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Five Years On, Myanmar’s Rohingya Displacement Camps Are Feeling Ever More Permanent

7 minute read

People live, love and die in Baw Du Pha, an encampment for Rohingya Muslims displaced by conflict in western Myanmar nearly five years ago. They used to think they would someday go home, but many have long since given up on that hope. Life in the camp, however, goes on, albeit much differently than before the unrest.

Maung Tha Zan and Minara Begum were married on a rainy Sunday afternoon within the barbed-wire confines of a sprawling cluster of displacement camps, home to more than 100,000 people who, for the most part, are barred from leaving. Theirs wasn’t an arranged marriage, the 20-year-old groom, clean-shaven in his finest coat and aviator sunglasses, tells TIME, “it was love at first sight.” He hopes they’ll have children someday, Allah willing. “I’m very happy,” Maung Tha Zan says, “but on the other hand I’m also sad because I can’t have my wedding at home.”

The bride waits for him in a vibrantly decorated bamboo hut in the neighboring encampment, wearing a sparkling crimson dress and veil. She’s a very shy 18-year-old, but she speaks to TIME briefly through an interpreter. “I’m very happy because I’m going to marry the one I love,” she says as a generator leased for the occasion sputters to a stop and the string of lights overhead flickers out.

Most days in the camps in western Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state are far less joyous. The one before, for instance. By 10 a.m. on Saturday, the site’s main clinic was crowded with women holding sick, lethargic children, mostly seeking treatment for stomach problems like diarrhea. The frequency of illness is hardly surprising; medical care is scarce — as it is elsewhere in this underdeveloped country of about 51 million people — and sanitary conditions are abysmal. Unclothed kids play in a stream of dirty water close to the camp’s latrines, human waste scattered on the ground nearby.

Read More: Reprisals, Rape, and Children Burned Alive: Burma’s Rohingya Speak of Genocidal Terror

The encampment was established mid-2012, when riots between Buddhists and Muslims broke out in the city of Sittwe, about a 10-minute drive away. The city has since been strictly segregated; the downtown Muslim quarter, Aung Mingalar, is guarded by police armed with assault rifles, and residents cannot leave without permission from authorities. Even seeking treatment at a nearby hospital involves a complex and often extortionate bureaucratic process. Foreigners, when granted permission to enter, are followed and photographed. While it can be difficult to access and assess some areas, it’s plain to see that this is a city sharply divided; Buddhists are free while Muslims are not.

“Sadly, those camps are becoming permanent, and the likelihood of many of the people there returning home has diminished to the impossible,” David Mathieson, an independent analyst and human-rights expert based in Myanmar, tells TIME.

This week the U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva to decide on a wide-ranging resolution on human rights in Myanmar, which until a few years ago was considered a pariah state ruled by a brutal and impenetrable military regime. March 30 will mark one year since a new civilian government assumed office, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who now serves as State Counselor. The U.N. rights envoy for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, delivers her recommendations to the U.N. council on Monday; she will suggest that the body establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the “systematic, structural and institutional discrimination” and “long-standing persecution” of the Rohingya population. Her focus will be on conflicts that erupted in June 2012 — which caused the exodus of people still confined in this Sittwe complex — and on Oct. 9 of last year, when an attack on security forces by suspected Rohingya insurgents triggered a scorched-earth counterterrorism operation by the army that displaced approximately 94,000 people and likely left hundreds dead.

Read More: Burma Is Pursuing ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ of Rohingya Muslims, U.N. Official Says

A draft version of the resolution, penned by the European Union and viewed by a number of human-rights experts in advance, does not mandate a full U.N. commission of inquiry, against the guidance of several rights experts and the rapporteur herself. While there is still time to influence the language of the resolution, which will be handed down on Thursday, there is still some disagreement among the rights community about what an official inquiry would achieve. Given the extreme nature of the October violence and the Myanmar government’s near blanket denial of any wrongdoing by state security forces, experts are advocating for some form of international accountability mechanisms and practical policy measures that would address urgent humanitarian needs. Some stakeholders also appear reluctant to bring criticism upon Suu Kyi’s government, which is viewed as a source of stability and hope for the nation’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.

In Rakhine, journalists and aid workers have been barred from Maungdaw, a township north of the state capital Sittwe, where the latest outbreak of violence took place. But it’s apparent here in Sittwe that little has been done to aid the Rohingya, a stateless religious and ethnic minority sequestered in impoverished ghettos and surrounded by their Rakhine Buddhist neighbors, with whom they once shared social and commercial ties. The Rakhine are the majority in the eponymous state, now said to be the country’s poorest, but are a minority in Myanmar, and as such they have their own long-standing and legitimate grievances with the central government. During military rule, which lasted nearly six grueling and isolated decades, the country’s many minorities suffered under policies favoring the culture and well-being of the majority Bamar ethnic group.

Read More: Something Shocking Is Happening to Burma’s Rohingya People. Take a Look at This Timeline

New political space, coupled with the government’s reluctance to curtail provocateurs, have allowed extremist movements to take root and marginalize minority faiths, particularly Muslims. Myanmar’s most notorious firebrand, the Buddhist monk Wirathu, was just last week disciplined by the national religious authority — which banned him from giving public sermons for a year — for delivering unabashedly anti-Muslim speeches arguably amounting to incitement to violence. Nonetheless, his hardline version of Buddhist nationalism has already gained popularity among the Rakhine population, where support has also galvanized for a local political party that campaigned on a virulently anti-Muslim platform.

The Rohingya are viewed by many as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite living in the country for generations. They are portrayed as dirty, dangerous interlopers, and their presence in western Myanmar has been used to drum up support for strict border security and discriminatory junta-era citizenship criteria linking political rights to racial and religious identity. Without those political rights — most Rohingya lack legal status, and consequently suffer severe restrictions on movement, livelihoods, education and health care — they are losing hope of ever being fully reintegrated into Myanmar society. “We used to be able to leave the village,” says Fatima Katu, 45, as she waits at the clinic for a medic to treat her visibly unwell 3-month-old granddaughter who she says has been suffering from seizures. “Now we can’t.”

— With reporting by Aung Naing Soe / Sittwe

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