Myanmar town offers glimmer of hope for Muslims enduring ‘apartheid’

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This photo taken on October 3, 2019 shows people walking in Kyauktalone camp in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine state, where Muslim residents have been forced to live for seven years after the inter-communal unrest tore apart the town. (AFP / Ye Aung Thu)
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This photo taken on October 4, 2019 shows a view of Kyauktalone camp in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine state, where Muslim residents have been forced to live for seven years after the inter-communal unrest tore apart the town. Some 130,000 Muslims, the vast majority Rohingya, have been languishing in various camps in central Rakhine since the violence between Buddhist and Muslims swept through the region in 2012, without decent access to education, healthcare and work. - TO GO WITH Myanmar-Rakhine-Islam-Rohingya-unrest,FEATURE by Richard Sargent / AFP / Ye Aung THU / TO GO WITH Myanmar-Rakhine-Islam-Rohingya-unrest,FEATURE by Richard Sargent
Updated 23 November 2019

Myanmar town offers glimmer of hope for Muslims enduring ‘apartheid’

  • Buddhist-Muslim unrest in 2012 swept through swathes of western Myanmar, resulting in more than 200 deaths and Rohingya villages razed
  • In the ensuing government-backed purge, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine were driven out to neighboring Bangladesh

KYAUKPHYU, Myanmar: Htoo Maung sits down to lunch, sharing a bowl of traditional noodle soup with old friends, an ordinary act that has become extraordinary in Myanmar’s Rakhine state — because he is Muslim, and they are Buddhist.
They used to live side by side as neighbors.
But now he can only visit them under a strict curfew enforced by armed guards before he must return to the muddy camp where he and the rest of Kyaukphyu town’s Muslims have been confined for seven years.
In 2012 inter-communal unrest swept through swathes of western Myanmar, including Htoo Maung’s home town, after allegations spread that a Buddhist woman had been raped by Muslim men.
Mobs ransacked homes and police rounded up Muslims for their “own safety” to sites that would later be turned into camps.
More than 200 died, tens of thousands were displaced and the stage was set for the bloody purge of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine five years later.
Many fear the enduring deep sectarian suspicions and religious divisions are irrevocable and authorities claim any attempt to reintegrate communities could trigger new unrest.
But some Muslims in Kyaukphyu have managed to maintain a cautious relationship with Buddhist friends, raising hopes that old communal bonds may not be completely severed.
“The people from the town didn’t attack us,” Htoo Maung says, suggesting outsiders were to blame.

Students are seen in Kyauktalone camp in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine state, where Muslim residents have been forced to live for seven years after the inter-communal unrest tore apart the town. (AFP / Ye Aung Thu)

Kyaukphyu ethnic Rakhine MP Kyaw Than insists his town is ready to welcome the Muslims back, but can only do so with the government’s green light.
“Everyone in the camp is a citizen,” he says, decrying the “lack of humanity” shown to the town’s Muslim population.
But there is no forgetting the new social order.
Htoo Maung, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, and the other Muslims from the camp are only permitted to visit town for two hours at a time under the chaperone of weapon-wielding police.
He is bereft at the loss of his old life.
“I feel so sad — I never imagined this could happen.” Htoo Maung tells AFP, as he looks at the overgrown patch of land where his house once stood.
He adds: “We are not illegal.”
He and many others in the camp are Kaman Muslims. Unlike the Rohingya, they are an officially recognized minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
But their status did little to help them as the unrest spread.
Before the attacks, some were teachers, lawyers and judges, while others fished or drove ox carts transporting cargo and people between the shore and the wooden boats that moor off the working beach.
Those jobs in the town are now exclusively carried out by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who have also taken over any still-intact homes of Muslims.
Saw Pu Chay leads a women’s rights group in a downtown building that served as a mosque before 2012.
Cavities in the wall where Islamic symbols were gouged out stand testament to the 2012 violence.

This photo taken on October 2, 2019 shows people riding past the town's clock tower in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine state, where Muslim residents have been forced to live in a camp for seven years in a camp after the inter-communal unrest tore apart the town. (AFP / Ye Aung Thu)

The 53-year-old defends using the building, saying local Muslim friends sometimes stop by to see her on their way from the camp to the market.
“I know them well as we’ve lived alongside them since we were young. They’ve lived here for generations,” she says, while making it clear she considers the Rohingya further north as unwelcome outsiders.
Kyaukphyu camp residents are desperate for a chance to rebuild their lives.
“It’s just like a prison,” says camp leader Phyu Chay of his current ‘home’, adding: “There are no jobs and we struggle to get hold of proper medication.”
Some 130,000 Muslims, the vast majority Rohingya, are languishing in various camps in central Rakhine.
Hundreds of thousands more fare little better, trapped in villages with virtually no freedom of movement.
Amnesty International brands the “institutionalized system of segregation and discrimination” so severe it constitutes “apartheid.”
They continue to lack access to education, health care and work — a situation Amnesty’s Laura Haigh describes as both “unacceptable and criminal.”
Many have been forced to accept a controversial National Verification Card (NVC), a limbo status offering few rights until holders “prove” their claim to full citizenship.
Rights groups condemn the NVC as a discriminatory tool foisted on many Muslims — particularly Rohingya — who they say should already be treated as full citizens.
Few have successfully negotiated the convoluted bureaucratic path to obtain full ID.
Authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
Under international pressure, the government has announced it will close all the camps.
But in the current plan, those “freed” would not be allowed to return to their former homes.
Instead they would be resettled in new accommodation close to the former camps with continuing heavy restrictions on movement.
The UN, NGOs and rights groups fear the strategy simply “risks entrenching segregation” and urge the government to grant Rakhine’s Muslims the full freedoms they deserve.
Phyu Chay says: “All our human rights have been violated.”

