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Inside a Muslim Ghetto

Dispatch from Aung Mingalar, Myanmar, where more than 4,000 Rohingya live separated, just across the road, from the rest of the city

Joe Freeman
March 07, 2017
Photo: Joseph Freeman
Photo: Joseph Freeman
Photo: Joseph Freeman
Photo: Joseph Freeman

The first known ghetto was created for the Jews of Venice in 1516. There, guards locked the gate at night and opened them in the morning, but after that, the residents could move around. Visitors came and went. In Aung Mingalar, however, no one can leave, no matter what time of day, without permission, and no one can come in without permission.

Aung Mingalar is a Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar. About 4,000 people live there in low-slung concrete houses. There is a main road, a school, a clinic, a mosque, a small lake, and a market. There are also checkpoints guarding connections to other neighborhoods, and armed police stationed at the busy cross street that constitutes the entrance. For nonresidents, special permission is required to get in. For residents—even for a trip to the hospital or a larger market outside of town—special permission is required to get out. For the past several years many people have left only a handful of times. By any definition of the word, Aung Mingalar is a ghetto.

Sittwe, a tropical, seemingly placid town with palm trees and the sound of waves coming in from the Bay of Bengal, is not just the capital of the state. It’s the capital of the state’s conflict. The Muslims in Rakhine identify as Rohingya, an ethnic group numbering around 1 million that the government in this largely Buddhist country does not recognize. The term itself is a flashpoint, with many Buddhists insisting on using “Bengali” to cast doubt on the Rohingya right to citizenship and to associate them with Bangladesh next door. The debate is full of histories and counterhistories that rival the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is clear that while they share cultural and religious traits with Bangladeshis, the Rohingya have firm roots in Myanmar going back hundreds of years, even if the name itself may have come into wider usage following independence in 1948, as some local historians contend. Aung San Suu Kyi, who led her party to election victory in 2015, ending nearly five decades of military rule, has tried to find a middle ground by asking people to avoid both terms and just call the Rohingya “the Muslim community in Rakhine State.”

The other main ethnic group in Rakhine State is the Rakhine. Like 90 percent of Myanmar, whose population is about 53 million, they are Buddhist. But the sense that their identity is under threat has been a source of tension and violence for decades. In 2012, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in Rakhine fueled these tensions. The suspects were Muslims, and hundreds died in the ensuing violence. Most Rohingya Muslims in Sittwe were sent to live in sprawling internal displacement camps on the outskirts of town. More than 120,000 live there today. But the residents of Aung Mingalar stayed put, claiming the dubious distinction of the last remaining Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe.

There is an ongoing debate about whether the government’s treatment of the Rohingya over the years has amounted to a prelude to genocide, but ethnic cleansing is far more accurate. Except for Aung Mingalar, Sittwe is an ethnically cleansed town. Mosques sit empty with weeds growing around them. You can see the foundations of houses that were razed to the ground. In downtown Sittwe, you don’t see a lot of Muslims, if any.


I visited Aung Mingalar in late October at an especially tense time. Earlier in the month, a group stormed border-guard posts in the northern part of the state, killing nine border guards and stealing weapons. The last Muslim insurgency in Rakhine ended more than half a century ago, and the Rohingya have not evinced much interest in flocking to transnational groups like the Islamic State. While the strength of the previously unheard of group that claimed the attack is debatable, its actions sent shockwaves through the country. The military launched a “clearance operation” that has so far resulted in dozens of deaths. Hundreds have also been detained. Meanwhile, tens of thousands have fled across the border to Bangladesh amid allegations of rape and arson. The government has denied the claims and set up a not-very-independent investigation that later refuted them. Meanwhile, security was stepped up all over the state. Sittwe is hours south of the attacks, but the consequences were felt there too. In the IDP camps on the fringes of the town, there were reports of curfews and beatings. In Aung Mingalar, residents said the services from the government and NGOs temporarily slowed, and more police were required as escorts. Buddhist teachers came back to the school after local Muslim residents implored them to, assuring them they were safe.

To get into Aung Mingalar, my translator and I had to apply for permission from the state government first, then submit a stack of papers to the police standing outside. We waited while documents were checked and calls were made. Finally, we entered—meaning, we crossed the street. There is no gate, no real walls. The road is the invisible boundary that residents are not supposed to cross. Cars and motorbikes flew by, while local Muslims lingered on the periphery.

