Hundreds of Buddhist residents in western Burma’s Arakan state took to the streets this week to protest a government plan to resettle Rohingya Muslims, who were uprooted in last year’s ethno-religious clashes, according to local sources.
Residents from around 30 Arakanese villages near Kyaukphyu township — where Buddhist mobs razed several Muslim quarters in October last year, displacing tens of thousands of people — have led vocal protests since Sunday against resettlement projects planned nearby.
It follows a government pledge to start building new houses for displaced Muslims in Pauktaw, Myebon and Kyaukphyu townships by the end of April. Most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) slated for resettlement are currently living in camps prone to flooding, which aid workers say are likely to be devastated at the onset of rainy season.
But residents from Kyaukphyu, which has been predominately populated by Buddhist Arakanese and Kaman Muslims who have Burmese citizenship, say they will not accept the stateless Rohingya minority, viewed as “illegal Bengali immigrants”, to resettle there.
“Local Arakanese people depend on the area for fishing and they won’t accept losing their land,” an Arakanese local told DVB. “The [Rohingya] have never been here throughout time and we will not accept them.”
Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in western Burma have escalated since late May last year, when a local Arakanese woman was gang raped by three Rohingya men, sparking a series of revenge attacks and religious riots.
“Locals in the area also do farming and at times they have to work late in the evening, so it wouldn’t be suitable for [our] women to have the Rohingya here,” added the local, suggesting that the Muslim group is likely to fuel sexual violence in the area.
Many Buddhist extremists have used the woman’s rape to promote anti-Rohingya propaganda and derogatory racial stereotypes about Muslims. Nationalist monks have also been implicated in the growing tide of anti-Muslim violence, which recently spread through central Burma, resulting in at least 44 deaths.
“The [Rohingya] are different from us both racially and religiously, and previously they went through a lot of disputes with us. Therefore, we are protesting against resettling them here,” a local monk from Pyaing Sayt Kay village in Kyaukphyu, who joined the protest, told DVB.
The UN says over 60,000 Muslims living in 13 makeshift camps in Sittwe, Pauktaw and Myebon “will be inundated” at the onset of monsoon season “as they are [living] in former paddy fields or close to the shore and at risk of storm surge”.
A recent government-backed report into the violence also urged authorities to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to IDPs, including secure shelter. But in March this year, the government declined an offer from the Turkish government to build houses for displaced Muslims after local Buddhists in Sittwe, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U and Minbya townships protested the plan.
At least 200 people died and some 140,000 predominately Muslims were displaced in last year’s violence, which has cast a heavy shadow over Burma’s fragile progress towards democratic reform.
The 800,000 Rohingya Muslims, who have been described as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities by the UN, were stripped of citizenship by the former military junta and are denied basic rights, including freedom to travel, marry and access education.