Myanmar tapped into communal divide, fear, paved way for violence in Rakhine

Rohingya militants believe Hindus collaborated with country’s rulers

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: September 22, 2017 7:48 am
Myanmar, Rohingya crises, Rohingya refugees, Rakhine state, Myanmar communal violence, Myanmar Hindu Muslim divide, Indian Express The crossing of the Naaf at Phulardel village. (Express Photo/Praveen Swami)

The men reached Fakir Bazaar early in the morning, their leaders armed with guns, their faces covered with black masks, others just carrying machetes, marching in single file along a jungle path. The Hindus in the village, a community of just over a hundred living among over 2,000 Rohingya, were herded into the village square, tied together together like cattle, and marched into the forests.

Anika Dhar, one of eight witnesses, all women spared to be kept as wives or slaves, says she tried not to watch, but couldn’t turn away when it was her husband’s turn to be killed. “I started crying. Then, one of the men began beating me with a stick, and I was silent again.”

Her story, one which is shared by both perpetrators and victims, helps understand how the road to war in Rakhine was paved with communal hate.

That Friday morning, August 25, Rakhine had been plunged into war, with the jihadist group Harakah al-Yaqin staging multiple attacks across the region. The men had overrun a police post nearby, and then retreated in search of supplies and shelter.

Read | In the shadow of brutal crackdown, signs of rising anger, Rakhine jihad

Fakir Bazaar’s Hindus, al-Yaqin believed, were collaborators with the government, passing information on the jihadist group’s movements and plans. Now living in Kutupalong’s Hindupara, Anika Dhar says she sees the men who killed her husband every time she walks to the main road: like her, they are refugees, living just down the road in a wretched refugee camp that is home to tens of thousands of Rohingya.

Shamshul Alam lost four members of his family when the Myanmar Army set fire to homes in his village, and fired on villagers as they fled towards the forest. For days afterwards, he hid out in the forests, slowly making his way towards Bangladesh. “The army said we had been feeding and sheltering the al-Yaqin group which attacked the police stations at Boli Bazaar, Hathipara and Nakphura,” he recalls. “They wanted vengeance.”

Fakir Bazaar, where Anika Dhar’s husband was killed, was also Alam’s village. His wife, Nurul Safa, was one of the women with whom Dhar fled into Bangladesh. And he was one of the men in the group who executed her husband.
“I was with al-Yaqin when they attacked Boli Bazaar,” he says, “but not because I wanted to be.”

“They had come to the village and asked all the men to join them a few days before the attack. We did not have much of a choice, since they had guns.”

The killing of Hindus, Alam insists, was not an event he participated in, leaving the killing to others. “I was very sad, but I remained quiet,” he says. “Al-Yaqin kills anyone who speaks against it.”

Hatred for Myanmar’s army runs deep in the refugee camps, but more than a few voice opposition to al-Yaqin. Al-Yaqin cadre approached Kat Pa Kaung’s village committee to seek men for their organisation three weeks before the attacks. The village committee, local residents say, flatly refused.

Following the strikes, Alam says, his family hid out in the forests for a week, before making his way to the Naaf river, and buying passage across it. “Everything we had has been lost,” he says. “I can’t even afford to give this newborn a burial if he does not survive.”

Ever since communal violence tore apart Rakhine’s social fabric in 2012, tensions between Hindus and Rohingya have built up, helped along by government policies. Hindus were given identity cards which allowed them to travel freely through Myanmar. The cards identified them as being of Indian descent, even though they shared the language and ethnicity of the Rohingya. The Rohingya, however, continued to hold red identity cards, confining them to Rakhine.

The Hindus, thus, had access to opportunities — higher education, business and passports to travel abroad — that the Rohingya were denied. The cards pushed Hindus closer to the state and its military, and fuelled resentment among their neighbours.

Also read | Rohingya crisis: Centre, NHRC on opposite sides of refugee question

There is no exact count of how many Hindus have been killed in the Rakhine violence: Indian diplomatic sources estimate about 80 deaths. Myanmar’s government has pointed to a string of executions of Mro tribals and other minorities by jihadists in the weeks before the August 25 attacks, in an evident effort to flush out groups that might be hostile to al-Yaqin’s plans.

