Forsaken at the ‘western gate’

A group of Buddhists who moved to northern Rakhine State have been forced off the land where they had hoped to build new lives.

By MRATT KYAW THU | FRONTIER

HUNDREDS OF Rakhine Buddhists have been moving to the northern part of the state to begin a new life in the area, which was heavily depopulated after violence erupted nearly a year ago.

They are, in part, answering a call to “defend the western gate”, a term used by Buddhist nationalists to describe Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. But some have found themselves in conflict with local authorities, who recently demolished homes and forced the settlers into monasteries.

Since January, nearly 200 households from elsewhere in Rakhine have been resettled in three northern Rakhine villages: Koe Tan Kauk, Thin Baw Gwe and Inn Din, where 10 Rohingya Muslims were massacred by the Tatmadaw and Buddhist villagers last September.

The Buddhists who moved to Koe Tan Kauk and Inn Din were assisted by a civil society group, Ancillary Committee for Reconstruction of Rakhine National Territory in the Western Frontier (CRR), which is headed by a prominent Rakhine nationalist, Dr Aye Chan.

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CRR was formed after the Arakan Rohinga Salvation Army attacks in northern Rakhine on August 25 last year that triggered a massive Tatmadaw security operation that resulted in about 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to safety in neighbouring Bangladesh.

U Sein Aung, a settler at Koe Tan Kauk, told Frontier that life was not easy, and they were reliant on CRR handouts of rice and other commodities. “We’re still struggling for survival because the environment is new to us, but we are here to defend the western gate,” he said.

The settlers are catching crabs for sale and earning between K3,000 and K4,000 a day, depending on demand and the weather.

Many have headed north along a highway that is being upgraded along the western side of the Mayu Peninsula as part of the government’s reconstruction programme in northern Rakhine State.

In December last year, the nation’s biggest conglomerate, Asia World Group, began upgrading the 76-kilometre road from Angumaw at the southern tip of the peninsula to Maungdaw. So far, a 38km section between Angumaw and Inn Din has been completed.

The upgrade, to give the road a concrete surface, is being welcomed by the region’s residents. They say the previous government had ignored the poor state of the strategic road, which mainly parallels the coast, and is notorious as a route used by drug traffickers.

After the Rakhine from southern areas of the state began settling at Koe Tan Kauk and Inn Din, rumours spread through social media that people could settle in the area and take unoccupied land. Frontier understands that on large, public Viber groups some people began posting messages that land formerly owned by Muslims who had fled to Bangladesh could be taken.

But more than 100 families who moved to Thin Baw Gwe, which is about 10 minutes by car from Inn Din, have faced unexpected problems.

Before August 25 last year, Buddhists and Muslims had lived side by side in Thin Baw Gwe. The newcomers reportedly built houses on land that had been occupied by Muslims.

On July 9, their new homes were demolished by police and firefighters and on the orders of the Maungdaw Township administrator the settlers were moved to monasteries.

Rakhine Hluttaw MP U Maung Ohn (Arakan National Party, Maungdaw-2) said that the day before the eviction the township administrator had called a meeting and explained to him and other stakeholders that it was necessary because of “international pressure”.

U Than Tun, a secretary of CRR, told Frontier that the group was “not responsible” for the people who settled at Thin Baw Gwe.

He said that even though CRR had promised to help Rakhine from the south of the state to settle in the north, it would never touch land that Muslims had owned.

The newcomers at Koe Tan Kauk and Inn Din had settled on land donated by wealthy Rakhine people, he said.

Among those who had hoped to resettle at Thin Baw Gwe is Ko Maung Win Chay, who moved from Phadu village in Pauktaw Township. To get to Thin Baw Gwe, Maung Win Chay took a boat to Sittwe, about 30km from Pauktaw, another boat to Angumaw, and from there headed north by road.

“We came here of our own volition, no one pushed us to move here,” Maung Win Chay told Frontier. “But then we were evicted by the authorities.”

Frontier understands that a politician from Maungdaw together with some residents were involved in the resettlement at Thin Baw Gwe.

U Tun Aye Thein, who leads a civil society group that is supporting the families who were evicted and are living in monasteries, said five people organised it.

“They did it without proper planning,” he said. “When they could no longer handle the situation, we were requested to help.”

Sources told Frontier that the leader of the Arakan National Party branch in Maungdaw, U Khin Maung Than, organised the resettlement together with residents U Kyaw Naing and U Tun Mya Oo.

Residents said that the group got into an argument with Maungdaw authorities on July 9 shortly before the demolition that day. Tun Mya Oo and his wife were detained by police, while police are still looking for Kyaw Naing. Khin Maung Than could not be reached for comment because his phone was switched off.

Following the demolition, some of the Thin Baw Gwe settlers moved to Inn Din and are receiving support from CRR.

“Some of the people don’t want to stay in the houses provided by CRR because they’re a bit cramped,” said Tun Aye Thein. “Most of the people who don’t want to go there are just staying in the monastery.”

More than 120 people are sheltering at Buddhist monasteries at Kyauk Pan Du, near Thin Baw Gwe, or camping along the Angumaw-Maungdaw road.

Maung Win Chay is among those who have sought refuge in the monastery. “We have no idea what we are going to do in the future,” he said.

TOP PHOTO: Nearly 200 households from elsewhere in Rakhine have been resettled in three northern Rakhine villages. (Mratt Kyaw Thu | Frontier)

By Mratt Kyaw Thu

By Mratt Kyaw Thu

Mratt is a Senior Reporter at Frontier. He began his career at Unity Weekly Journal in 2010 and focuses on political reporting. In 2017 he won the Agence France-Presse Kate Webb prize for his coverage of ethnic strife in Myanmar.
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