SITTWE, MYANMAR —
Ayub Khan sits crosslegged on the bamboo floor of his family’s small shelter and gestures at a meter-high stack of simple pharmaceuticals, such as cough syrup and painkillers.
“I set up a small pharmacy and paid a lot to get these medicines here,” the Rohingya father of eight said. “Before the violence we had three pharmacies in downtown Sittwe. We had a good life, but we lost everything. This business is not sufficient to support my family.”
He said his family now suffers from a lack of livelihood opportunities here in Baw Du Pha Camp 1. At the barren site outside of the state capital Sittwe, some 4,800 Rohingya Muslims displaced by the 2012 clashes with Rakhine Buddhists live in cramped, run-down UN shelters.
Most depend on meager earnings from trishaw driving, hauling goods and fishing, while a few run small shops or work with aid organizations that are active here.
NLD, at first, offered hope to the Rohingya Muslims
Until last year, poverty, poor living conditions and restrictions on travel and government services motivated thousands of Rohingya—some 120,000 of whom live in camps—to go on a perilous, often deadly, boat journey to Malaysia to find work.
“Nowadays, only a few are going. The main reason is not the danger of the journey, it’s because the NLD (National League for Democracy) took power. Some people hope that the situation here will improve a little,” said Ayub Khan, adding that departures also dropped because the Thai navy cracked down on the people smuggling boats. “When the NLD won the elections, I also got more hope that we could get equal opportunities,” he said.
His remarks represented some of the cautious optimism found among the Rohingya during interviews in Rakhine early last month after the National League for Democracy assumed office.
Recent NLD measures cause worry among the Rohingya
But these hopes have since been dashed by the controversy over the new government’s request for the U.S. embassy to refrain from using the term Rohingya, and by a recent media report that the government had restarted a contentious citizenship verification process among the Rohingya.
UNHCR’s (the United Nations refugee agency) Myanmar office spokesperson Kasita Rochanakorn confirmed the latter measure with VOA this week, saying, “We have heard from the Myanmar Government that it is resuming the citizenship verification process.” The UN Refugee Agency urged authorities to ensure that the process is “voluntary and consultative, and results in tangible changes in the lives” of those granted citizenship.
With these recent steps, the NLD government continues the stance of its military led predecessor, which rejected demands of the roughly one million stateless Muslims. Most say their families have lived in Rakhine for generations and they want to be recognized as citizens termed Rohingya. The previous government said many migrated illegally from Bangladesh in recent decades and it labelled them “Bengalis”—a view that is being championed by a powerful nationalist Buddhist movement.
Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya community leader from Thet Kel Pyin Village, said that the NLD’s recent decisions had lowered spirits among Muslim communities. “People are very sad now because the NLD did nothing for us yet and they have had no contact with us,” the former lawyer and ex-political prisoner said.
A young Muslim man in Baw Du Pha Camp 1, who asked not be named, said by phone, “People have heard that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi doesn't want to use the word Rohingya—they are now losing their hope for this new government and parliament.”
Rohingya leaders said they were deeply concerned by the resumption of the citizenship verification based on the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, which excludes any mention of the Rohingya.
Ayub Khan, a displaced Rohingya man, sits in his family’s UN shelter from where he sells medicine to residents in Baw Du Pha Camp 1 outside Sittwe. (P. Vrieze for VOA)
Rohingya resist push for citizenship verification
Verification was last conducted in 2014 in remote areas of Rakhine, but stalled when Rohingya refused to cooperate as most could only register under the term Bengali. Those who did receive citizenship were reportedly forced to remain in camps and under restrictions.
Kyaw Hla Aung and several other sources in Rakhine said there has been no citizenship verification activities yet, but he warned these would strain relations with authorities. “No one will accept this—on the survey form there are all sorts of questions that imply we are foreigners,” he said.
Recently, Arakan National Party lawmakers representing the Rakhine Buddhist community urged the NLD to resume the verification process, which they believe would see many stateless Muslims turned down for citizenship.
NLD dismissive concerning Rohingya
When contacted by VOA about the measure, senior NLD member Win Htein dismissed questions on Rakhine as “stupid” and said, “Why do you only ask this question? We have 1,000 problems in our country.” Several calls to party spokesman Zaw Myint Aung went unanswered.
David Mathieson, senior Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a reaction that the NLD leadership had been “very weak on addressing Rakhine” and lacked openness in their deliberations. He added the 1982 Citizenship Law should be overhauled “as it was effectively drafted to exclude the Rohingya.”
Displaced Rohingya men and boys play a Carrom board game in Baw Du Pha Camp 1 outside Sittwe. (P. Vrieze for VOA)
Tensions rise in Sittwe
In another development, Kyaw Hla Aung warned of rising tensions in recent days after the NLD-run Rakhine State government had responded positively to demands by Rakhine community leaders to tighten security and conduct a head count in Aung Mingalar, Sittwe’s only remaining Muslim quarter of around 4,200 residents.
Aung Win, a neighborhood resident, said, “Before marketeers could come to our quarter several times per day, now authorities restrict them to only one time—we are facing great difficulty in getting food, vegetables and medicine. He added, “Many Rohingya had optimism (because of the NLD government), but now the situation seems to be getting worse.”
Ayub Khan, the camp resident, perhaps foresaw a lack of quick progress under the NLD when he warned in early April that the Rohingya’s boat departures could resume. “Even though the boat journey is so dangerous, we will leave again if the situation doesn't improve after the NLD takes power,” he said.