Before going there we spent some hours in the IDP camps. Restrictions on movement exist there too, and poverty is rampant. But like any large-scale refugee camp, it has taken on a life of its own. Teenagers played soccer in front of tea shops. Someone advertised a movie night in a makeshift theater at his house. Crowds gathered around us, and people were eager to talk. Most said nothing had changed for the better since Suu Kyi won the election. “No improvement … the situation is getting worse,” said Hla Maung, a 57-year-old former carpenter, now jobless. He said not much had changed after the attacks up north except a visit from authorities warning them not to try the same thing here. Others said they had heard stories of beatings by authorities, but these could not be verified.

But there was something far more sinister and nauseating about Aung Mingalar, where desperation hung in the air like laundry that never dries. After we walked in, my translator, who had been there numerous times, recognized an older man who wore a T-shirt, longyi, and a thick beard. He invited us into his home, which was down a dirt alley and up a staircase. He agreed to be interviewed but didn’t want his name used. Pouring us juice, he starting answering questions. After talking for a few minutes, a young man entered the room, kicked off his sandals, and sat down. The ease with which he came into the house and made himself at home made me think he was the man’s son. But I was puzzled as he didn’t look like the man.

“Cop,” my translator said, under his breath.

He was a plainclothes police officer, and he was going to sit in on our interview. Carrying a notebook and a smartphone, he was dressed in jeans and a normal button-down shirt. My translator was evidently worried about getting the man into trouble by asking him questions that were too sensitive.

I asked if much had changed since the election because we were nearing the one-year anniversary at the time. That seemed safe.

“A lot of international organizations came here and we could talk about our feelings to high-profile international experts. But I haven’t seen any improvements for the stability in this place,” he said. “But both the present government and the previous government couldn’t bring the harmony which had existed between the two communities in the past.”

The young officer was still sitting there but appeared to be playing Candy Crush on his phone.

There wasn’t much use in doing interviews if they only led to trouble so we left the house and took a short tour of the neighborhood with the man. The police officer, who we later learned was 19, came with us the entire time. I asked our guide how often he had physically left Aung Mingalar since 2012. He said four, maybe five times.

A truck arrived on the street delivering sacks of rice. We visited the “health clinic,” which was basically a pharmacy run by a tired middle-aged man out of a house. A number of women waited there with unknown ailments. There was a donation box. The pharmacist said he couldn’t treat anything life-threatening or even that serious. An emergency required calling a special number that would then dispatch an ambulance, but since the attacks, no one had picked up (a state government spokesman later said this wasn’t true). We walked toward the “market,” which constituted a few vendors selling old vegetables. Turning around, we stopped at a barbershop open to the street. The barber wore an undershirt and used scissors with green handles, the kind an elementary school teacher buys at a stationary store, to cut his customer’s hair. I made small talk with a university student who had not been able to finish his degree because of the riots in 2012. Then we left.

The government might argue that the reason for such isolation involves security. The Rohingya in Aung Mingalar might be subject to harassment, or worse, by their Buddhist neighbors. But the longer they stay there, the harder it will be for them to reintegrate, and the longer others don’t have to interact with them, the worse their conception of the group will be. At least there is some small business and trade that goes on between Buddhist and Muslims in the camp area. Maybe this is the more sinister and nauseating thing that is concentrated in Aung Mingalar. Shut off and packed in, the Rohingya will increasingly be seen as other, amplifying existing prejudices and further dehumanizing them. “The pernicious circular logic of the ghetto is evident,” writes Mitchell Duneier in Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea. “Isolation from mainstream society, as well as the decrepitude caused by overcrowding, produced notorious conditions, behaviors, and traits that could gradually be invoked to rationalize further negative attitudes and more extreme isolation. The consequences of ghettoization provided an apparent justification for the original condition.” This is well underway. After reports of rape following the attacks emerged in the media, the BBC raised the allegations with a state official. He said sexual assault by soldiers was impossible because Rohingya “are very dirty.”


For more of Tablet magazine’s reporting from Myanmar, click here.

Joe Freeman is a Southeast Asia-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Phnom Penh Post, and the Nikkei Asian Review.

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