Heavy rain and high hopes as commission visits IDP camps
The Rakhine State advisory commission headed by Kofi Annan visited residents in a Muslim ghetto, a Rakhine IDP camp and a Muslim IDP camp yesterday to hear local concerns and explain the newly formed body’s objectives.
TORRENTIAL rain did not deter a crowd of well over 100 people turning out to witness Kofi Annan’s arrival in the Muslim ghetto of Aung Mingalar yesterday.
In contrast to the protests that had greeted Mr Annan’s arrival in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe the day before, residents of Aung Minglar welcomed the chair of the newly formed Rakhine advisory commission. Residents of the ghetto said they hope the body will help foster peace between Buddhists and Muslims in the state.
The former UN secretary general and the eight other commission members were on a two-day visit to Sittwe to meet with community members and discuss local concerns, as well as to share the commission’s aims.
They also visited an ethnic Rakhine IDP village yesterday, before going on to speak to IDPs in one of the state’s notorious camps where Muslim Rohingya have been interred in grim conditions since communal violence broke out between the two communities in 2012. More than 120,000 remain displaced.
Residents of Aung Mingalar, who belong to the Muslim minority who call themselves Rohingya but are described as “Bengalis” by most in Myanmar, have been confined to the ghetto since 2012. Like most Rohingya, they are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions on movement and access to medical care.
U Aung Thein, 63, a community leader in Aung Mingalar, who had also met with Mr Annan as part of an official Muslim delegation the day before, said, “For now I have no idea what Mr Kofi Annan can do, but I hope the commission and the government can solve the problem.”
Some controversy has surrounded concerns that the commission does not include anyone who identifies as Rohingya. However, U Aung Thein said he was satisfied that there were Muslim representatives on the commission and added, “I trust them, Rakhine or Muslim, as long as they want peace.”
And in response to concerns voiced by ethnic Rakhine protestors that “foreigners” such as Mr Annan could not understand local feelings, U Aung Thein said, “I am not sure what Kofi Annan knows about our problems, but if he doesn’t understand we can talk to him.”
Scores of residents squeezed into a small hall at the madrasa in Aung Mingalar to meet Mr Annan and the other delegates in talks lasting around 20 minutes. Police politely ushered journalists out and Muslim residents in to make sure as many locals as possible could fit into the hall. Dozens of others waited outside in the rain.
Ma Mar Lar Shwe, a 35-year-old noodle seller, said, “It is not good for us living here now, but we are hopeful Kofi Annan can help, and I feel happy today because he is here.”
She added that the fact residents were not allowed to leave the ghetto meant that they couldn’t get proper jobs, and said women who were pregnant suffered because they were not allowed to leave to give birth, though there were no nurses in the quarter.
The commission delegates next proceeded to Mingan village, where ethnic Rakhine IDPs live in government-provided houses. A small number of protestors shouted out anti-commission slogans as the convoy passed through central Sittwe.
However, some villagers also welcomed the commission. Many in the ethnic Rakhine community have voiced complaints that international support has focused on the Muslim population, leading to the allegations of “foreign bias” and the protests against Mr Annan as commission chair.
But Ma Oo Than Kyi, 43, and her neighbour Ma Win Ma Thin, 28, sought to distance themselves from the protesters.
“They are not the same as us. We do not think like that. We believe Mr Kofi Annan can help,” said Ma Oo Than Kyi.
However, both Rakhine women, who lost all their belongings and livelihoods in the 2012 violence, were insistent the two communities could not mix again.
“Maybe if we live in different areas there will be no more fighting,” said Ma Win Ma Thin, adding the main issue she wanted the commission to address was their poverty and lack of job opportunities.
“We thank the government for giving us this house, but we don’t have any income,” she said.
In his introductory speech in Sittwe the day before, Mr Annan had stressed the relationship between “peace and prosperity”.
At the Thet Kay Pyin IDP camp, hundreds of Rohingya awaited Mr Annan’s arrival, many having travelled from other camps in the hope of highlighting their concerns to the commission.
“Our message is that the first, most important thing for us is our rights and the second is our [Rohingya] name,” said Abu Rakhim, who lives in Thet Kay Pyin.
Over 100 camp residents crowded into a roofed-off area where commission members gathered, while another crowd amassed outside the meeting spot.
“We hope the commission is going to identify the problems between the communities and take action. The first thing Mr Annan should do is something to prove to people they can believe him,” said U La Mi, 62, a community leader who lives in the Dar Baing IDP village.
“I came to give a message from more than 1 million people,” said Sadak, a 21-year-old IDP also living in Dar Baing.
“I want to say to Mr Kofi Annan, please bring peace for our community and give our community a voice. We’ve been living in these detention centres like animals since 2012. The most important thing is to give attention to us and give us a voice, for Mr Kofi Annan to show he is behind us.”
PHOTO: AUNG MYIN YE ZAW
Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan meets with people living in Sittwe’s Aung Mingalar quarter yesterday.