Myanmar town offers hope for Muslims


  • Myanmar
  • Friday, 22 Nov 2019

Sad reminder: A man riding his motorcycle past the ruins of a mosque in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine state. — AFP

Kyaukphyu: 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 neighbours. 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.

Many fear the enduring 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.

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.

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 the town for two hours at a time under the chaperone of police.

He is bereft at the loss of his old life.

“I feel so sad – I never imagined this could happen,” Htoo Maung says, 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 recognised 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.

Those jobs in the town are now carried out by 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.

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 said. — AFP

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