Tuesday 3 May 2016

"Rohingya" ferry victims not Rohingya

Source Myanmartimes, 2 May

Most of the 21 people confirmed drowned when a boat carrying Muslim IDPs sank off Rakhine State last month were ethnic Kamar and not Rohingya as widely reported, according to relatives and survivors who say they are forgotten victims of religious persecution in Myanmar.

Sin Tet Maw camp residents hold a small market, but the journey to get such supplies is often perilous. Photo: Fiona MacGregor / The Myanmar Times

Sin Tet Maw camp residents hold a small market, but the journey to get such supplies is often perilous. Photo: Fiona MacGregor / The Myanmar Times

The loss of life in rough seas on April 19 after the sinking of a boat carrying 40 to 60 people from Sin Tet Maw in Pauktaw township soon hit social media and then international headlines. A US embassy statement expressed deep concern, using the controversial name Rohingya to describe the victims.

That wording prompted protests outside the US embassy in Yangon on April 28 from nationalists who vehemently object to the term and insist that they be called by their official label of "Bengalis".

But a Myanmar Times investigation reveals that most on board were internally displaced persons – IDPs – who originally came from Kyaukphyu and were of Kamar ethnicity. Their families and community are angry that more people, locally and internationally, do not defend their rights and recognise they are different from the Rohingya.

"People should not call us Rohingya. We are Kamar and we have rights," said U Khin Maung Hla, leader at Sin Tet Maw IDP camp.

Of the 21 people known to have died –it remains unclear if some people are still missing – nine were Kamar from his camp, U Khin Maung Hla said. Three were residents of a nearby Muslim village, its leader U Ka Luu said.

The other nine were based in IDP camps around Sittwe and returning there from Sin Tet Maw. According to relatives and neighbours, most if not all of those were also originally from Kyaukphyu. Medical staff at Tet Kae Pyin village near Sittwe, where five survivors and three bodies were taken, confirmed all those they treated were also Kamar.

"I don't know of anyone on board who was Rohingya," U Khin Maung Hla said. With the exception of around 200 people from Myebon, most of the 2272 residents of Sin Tet Maw were Kamar from the Kyaukphyu area further south along the coast, he said.

The various reasons they made the fateful journey that day underscores how government policy of keeping communities in isolated camps – where they receive internationally funded rations – is pushing not only the Rohingya but also other Muslim people into taking major risks to survive and support their families.

Restrictions and human rights violations against the stateless Rohingya minority have been widely condemned by the international community. But Kamar Muslims – who are recognised as an ethnic group in Myanmar and often have citizenship rights – were also caught up in the enforced segregation introduced after communal violence broke out between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine in 2012, displacing over 120,000 people.

Many Kamar who fled the violence lost their ID papers as their houses burned and now remain trapped in camps facing restriction of movement, despite having citizenship or residency rights.

"My three grandchildren drowned when the boat sank, but even though they found their bodies I could not go to see them because of the restrictions," said Ma Khin Hla at Sin Tet Maw camp.

"My daughter and son-in-law were taking them to Thae Chaung because they had fevers and they couldn't get medical care [in the camp]. When I first heard the children had all died I lay awake all night crying and when morning came I tried to throw myself into the sea, but my neighbour stopped me," she said. Her grandchildren were aged 11, seven and one.

Many who died were women and children travelling to get medical care or food. Others were visiting relatives from whom they were separated during the 2012 violence and ended up in different camps.

"My 70-year-old mother drowned coming back from visiting us. It was the first time we had seen her since the violence," said Ma Khin Cho, 40. "I have been going out of my mind. All I can think about is my mother and that it is the first time she made the journey and then the boat sank."

Geography dictates that most travel to and from the coastal camp of Sin Tet Maw is by boat. But residents say government restrictions on IDP movements meant they were forced to take the dangerous sea route to Thae Chaung, a Muslim village outside the state capital, rather than the safer crossing to Sittwe itself, from which they are banned, or to the nearer market town of Min Gan.

"Four boats have sunk in the last three years crossing to Thae Chaung," said Ma Khin Lay Than, 38, a neighbour of victims. "Now they've banned us from travelling to Thae Chaung too since the accident. I have asked the government administrator if we can travel to Min Gan instead. Otherwise I don't know how we will get food."

While camp residents are expected to remain where they are registered, a number of people from Sin Thet Maw have in effect moved to Thae Chaung for work, where there is more opportunity to fish, or to be with relatives and get better access to food or treatment.

However, according to the camp administrator, most who move to camps around Thae Chaung are not allowed to transfer their rations, meaning it is not practical to take their families. So they regularly have to return to Sin Tet Maw to see relations and claim rations. Such passengers were also among the victims.

Others, with very few options of earning a living in an IDP camp, make the dangerous K8000-to-K10,000 crossing to buy produce to sell to those in Sin Tet Maw who cannot travel themselves.

Kamar families and representatives want the international community to recognise they are not Rohingya.

"The Rohingya people spread the news about things on social media, so people hear about them and what happened, and they get a lot of attention. But there are also things happening to the Kamar that people just say happened to the Rohingya instead, and it is very difficult for us to speak out," said U Hla Maung, a resident of Tet Kae Pyin.

Eleven of those on the boat were residents of the original Muslim village of Sin Thet Maw, close to the camp. The village leader there says they identify neither as Rohingya nor Bengali but simply as "Muslim" ethnicity. Three of them died: a woman over 60, a four-year-old boy, and a baby girl of 18 months.

"I saw bodies floating around me. I thought I was going to die," recalls Muhammed, 26, who swam for over an hour to reach shore, holding on to an empty water barrel with an 11-year-old boy clinging to his back.

The Kamar IDPs say deaths would not happen if they were allowed to return to Kyaukphyu. They say the government told them in 2012 they would be safe in Sin Tet Maw so they got in their boats and fled the mayhem. They have not been allowed to go back.

"We just want to go home," said Ma Khin Hla. But dreams of taking her grandchildren back to their family land have now gone forever.

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