SITTWE, Myanmar – There are no Muslim faithful in most of this crumbling town’s main mosques anymore, no Muslim students at its university.
They’re gone from the market, missing from the port, too terrified to walk on just about any street downtown.
Three-and-a-half months after some of the bloodiest clashes in a generation between Myanmar’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslims known as Rohingya left the western town of Sittwe in flames, nobody is quite sure when – or even if – the Rohingya will be allowed to resume the lives they once lived here.
The conflict has fundamentally altered the demographic landscape of this coastal state capital, giving way to a disturbing policy of government-backed segregation that contrasts starkly with the democratic reforms Myanmar’s leadership has promised the world since half a century of military rule ended last year.
Although the Rakhine can move freely, about 75,000 Rohingya have effectively been confined to a series of rural displaced camps outside Sittwe and a single downtown district they dare not leave for fear of being attacked.
For the town’s Muslim population, it’s a life of exclusion that’s separate and anything but equal.
We’re living like prisoners here, said Thant Sin, a Rohingya shopkeeper who has been holed up since June in the last Rohingya-dominated quarter of central Sittwe that wasn’t burned down.
Too afraid to leave, the 47-year-old cannot work anyway. The blue wooden doors of his shuttered pharmaceutical stall sit abandoned inside the city’s main market – a place only Rakhine are now allowed to enter.
The crisis in western Myanmar goes back decades and is rooted in a highly controversial dispute over where the region’s Muslim inhabitants are really from. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated here as foreigners – intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
The U.N. estimates their number at 800,000. But the government does not count them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and so – like Bangladesh – denies them citizenship. Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a distinct Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.
In late May, tensions boiled over after the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman, allegedly by three Rohingya, in a town south of Sittwe. By mid-June, skirmishes between rival mobs carrying swords, spears and iron rods erupted across the region. Conservative estimates put the death toll at around 100 statewide, with 5,000 homes burned along with dozens of mosques and monasteries.
Sittwe suffered more damage than most, and today blackened tracts of rubble-strewn land filled with knotted tree stumps are scattered everywhere. The largest, called Narzi, was home to 10,000 Muslims.
Human Rights Watch accused security forces of colluding with Rakhine mobs at the height of the mayhem, opening fire on Rohingya even as they struggled to douse the flames of their burning homes.
Speaking to a delegation of visiting American diplomats in September, Border Affairs Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Htay described Sittwe’s new status quo. Drawing his finger across a city map, he said there are now lines that cannot be crossed by either side, or else there will be aggression ... there will be disputes.
It’s not what we want, he added with a polite smile. But this is the reality we face.
While police and soldiers are protecting mosques and guarding Rohingya in camps, there is much they cannot control.
One group of 300 local Buddhist leaders, for example, issued pamphlets urging the Rakhine not to do business with the Rohingya or even talk to them.
It is the only way, they say, to avert violence.
Inside Sittwe’s once mixed municipal hospital, a separate ward has been established to serve Muslim patients only; on a recent day, it was filled with just four patients whose families said they could only get there with police escorts.
At the town’s university, only Rakhine now attend. And at the main market, plastic identity cards are needed to enter: pink for shopkeepers, yellow for customers, none for Rohingya.
The crisis has posed one of the most serious challenges yet to Thein Sein’s nascent government, which declared a state of emergency and warned the unrest could threaten the country’s nascent transition toward democracy if it spread.
Although the clashes have been contained and an independent commission has been appointed to study the conflict and recommend solutions, the government has shown little political will to go further.
The Rohingya are a deeply unpopular cause in Myanmar, where even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former political prisoners imprisoned by the army have failed to speak out on their behalf. In July, Thein Sein himself suggested the Rohingya should be sent to any other country willing to take them.
In that context, we’re seeing them segregated into squalid camps, fleeing the country, and in some cases being rounded up and imprisoned, said Matthew Smith, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who authored a recent report for the New York-based group on the latest unrest.
In places like Sittwe, there is a risk of permanent segregation, Smith said. None of this bodes well for the prospects of a multiethnic democracy.