Ro­hingya left in Rakhine State trapped in limbo

New Straits Times - - News -

YANGON: Torched vil­lages and un­har­vested padi fields stretch to the hori­zon in vi­o­lence-gut­ted Rakhine State, where a dwin­dling num­ber of Ro­hingya re­main trapped in limbo af­ter an army crack­down coursed through the re­gion.

A rare mil­i­tary-or­gan­ised trip for for­eign me­dia by he­li­copter to Maung­daw district, the epi­cen­tre of a cri­sis that ex­ploded in late Au­gust, showed a land­scape de­void of peo­ple, with the emer­ald padi fields scarred by the black­ened patches of de­stroyed Ro­hingya vil­lages.

More than 600,000 Ro­hingya had fled the area over the past two and a half months, run­ning from a scorched-earth mil­i­tary cam­paign against mil­i­tants that the United Na­tions de­scribed as a “text­book ex­am­ple” of eth­nic cleans­ing.

Un­der the watch­ful eye of an army bri­gadier and bor­der po­lice, jour­nal­ists on Sun­day spoke to some of the hun­dreds of Ro­hingya camped at the beach near Ale Than Kyaw vil­lage, hop­ing to flee across treach­er­ous waters to Bangladesh.

While the worst vi­o­lence ap­peared to have sub­sided, those left be­hind said they were trapped — un­able to af­ford the US$50 (RM210) boat fee, but with­out the means to eke out a liv­ing in the re­gion.

“We used to work in farm­ing and fish­ing, but the own­ers don’t want labour,” said Osoma, 25, ex­plain­ing that most Ro­hingya busi­nesses and landown­ers had joined the ex­o­dus.

The mother of three, car­ry­ing a month-old baby in her arms, said her fam­ily was not cer­tain if life in Bangladesh’s sprawl­ing refugee camps would be bet­ter.

“But, we want to stay with the oth­ers who are there.”

Rakhine’s north­ern­most Maung­daw district was once home to three quar­ters of Myan­mar’s 1.1 mil­lion-strong Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures.

Aid work­ers es­ti­mated that only 150,000 re­main there, with other com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing south.

With no one left to work Maung­daw’s fields, huge swathes of ver­dant farm­land were at risk of rot­ting, a cruel irony given the se­vere food short­ages in aid-de­pen­dent Rakhine and the refugee camps across the bor­der.

Myan­mar said it had trucked in work­ers from other parts of the state to har­vest more than 28,000ha of aban­doned padi fields. But some stretches had started to turn brown in the moun­tain-stud­ded re­gion.

The me­dia trip to Rakhine came amid mount­ing global pres­sure on Myan­mar over its han­dling of the cri­sis, with United States Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son set to visit the cap­i­tal today. He is ex­pected to take a firm tone with the coun­try’s pow­er­ful mil­i­tary lead­ers, whom he deemed “re­spon­si­ble” for the cri­sis.

On the shores of Rakhine, some des­per­ate Ro­hingya were tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands.

Ro Shi Ar­mad, 18, had teamed up with oth­ers to build a flimsy-look­ing raft us­ing plas­tic con­tain­ers and bam­boo.

Scores of refugees had drowned in re­cent months while at­tempt­ing the per­ilous jour­ney to Bangladesh.

“We’re not wor­ried if we die on the way over.” AFP

EPA PIC

An ae­rial view of a burnt Ro­hingya vil­lage near Maung­saw town in Rakhine State.

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