Rohingya wary as Myanmar's anti-junta resistance reaches out
A shadow government is breaking taboos in Buddhist-majority Myanmar by welcoming Rohingya into its anti-junta coalition, but many in the long-persecuted Muslim minority are wary after living through decades of discrimination and deadly violence.
Dissident lawmakers from her party dominate a "National Unity Government" in exile, rallying support for the resistance among foreign governments and on international news broadcasts.
Last month they invited the Rohingya to "join hands" to end military rule, promising to repatriate those who fled to Bangladesh after a deadly 2017 military assault on their communities in western Rakhine state.
They also pledged to grant citizenship to the minority, which has long been stateless after decades of discriminatory policies.
The use of the word "Rohingya" was new – wary of sentiment among the mostly Buddhist, ethnic Bamar-majority population, Suu Kyi's government had referred to the community as "Muslims living in Rakhine."
But suspicion lingers among those Rohingya still in Myanmar, where they are widely seen as interlopers from Bangladesh and have been denied citizenship, rights and access to services.
"Giving a promise and then getting support from abroad –- it's like putting bait for fish," said Wai Mar, who has been living in a displacement camp for almost a decade.
Reached by a bumpy, potholed road from the western city of Sittwe, the wooden huts of Thet Kay Pyin camp shelter Rohingya chased or burnt out of their homes during earlier clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
"We're worried we exist only to be human shields or scapegoats," Wai Mar added.
Mother of four San Yee, who struggles to provide for her children even with the remittances her husband sends from Malaysia, agrees. "We can't put all our trust and expectations in them because we've been oppressed for so long."
Despite the overtures, there are no Rohingya representatives among the National Unity Government's current 32-member cabinet.
"We understood that we wouldn't get everything overnight" after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy swept a military-backed party aside in 2015 polls, another resident of the camp, Ko Tun Hla, told journalists.
"But we even didn't get basic human rights, for example, freedom of movement, becoming a citizen, returning to our original homes –- we didn't get any of those."
From the camp they heard reports of a horrific crackdown that sent 700,000 of their kinsfolk across the border to Bangladesh, bringing tales of rape, arson and murder. The Myanmar public was largely unsympathetic to the Rohingya's plight, while activists and journalists reporting on the issues faced vitriolic abuse online.
After the military was accused of genocide, Suu Kyi travelled to The Hague to defend the generals at the UN's top court. Months later they deposed her in a coup.
With anti-junta protesters in majority Bamar cities like Yangon and Mandalay shown no quarter by the military, many in Thet Kay Pyin are fearful.
"As they are killing their own people cruelly and brutally without any hesitation, they would do more to us since they don't care about us," said Tun Hla, another resident of the camp.
A few days after the February coup, soldiers came to Thet Kay Pyin and held a meeting, at first reassuring people and asking them to stay calm, Win Maung said.
Rohingya in Bangladesh: anniversary of the exodus
A year ago, the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar began. Hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Andrea Marshall gives her impressions of the refugee camp Kutupalong in Bangladesh.
Dusty, hot, narrow – and almost as big as Cologne: Rohingya began fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh decades ago. A refugee camp grew up next to the village of Kutupalong. As a result of the mass exodus since August 2017, the number of inhabitants there has risen sharply and further camps have been set up. A total of almost one million people now live there – a city almost the size of Cologne, but without the infrastructure
Football fever in the refugee camp: international flags fly at the entrance to the Kutupalong refugee camp. During the World Cup, the Brazilian, Argentinian and occasionally even the German flag were to be seen. Football fever gripped the camp and the surrounding villages, prompting coverage by citizen reporters. Even in a difficult situation there is joie de vivre
Monsoon floods and landslides: threatened by cyclones in the spring and torrential rains during the monsoon season, life here is mostly about coping with extreme hardship. The programme "Palonger Hotha" by citizen reporters serves partly to disseminate vital information: where can I find bamboo poles to reinforce the accommodation? Which residential areas should be evacuated because of the threat of mudslides?
The aim of the mission is also to strengthen people's identity by taking their everyday experiences seriously. The team of reporters, consisting of young Rohingya and local Bangladeshi people, asked: What is the impact on family life when you have to sit huddled together in a narrow hut for hours on end due to the weather?
Collecting constructive ideas: an important concern of the citizen reporters is to find constructive ideas and inspire the listeners. Reporter Sajeda reported on "hanging vegetable gardens" where beans are planted – a way to improve the food supply despite the limited space. There are also reports featuring household remedies for diseases that accumulate in the rainy season for hygienic reasons
Education instead of "lost generation": how do children remember their way home? What can they do to ensure they donʹt get lost in the huge refugee camp? What are the challenges of the Learning Centres in the camp? For reporter Iqbal, the education of the refugee children is a special concern. There are no real schools for them
Elephant alarm new for Rohingya: the refugee camp is on the route of the Asian elephants. At the beginning of the year there were several deaths after people in the camp tried to chase the animals away. The United Nations organised training courses on the correct handling of elephants, while "Palonger Hotha" reporters covered the initiative
Green hills deforested: some Bangladeshi people from the area have found work in connection with the refugee camp. But they also complain that hundreds of thousands of newly arrived Rohingya have raised food prices in the region. Hills have been deforested because the refugees needed space and firewood. That is why it is important to include the perspective of the locals on citizensʹ radio
Conflict-sensitive approach: the "Palonger Hotha" team with their local trainer Mainul Khan aims to deal responsibly with potentially sensitive issues. Politics is not the subject of the programme. On the other hand, the UNHCR's "Smart Card", which is supposed to facilitate the (voluntary) return of refugees to Myanmar and has been met with suspicion by many, is well reported
Overcoming the trauma: on the anniversary of the beginning of the mass exodus on 25 August, traumatic experiences were shared. People also told us how they cope with their trauma – one step at a time
"But when we asked for our rights, they spoke in a threatening way."
"They said we are Bengali, not Rohingya, and they threatened to shoot us too."
Bengali is a derogatory term for the Rohingya in Myanmar which falsely implies they are recent immigrants from Bangladesh.
Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing – who was head of the armed forces during the 2017 crackdown – has dismissed the word Rohingya as "an imaginary term". For many in Thet Kay Pyin, after almost a decade of limbo, political allegiance comes second.
"If they will give our rights, we will cooperate with the military, NLD or NUG," said Ko Tun Hla. "If our rights will be given, we will co-operate with anyone."
Added San Yee: "I want to go back and live my life as before – that's my hope.
"But when will our expectation and hope come true?" she sighed. "Only after we die?" (AFP)