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Muslims trapped in ghetto after clashes in Myanmar

Monday - 7/1/2013, 6:08am  ET

In this May 18, 2013 photo, a Rakhine Buddhist woman in a rickshaw looks at a police officer standing guard on a road that goes through the Aung Mingalar area of Sittwe, northwestern Rakhine state, Myanmar. A year after Buddhist-Muslim violence tore through Myanmar, the fury of religious pogroms has hardened into an officially sanctioned sectarian divide, a foray into apartheid-style policies that has turned the Aung Mingalar neighborhood into a prison for Sittwe's Muslims and threatens Myanmar's fragile transition to democracy. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

TIM SULLIVAN
Associated Press

SITTWE, Myanmar (AP) -- From inside the neighborhood that has become their prison, they can look over the walls and fences and into a living city.

Stores are open out there. Sidewalk restaurants are serving bottles of Mandalay beer. There are no barbed-wire roadblocks marking neighborhood boundaries, no armed policemen guarding checkpoints. In the rest of Sittwe, this city of 200,000 people along Myanmar's coast, no one pays a bribe to take a sick baby to the doctor.

But here it's different.

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EDITOR'S NOTE -- This story is part of "Portraits of Change," a yearlong series by The Associated Press examining how the opening of Myanmar after decades of military rule is -- and is not -- changing life in the long-isolated Southeast Asian country.

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Aung Mingalar is just a few square blocks. You can walk it in 10 minutes, stopping only when you come to the end of the road -- 7/8 any road -- and a policeman with an assault rifle waves you back inside, back into a maze of shuttered storefronts, unemployment and boredom.

In the evenings, when bats fly through the twilight, the men gather for prayers at Aung Mingalar's main mosque, the one that wasn't destroyed in last year's violence.

Zahad Tuson is among them. He had spent his life pedaling fares around this state capital, a fraying town, built by British colonials, full of bureaucrats and monsoon-battered concrete buildings. Now his bicycle rickshaw sits at home unused. He hasn't left Aung Mingalar in nearly a year.

"We could go out whenever we wanted!" he says. His voice is a mixture of anger and wonder.

What has caused this place to become a ghetto that no one can leave and few can enter? A basic fact: Aung Mingalar is a Muslim neighborhood.

A year after sectarian violence tore through Myanmar, the fury of religious pogroms has hardened into an officially sanctioned sectarian divide, a foray into apartheid-style policies that has turned Aung Mingalar into a prison for Sittwe's Muslims and that threatens this country's fragile transition to democracy.

Muslims, Tuson says, are not welcome in today's Myanmar.

It's simple, he says: "They want us gone."

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For generations, Aung Mingalar existed as just another tangle of streets and alleys in the heart of Sittwe. It was a Muslim quarter; everybody knew that. But the distinction seldom meant much.

Until suddenly it meant everything.

Last year, violence twice erupted between two ethnic groups in this part of Myanmar: the Rakhine, who are Buddhist, and a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya. While carnage was widespread on both sides of the religious divide, it was Muslims who suffered most, and who continue to suffer badly more than a year later.

Across Rakhine state, more than 200 people were killed, 70 percent of them Muslim. In Sittwe, where Muslims were once almost half the population, five of the six Muslim neighborhoods were destroyed. Over 135,000 people remain homeless in Rakhine state, the vast majority of them Muslims forced into bamboo refugee camps that smell of dust and wood smoke and too many people living too close together.

The troubles here were, at least initially, driven by ethnicity as much as religion. To the Rakhine, who dominate this state, as well as to Myanmar's central government, the Rohingya are here illegally, "Bengalis" whose families slipped across the nearby border from what is now Bangladesh. Historians say Rohingya have been here for centuries, though many did come more recently. Their modern history has been a litany of oppression: the riots of 1942, the mass expulsions of 1978, the citizenship laws of 1982.

What started with the Rohingya has evolved into a broader anti-Muslim movement, helping ignite a series of attacks across Myanmar -- from Meikhtila in the country's center, where Buddhist mobs beat dozens of Muslim students to death in March, to Lashio near the Chinese border, where Buddhist men swarmed through the city burning scores of Muslim-owned stores in May.

The violence is about religion and ethnicity, but also about what happens when decades of military rule begin giving way in the nation once known as Burma, and old political equations are clouded by the complexities of democracy.

In 2010, political change finally came to Myanmar, a profoundly isolated nation long ruled by a series of mysterious generals. Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house imprisonment. National elections were held. Former political prisoners became politicians.

Amid the tumult -- and with the military still wielding immense power behind the scenes -- old animosities and new politicians flourished. Ethnic groups formed powerful regional parties. Buddhist nationalists, with a deep-seated suspicion of Muslims, moved from the fringes into the mainstream.

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