Sittwe, Myanmar – The 400-odd Maramargyi ethnic minorities who have been living in ramshackle huts in the Set Yone Su displacement camp since sectarian violence wracked communities here in western Myanmar two years ago ostensibly practice the “right” religion – Buddhism.
However, in a country where Buddhist nationalists have become increasingly hostile towards Muslims, the Maramargyi say they have the “wrong” looks – South Asian facial features and darker skin like the persecuted, stateless Rohingya Muslims.
As a result, even though the Buddhist Maramargyi are recognised as Burmese citizens, they say they suffer discrimination, denied identity cards, neglected by the government and stranded in crumbling temporary shelters after losing their homes in Buddhist-Muslim riots in 2012.
A sign at the camp entrance says there are 1,172 people living here, but in fact, only the few hundred Maramargyi remain. The Buddhist Rakhines – who have lighter skin and more East Asian features – and the Hindus that were also in the camp moved into new homes a year ago, but the Maramargyi say they have no idea when they will be resettled or allowed to go home.
“We’re the only ones left behind,” Kyaw Thu, a father of three, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“When the Rakhines and the Hindus moved in July 2013, we asked the officials why we didn’t get anything. They told us to wait for a while, but nothing has changed. The government hasn’t provided us with food, information or anything,” he added, standing at the entrance of his room, one of 10 in a dormitory-style house with corrugated-iron roofs and bamboo walls.
CITIZEN OR STATELESS?
Beyond their devotional differences, the key distinction between the Maramargyi and the Rohingya lies in a discriminatory 1982 law that arbitrarily lays out the 135 ethnic groups bestowed with citizenship. The Maramargyi are included on that list. The Rohingya are not and are thus stateless and denied basic rights.
Since violence flared between Buddhist Rakhines and the Rohingya in June 2012, religious conflict has spread across Myanmar, killing at least 240 people and forcing more than 150,000 - a huge majority of them the stateless Rohingya in Rakhine - into sprawling, squalid displacement camps. Two men - a Buddhist and a Muslim - were killed and 14 people were hurt in the latest riots on July 2 and 3 in Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city.
The Maramargyi at the Set Yone Su displacement camp say they lost their homes in arson attacks by Muslims. Many also lost their jobs in the ensuing destruction and are struggling to rebuild their lives.
“We were caught in the middle of the conflict between the Rakhines and the Muslims, so we suffered,” said camp resident Kyaw Maung.
Win Myint, the Rakhine state government spokesman, dismissed their concerns.
He at first insisted that the Rakhines and Hindus were still at the camp, but later added that their new homes - neat, single dwellings on stilts not far from the camp - are the same as the dorms.
“We don’t have the space to give everyone individual new homes,” Win Myint said.
However, the rickety homes in the camp do not look like they will withstand the upcoming rainy season. Parts of the walls and roofs at many homes, including Kyaw Thu’s, have collapsed. They are unbearably hot during the summer and leak during the rainy season, residents say.
Shallow drainage ditches circling the homes are filled with green stagnant water. The area floods during the monsoon, and snakes are a common threat, said Kyaw Thu, a former tea shop owner now trying to make ends meet driving a rented taxi.
LOOKS THAT ATTRACT HOSTILITY
Buddhist nationalists have portrayed the violence as part of an effort to protect Buddhist-majority Myanmar from being taken over by Muslims, who officially make up an estimated 4 percent of the country’s 60 million people.
Yet the Maramargyi recounted the discrimination they suffered, even though they are Buddhist. Unlike Muslims who are barred from entering Sittwe, the Maramargyi can travel with relative ease, but their looks sometimes attract hostility.
When nationalist mobs attacked aid agency offices on March 27 and 28 after rumours spread that a foreign aid worker improperly handled a Buddhist flag, none of the Maramargyi in Sittwe – those in the camp as well as those who still live in their homes – dared to go out.
“Because we look like kalar, we were scared we would be killed,” a woman who did not want to be identified said, using a commonly-used derogatory term for people of South Asian descent. “Even though we’re Buddhists, we can easily get into trouble because of our faces.”
Most of the Maramargyi in the camp do not have identification cards, called National Registration Cards (NRC), the residents say, although they are entitled to one. The process is slow and costly, but life without one can be debilitating as an NRC is required to apply for formal jobs, travel or even sit for high school exams.
“Sometimes it takes two years, sometimes it takes two months. Sometimes you get nothing after all these years,” Kyaw Thu said.
Kyaw Maung said one of his friends ended up paying $300. Both Kyaw Thu and Kyaw Maung have identification cards, but say they are among the lucky few.
“We are an officially-recognised ethnic group but treated differently and don’t get the same rights,” Kyaw Thu said. “Surely everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law?”