asked to get some of their political material. They obliged. I affected thanks and left.
These papers have formed a part of a collection of RNDP “originals” that I have obtained on my two visits. To give you an insight into their line of thinking, I’d like to quote from one of their publications, an issue published just after the most destructive wave of violence in October last year.
“Hitler may be an enemy to the Jews” it reads “but he is a hero to Germans. The.Americans dropped nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why did they do this? Something so inhumane was done to protect the sovereignty and people of a country. When [others] do such inhumane acts act to save their country, they cannot criticize us. We are just behaving likewise.”
The deluded conceits in the message above (including their “interesting” view on German opinions of Hitler) may be bad enough. What’s more terrifying is that the RNDP, with a majority of seats in the state government, are driving policy toward the Rohingya, with the apparent consent of the national government.
Add to this the fact that leader of the opposition, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has consistently failed to speak out for the Rohingya- and recently denied that ethnic cleansing is taking place – and things look very grim, indeed, for the Muslim minority.
Marthin Luther King’s maxim “nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance” comes to mind.
Photographs courtesy of the author