The government of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state capital has issued an order requiring ethnic Rakhine Buddhist families to vacate more than 1,250 shelters erected on top of a former Rohingya Muslim area of the township that was razed eight years ago during a flare up of sectarian violence.
Thein Hlaing, administrator of the Seyton Su Muslim quarter in Sittwe township, said the order, which went into effect late last week, requires the Rakhine squatters to leave the properties that belong to Rohingyas within three months or face eviction.
“We were asked to post the announcement on the notice board, but you should ask the township administrators about the issue if you want to know more, as they are the ones who issued the order,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Monday.
“We posted it on the notice board on May 14,” he added.
A wave of brutal slayings and attacks across Rakhine state in June 2012 left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 120,000 Rohingya, who were later forced to live in squalid camps scattered around the region.
Many of those in the camps recently told RFA that the prospects for improving their living standards are bleak and that they continue to live in near-apartheid conditions. Because racial tensions have not subsided, it is nearly impossible for any Rohingya who has permission to travel the 10-minute drive from the camps to Sittwe even with security guards, some say.
Meanwhile, over the past eight years, Rakhine families from rural areas of the state have gradually moved to areas formerly occupied by Rohingyas in Sittwe to claim the jobs they used to do, including Seyton Su, where there are now some 4,000 Rakhine shelters that have been built in the quarter, according to residents.
Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya leader who has taken refuge in Thetkal Pyin village outside of the township since the 2012 riots, welcomed the plan to evict the Seyton Su squatters.
“The government has received blame and accusation internationally because they haven’t evicted these squatters,” he said.
“This action can provide the government with some relief—that’s why they should have done it even earlier and stopped the squatters once they started moving into the area.”
While applauding the order, Kyaw Hla Aung said it would only benefit the government if it can “continue these kinds of affirmative actions.”
A Rakhine squatter in Seyton Su who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity out of fear for his security said that he is willing to follow the order if the government allots new land to those who are to be evicted.
“They have to give us new land as a replacement—this land belongs to the state and if there is no proper land for us to relocate to, we will remain here,” he said.
“State counselor Aung San Suu Kyi promised that citizens will enjoy the full rights of citizenship. We are entitled to the right to stay in the city. If we don’t have land to live on, we won’t be able to work and earn a living. Many other occupants of the area say they will not leave without replacement land.”
Sittwe township administrator Aung Zaw Oo was not immediately available for comment.
Origin of orders unclear
Win Myint, Rakhine state government spokesperson and municipal minister said he was unaware of the order to evict the Seyton Su squatters.
“I haven’t heard any talk about the issue in any meetings, so I can’t tell you anything about it and I’m not clear where this order came from,” he said.
“This decision was not made during the state government meeting. You should ask the township administrator who gave the order.”
Attempts to reach a spokesperson with the central government in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw about the order went unanswered Monday.
The order to evict the squatters comes days ahead of a deadline for Myanmar to submit its first compliance report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The country faces a trial on genocide charges at the international tribunal for the alleged military-led expulsion of more than 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh amid a brutal crackdown on Muslim communities in northern Rakhine state beginning in August 2017. Myanmar has denied the genocide charges, largely without addressing the evidence or specific accusations.
In January, the ICJ ordered Myanmar to implement provisional measures to protect the Rohingya from genocide, preserve evidence of alleged crimes that could be used in later hearings, and report on its compliance with the measures until the court issued a final decision on the case.
The first report is due by May 23, with follow-up reports required every six months until the ICJ issues a final ruling.
Meanwhile, residents of Rakhine state’s Mrauk-U township accused the Myanmar military of burning down nearly 200 houses in Let Kar village over the weekend, which the military denied and blamed on the ethnic Rakhine rebel Arakan Army (AA).
A villager who declined to be named, citing security concerns, told RFA that 194 of the village’s 301 homes and a middle school were set alight but the military on Saturday.
“The military burned all of the [equipment] which had been gathered to plow for the rainy season,” the villager said.
“You can see how they treat people unfairly and bully them.”
On Sunday, the office of the military chief issued a statement saying that as troops patrolled near Let Kar, the AA attacked, burned around 20 homes, and fled the area.
Khine Thuka, AA spokesperson, told RFA that the military is “trying to cover up its war crimes” in Rakhine state and that if the government is unable to rein it in, his rebel army would enlist the help of international organizations to investigate the situation there.
Last year, the military arrested 27 youths from nearby Let Kar village and forced them to admit connections with the AA while under duress, according to fellow residents. Three of the young men died during their interrogation.
Last week, Myanmar’s military said that some of its troops used unlawful and improper interrogation techniques while detaining five Rakhine men from Rakhine’s Ponnagyun township suspected of having links to the AA, a rare admission offered a day after a video published by RFA showed soldiers beating the men on board a naval vessel.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.