Fear, though, was deep even before the killings. For example, more than 500 Hindu villagers fled Sikonchhori for Bangladesh immediately after the August 25 attacks, even though al-Yaqin did not kill minorities there. Even as al-Yaqin cadre tried to turn the village into a base for operations, the Hindus chose to head into the hills, fearing a massacre. “People from al-Yaqin would ask us, what have you done to be given this special treatment by the government,” Bijoy Ram recalls. “They thought we were all spies.”

The women from Fakir Bazaar themselves escaped with Muslim refugees. “We were held in a cowshed in Bodipara while the al-Yaqin people went to fight again,” says survivor Bina Dhar, a mother of two. “Then, firing broke out, and there were helicopters overhead. The villagers decided to run into the hills, and we left with them. They brought us across the border.”

Faith was not always the main faultline in the Arakan, the region from which Rakhine state takes its names. Home to Muslims since at least the 1430s, they and the Buddhist communities around them succeeded in coexisting even when anti-migrant riots rocked cities like Yangon in 1926 and 1938. Even though British census reports show that the Arakan’s Muslim population rose from in 58,255 in 1871 to 178,647 in 1911, there is nothing to suggest this migration generated significant tensions.

Part of the reason for the peace might have been Arakan’s fierce regional identity, rooted in wars against Burma’s rulers. In 1784, the Arakan had been conquered by the Burmese, who transported much of its population.

Francis Buchanan, an East India Company official writing in 1799, recorded this account of the 1784 conquest of Arakan: he was told “the Burmans put 40,000 men to death: that wherever they found a pretty woman, they took her after killing the husband; and the young girls they took without any consideration.”

Tensions, scholar Aye Win has recorded, built up between the Arakan’s Muslims and Buddhists in the build-up to World War II. The background was the zamindari system, introduced by colonial Britain, which leased land once held by the Arakanese tribes to farmers from Bengal’s Chittagong region.

Ethnic violence exploded as the British retreated from the region under Japanese assault in 1942-1943, and Arakanese Buddhists staged attacks against the landlords. In retaliation, the British-armed “V-Force”, made up of Arakan Muslims, set up to harry the Japanese, often burned down monasteries and pagodas, and massacred Buddhist civilians.

From 1946 to independence in 1948, the Arakan descended into chaos. Even as Arakan’s Buddhists fought the new nation-state, seeking independence, Zafar Kawal led a self-described mujahideen force, hoping to carve out a Muslim enclave, or “national home”.

General U Ne Win’s military regime sought to capitalise on these strains. Faced with economic stagnation, student protest and strains within the army, he sought to rally Myanmar’s majority around its Buddhist faith. In 1974, a law stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship; in 1982, another law denied them any hope of gaining citizenship, restricting it to 135 officially identified “national races”.

The toxic legacy of these laws didn’t seep into one small home on the banks of the Naaf. Two days before fighting broke out in Rakhine, Mohammad Miyan left his home in Rohingyapara, near Mungdaw, and slipped across the border into Bangladesh. He hoped to track down fifteen buffaloes that had gone missing from his herd, likely stolen by cattle traders for sale in the markets of Shah Porir Dwip. Each was worth Taka 70,000: the cattle were Miyan’s life’s savings, from catching crab in the Naaf estuary.

Kya Ning Chowdhury, the head of Chowdhurypara, one of a handful of Rakhine Buddhist villages in Bangladesh, bought crab from Miyan for decades, laying the foundation for a relationship which has endured for decades. Miyan’s family, he says, are hiding out in the hills, ever since Rohingyapara was burned down by the army. Eight local residents, he says, were shot dead in reprisals after the August 25 attacks, but his own family is safe, for now.

Chowdhury, who counts a Myanmar Army Brigadier-General among his relatives, has been trying to make arrangements to have the family brought back across the Naaf.

There are few stories like these, though: The most enduring legacy of the Rakhine violence may be that there are fewer still.

(Part 3: Why Bangladesh and the region fear the despair, anger in overcrowded camps)

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