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Featured Essays
March 24, 2014
by Chris Steele-Perkins
After decades of oppression and corruption Myanmar is looking to a much brighter future, moving from the condition of Pariah State along with the likes of North Korea, to the possibility of becoming a new, fully fledged democracy if, as expected, the elections to be held in 2015 are validated, and the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is swept to power in the ballot.

This will be an enormous swing away form the dark post-WW2 past. However, there are clouds lurking on the horizon of this new dawn: ethnic and religious strife.

Myanmar is a dramatic mix of ethnic groupings and languages thrown together as a state by the lines of delineation that were drawn to redistribute the colonial world. Many of these groups have been quietly (as far as the Western media were concerned) fighting the state in search of autonomy, and/or freedom and because of these conflicts much of Myanmar has been closed to foreigners as the State does not like to make public its many conflicts with its supposed citizens.

Despite the relaxation of state control and the apparent post-2011 move towards democracy by the Military Junta, led now by the “reformist” Thein Sein, armed conflict continues in the Kachin State and long running tensions in Rakhine State and beyond have erupted in communal violence targeted at the muslim Rohingya people who have been killed in their hundreds and over 140,000 driven from their homes. It is widely understood that this is fermented and supported by the government. Only on 28th February 2014 the government stopped MSF from working in Rakhine along with Shan and Kachin States. In Rakhine State, MSF provided primary health care to the vulnerable Rohingya people in camps displaced by the ongoing humanitarian crisis or in isolated villages. This includes facilitating life-saving referrals for patients that require emergency secondary hospital care to Ministry of Health facilities, as well as family planning and care for pregnant women and newborn babies.

The muslim Rohingya originally migrated from Bangladesh to Myanmar, often generations ago, but as ethnically and religiously different for the majority local Arakanese peoples, who are predominantly buddhist, they have long been subject to discrimination. This combination of religious and ethnic difference seems to irritate the government, in other states, such as Chin State the local Chin are almost all christians, and they are also marginalized by the government and until recently also had their own armed struggle for autonomy.

The muslims living in the large cities, such as Yangon and Mandalay claim they have not been victimized, and are often quick to point out they are muslim, but not Rohingya, however at the Mosques, such as the Tachanpe Mosque in Yangon security has been stepped up and some mosques have been attacked.

While the violence against the Rohingya has attracted considerable international condemnation, it seems to, if not find sympathy, then to be ignored by most people in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi has been very circumspect on the subject and in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State there is increasing resentment, expressed in street protests, against the NGO’s that support the displaced Rohingya and neglect, they say, the local Arakanese people.

This is not a problem that is easy to resolve, these tensions are generations deep, and while some of the Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh by boat, they are not welcomed there in an already impoverished and overcrowded county. In the meantime the 800,000 Rohingya living in Rakhine are not recognized by the Myanmar government either, and so are stateless.

For Mr Aung Win, a Rohingya who was once a translator for the Bangladeshi Embassy, and then a chicken farmer who lost his business in the violence, the small thread of hope to which he clings is a successful democratic election in 2015 and a change of government that will give them proper citizenship.

-Chris Steele-Perkins/ Magnum Photos