Rohingya refugees newly displaced by the latest violence seek shelter on Sintat Hmaw island of Rakhine State
The island of Pauktaw, one hour’s boat trip from the Rakhine provincial capital of Sittwe, had nearly 3,000 Rohingyas living peacefully side by side with their Rakhine neighbors until just a few weeks ago. Now the two Rohingya villages and the local mosque have been burned to the ground, and there are no signs of Rohingya Muslims anymore. A Rakhine Buddhist villager on the island says the Rohingyas burned down their own houses and ran away. But on the nearby island of Sintat Hmaw, Rohingyas who fled from Pauktaw tell a different story. “We were ordered by the police to leave our homes, which were burned down by Rakhine mobs,” said one villager, Kyaw Hla. “We escaped by fishing boat to Sintat Hmaw.” Nearly 10,000 newly displaced Rohingyas have taken shelter there, where they are forbidden by the navy from going to Sittwe or to other islands. This beautiful region has turned into a bitter war zone, since fighting broke out in May between the Buddhist Rakhine majority and the Rohingya Muslim minorities, who are widely viewed as illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh though they have lived here for generations. After the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl, a group of Buddhists allegedly attacked and killed 10 Rohingya men who were reportedly unconnected to the girl’s death. Three Muslim men were later arrested for the rape and murder. Sectarian violence between the two communities has continued, spiking in June and then resurfacing a couple of weeks ago, with nearly 200 people killed and more than 100,000 displaced. The clashes have cost lives and properties on both sides, but most of the victims are Muslims now displaced across Rakhine State, struggling with hunger and homelessness, and with little hope of returning to their ancestral homes. A week ago, local authorities handed out 100 bags of rice to Rohingyas living on Sintat Hmaw, but there is not enough. “No more meat. No more cooking oil. We have used up all our food for the victims,” said one villager on the predominantly Rohingya island, which until two weeks ago had hundreds of Rakhine villagers, who have now fled to nearby Buddhist majority islands and towns for fear of clashes. Asked if she hopes she will be able to go home soon, a Rohingya woman who fled from the port town of Kyaukphyu said the government needs to ensure their protection before people return to their own villages. Win Myaing, a local government spokesman, said the authorities are considering new residential zones in Rakhine State for displaced Rohingyas. He added that security forces have been increased throughout the new conflict zones to prevent another round of clashes. But the Rohingyas fear they will again be targets of violence. “Without real rule of law, we live in a state of constant fear of attack,” said Aung Hla, a Rohingya community leader in the neighborhood of Aung Mingalar, the only place in Sittwe where the Rohingyas were not forced to flee their homes. The Rohingyas there are now confined to this neighborhood, guarded by soldiers. They risk attacks from Rakhine Buddhists if they venture to buy food in the town’s market. “We are beaten if we leave here. Even soldiers who accompanied us to the market were attacked by Rakhines,” said Aung Hla. “We have been living here without enough food, without enough medical healthcare and with no jobs at all. Our life is hopeless.” Related reports Anti-Rohingya campaign 'broadens targets' Why doesn't Aung San Suu Kyi speak up for the Rohingya?