14 Aug 2012

Inside Burma’s forbidden camps

Exclusive: As members of Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority are forced into camps after violent clashes, the government bans international observers – but Channel 4 News gains access.

There is a part of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in Burma, that people still refer to as Narzi. But if you travel there, as Channel 4 News did recently, you will not find much to look at. In fact this substantial section of town, until recently the bustling home of 10,000, no longer exists.

Instead, you will find a post-apocalyptic world of rubble and burnt-out tree trunks. Personal effects are left scattered on the ground. It seems an incongruous scene in a country that claims to be remaking itself as modern, democratic state. Spend five minutes in Narzi, however, and you start to wonder whether Burma has really changed at all.

Until a month ago, Sittwe was home, in almost even proportions, to two different ethnic groups – the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

It seems an incongruous scene in a country that claims to be remaking itself as modern, democratic state.

There have long been tensions between the two, and the recent violence started with an allegation that three Rohingya men had raped and killed a young Buddhist woman. After the distribution of inflammatory pamphlets, ten Muslim pilgrims were pulled out of a bus and beaten to death. The immediate consequence was chaos. Hate-filled mobs from both communities went on the rampage, burning homes and settling scores.


Narzi and many other communities were lost in the storm. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) estimate that some 100,000 people were displaced in the fighting. The government puts the death toll at 78, a figure human rights groups call “a gross underestimate”.

In an effort to regain control, Burma’s government sent in nine military regiments to Rakhine and implemented a policy of strict separation. In Sittwe, this meant moving 60,000 Rohingya out of the city, and “resettling” them in a series of camps located some distance from the city.

We were told by humanitarian agencies that conditions in these camps were “desperate”, but access is strictly controlled, even to aid workers. Through our contacts however, we managed to reach several of these sites.

The camps were located on soggy pastures, squeezed between paddy fields. When our vehicle stopped, we were surrounded by residents desperate to communicate. The adults looked thin and many of the children were clearly malnourished. I asked a woman with three children how much food she was getting. “We’re living on rice and beans,” she said. “It’s not enough. We haven’t got blankets. When we were in town, we could buy food for the kids, but now we can’t.”


Young men in the camp told me they were dreaming of escape. One young man told me: “I am from Sittwe, but I don’t want to stay (in the camp). I want to go to Bangladesh. We are really suffering here.”

In truth, he has few options. The Bangladeshis do not want the Rohingya – and they have long been treated with indifference and hostility in Burma. The United Nations has for some time called them “one of the most persecuted groups in the world”. They are subjected to restrictions on marriage, employment and education, and they were denied in citizenship in 1982.

We’re living on rice and beans. It’s not enough. We haven’t got blankets. When we were in town, we could buy food for the kids, but now we can’t. Rohingya camp resident

Now they are in the camps, another weighty constraint has been added – they can’t leave. Sittwe is now off-limits, and it seems unlikely its former residents will be able to return.

It is the cause of great anxiety here, for few people here can support themselves. One woman told us: “We have no jobs and our kids can’t work. I use to run a shop in Sittwe, but I came here in the rain with nothing but my bare hands. No money, nothing.”

International NGOs and the United Nations are struggling to provide assistance to the camps, with their efforts hindered by a determined campaign of obstruction by local Buddhists. Aid workers have been threatened and some shipments have been blocked. Local doctors have refused to treat Rohingya and businessmen have declined to provide humanitarian organisations with services like warehouse space – crucial for the storage of food, for example.


When we sought the views of local Buddhists, they told us that the UN and International NGOs engage in favouritism. Much sought after jobs with the agencies “always” go to the Rohingya, we were told. When I put these complaints to one NGO official, he was unapologetic however. “We go to where the need is greatest,” he said.

Burma’s government has been accused by international human rights organisations of doing little to stop the violence after the first clashes took place – and of siding with the local population when troops and military policemen were moved in. The UN Special Rapporteur for Burma, Tomas Quintana, told Channel 4 News that he had received allegations of mass arrests, torture and killings and the hands of the security forces on a recent visit there.

There is much justified excitement with the reforms currently being undertaken by Burma’s new government. But the president, Thein Sein, has offered little on the issue, other than to suggest that a third country may be persuaded to take in the Rohingya. The opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has also said, and done, little. When asked about the situation by one Muslim during the initial period of violence, she replied: “Yes, I understand, but I am not the government. I can’t do anything. Only the government [can] do something.”

There are many Rohingya Muslims – like the former residents of Narzi – who would beg to differ with that.

Photo essay: the Rohingya Project