Editor’s Note: Below the author shares her experience, observations and opinion regarding the outbreak of violence in Burma’s Arakan State (also called Rakhine State). The recent fighting has cost the lives of dozens of people and forced tens of thousands to flee.
By Sandi Aung
Recent images of fighting in Burma’s Arakan State, the home of my ancestors, has deeply saddened me. I am struck by the loss of life, the violence and the livelihoods destroyed. But, I am also disturbed by how little the social and economic conditions have changed.
I still remember the faces of people, like the Rakhine and Rohingya, that surrounded me when I was 5 years old living in the state and, later, when I returned to visit as a college student. The conditions captured in the recent images—the boats, villages, buildings and streets — sadly, look the same as when I was there more than 20 years ago.
While growing up in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, I remember going to the neighborhood market with my grandmother and buying grocery items from both Rakhine and Rohingya merchants. The Rohingya were around me in my daily life, serving as hired hands for businesses, selling fish and vegetables at the market and selling snacks and traditional medicines. I would see Rohingya women walking down the streets wearing longyi (traditional woman’s wear in Burma) with scarves around their necks and faces representing their Muslim faith.
As a child, I was always told that Muslims, the Rohingya, were immigrants from Bangladesh. Isolated incidents of violence between individuals from both sides would happen from time to time — sometimes escalating into riots. Growing up, I was indifferent to the problem.
I had a chance to visit Bangladesh back in the early 2000s, and met some Rohingya women who were living outside of camps (I wasn’t able to visit the camps themselves) in utter poverty. They could barely speak Bengali or other tribal dialects used in Bangladesh. Their stories were shared through the hard-work of translation:
left with several children because husband never came back (not knowing what had happened to him), making a living by breaking big cement pieces at the construction sites, selling vegetables or selling any creatures that can be dug out from the mud, to feed themselves.
They said they wanted to go home, pointing toward Arakan state.
I thought to myself that, if they had indeed just crossed the border to live in Arakan state, shouldn’t they be feeling comfortable because they were back at home, safe and sound in a Muslim community? Why go back to the territory dominated by Buddhists who have discriminated against them for centuries?
Differences along ethnic and racial lines are common across the world, but it is wrong and unacceptable for people to use these differences as justification for killing, looting, and other forms of abuses. Even worse, is tolerating such behaviors for years.
So what spurred the recent outbreak of violence?
To me, it was a perfect storm in the making for years — the absence of the rule of law, the lack of civic education and severely limited economic opportunities. All of this has been coupled with the strain of living under a repressive regime for decades. While I appreciate the international community’s concerns, I don’t welcome finger-pointing or blaming one group over another. Yes, individuals from both sides who committed the crimes should be brought to justice. But, labeling the crisis as “Buddhists” vs. “Muslims” or “Rakhine” vs. “Rohingya” simply exacerbates the divide. The leaders of both sides, with access to international media, have called out loudly for their own causes. They are sitting in their comfortable homes while ordinary people were out on the streets fleeing from violence, possibly triggered by their words.
It’s time for everyone to take a step back. It’s too bad that we have left this wound unhealed for this long and what a shame for a country known to have fought so hard for democracy! But, here is a chance: let’s show the international community that we belong to a democratic world by treating everyone with respect regardless of their ethnicity, color, religion or legal status. Let’s keep the debate in the peaceful forums represented by all parties through a democratic process and by keeping an open mind.
Yes, it will be a difficult emotional process for all of us, but it’s the right thing to do and necessary for the country to move forward.
Sandi is a native of Burma and a graduate of University of Yangon and University of Notre Dame. She is an educator and currently lives in Conway, Arkansas.