As coronavirus spreads, Chinese president admits his country facing ‘grave situation’

Updated 4 min 44 sec ago

As coronavirus spreads, Chinese president admits his country facing ‘grave situation’

  • According to state broadcaster, virus death toll in China has reached 56
  • Experts question the effectiveness of airport screenings of passengers from China

SHANGHAI: More than 2,000 people have been infected with a new coronavirus, the vast majority in China where 56 people have died from it, and the United States said it will evacuate some of its citizens from the city at the center of the outbreak.
President Xi Jinping said during a politburo meeting on Saturday that China was facing a “grave situation,” as health authorities around the world scrambled to prevent a pandemic.
The virus, believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife, has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Australia, France, and Canada.
On Sunday, China announced a nationwide ban on the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants, and e-commerce platforms. Wild and often poached animals packed together in Chinese markets are blamed as incubators for viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.
Snakes, peacocks, crocodiles and other species can also be found for sale via Taobao, an e-commerce website run by Alibaba.
The US State Department said it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the United States and will offer a limited number of seats to private US citizens on a Jan. 28 flight to San Francisco.
The World Health Organization this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can continue to contain the epidemic.
On Sunday, China confirmed 1,975 cases of patients infected with the new coronavirus as of Jan. 25, while the death toll from the virus has risen to 56, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The outbreak has prompted widening curbs on movements within China, with Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on virtual lockdown, with transports links all-but severed except for emergency vehicles.
Health authorities in Beijing urged people not to shake hands but instead salute using a traditional cupped-hand gesture. The advice was sent in a text message that went out to mobile phone users in the city on Sunday morning.
Cancellation and mistrust
The outbreak has overshadowed the start of the Lunar New Year, which is typically a festive time of year, with public events canceled and many tourist sites shut. Many people on social media have been calling for the week-long holiday to be extended to help prevent further spread of the virus.
WeChat, China’s ubiquitous messaging app, warned that it could ban accounts spreading rumors.
China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after a cover-up of the spread of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002/2003 eroded public trust, but officials in Wuhan have been criticized for their handling of the current outbreak.
“People in my hometown all suspect the real infected patients' number given by authorities,” said Violet Li, who lives in the Wuhan district where the seafood market is located.
“I go out with a mask twice a day to walk the dog — that’s the only outdoor activity,” she told Reuters by text message.
Many cinemas across China are also closed with major film premieres postponed, slashing revenues. Theaters in the country took in just 1.81 million yuan ($262,167) from tickets on Saturday, a tiny fraction of the 1.46 billion yuan on the Lunar New Year Day in 2019, according to data from movie-ticketing company Maoyan.
Cruise operators including Royal Caribbean Cruises, Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises, and Astro Ocean Cruises said that they canceled a combined 12 cruises that had been scheduled to embark from Chinese ports before February 2.
Virus spreading outside China
On Saturday, Hong Kong declared a virus emergency, scrapped celebrations and restricted links to mainland China.
Hong Kong Disneyland and the city’s Ocean Park theme park were closed on Sunday. Shanghai Disneyland, which expected 100,000 visitors daily through the Lunar New Year holidays, has already closed.
In Hong Kong, with five confirmed cases, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said on Saturday that flights and high-speed rail trips between the city and Wuhan will be halted. Schools in Hong Kong that are currently on Lunar New Year holidays will remain closed until Feb. 17.
On Saturday, Canada declared the first “presumptive” confirmed case of the virus in a resident who had returned from Wuhan. The patient, a male in his 50s, arrived in Toronto on Jan. 22 and was hospitalized the next day after developing symptoms of respiratory illness, officials said.
Australia confirmed its first four cases on Saturday, Malaysia confirmed four and France reported Europe’s first cases on Friday.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are still many unknowns surrounding it, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
There are fears transmission could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel during the holiday, although many have canceled their plans and airlines and railways in China are providing full refunds for tickets.
Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of such screenings.
In an illustration of how such efforts could miss cases, doctors at a Paris hospital said two of the three Chinese nationals in France who have been diagnosed with the virus had arrived in the country without showing any symptoms.
A report by infectious disease specialists at Imperial College, London on Saturday said the epidemic “represents a clear and ongoing global health threat,” adding: “It is uncertain at the current time whether it is possible to contain the continuing epidemic within China.”