Rakhine ex­o­dus leaves ghost­land be­hind

The Star Malaysia - - World -

ALe ThAN KYAw: Torched vil­lages and un­har­vested paddy fields stretch to the hori­zon in Myan­mar’s vi­o­lence-gut­ted Rakhine state, where a dwin­dling num­ber of Mus­lim 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 paddy fields scarred by the black­ened patches of de­stroyed Ro­hingya vil­lages.

Myan­mar has de­nied com­mit­ting atroc­i­ties, but has heav­ily re­stricted ac­cess to the con­flict zone.

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

While the worst vi­o­lence ap­pears to have sub­sided, those left be­hind say they are trapped – un­able to af­ford the US$50 (RM209) boat fee, but with­out the means to eke out a liv­ing in the re­gion.

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

The young mother of three 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 al­ready,”she said.

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

Aid work­ers es­ti­mate only some 150,000 re­main there, with other com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing fur­ther south.

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

Myan­mar says it has trucked in work­ers from other parts of the state to har­vest 28,320ha of aban­doned rice fields. But some stretches of un­touched fields are al­ready turn­ing brown.

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

Ro Shi Ar­mad, 18, has teamed up with sev­eral other fam­i­lies to build a flimsy-look­ing raft us­ing plas­tic con­tain­ers and bam­boo.

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

“We’re not wor­ried if we die on the way over,” the teenager said. “What else can we do now?”—

Scorched earth: An aerial view of a burned Ro­hingya vil­lage near Maung­daw. — Reuters

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