Buddhist migrants from Bangladesh are being resettled in Myanmar under a government policy to dilute the Muslim population of Rakhine State.
By MIN MIN & MOE AUNG | FRONTIER
With trembling hands, U Swe Yaw Du Lah, 58, pointed to farmland he once owned near Khayemyaing village in Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State.
Small, identical houses have been built on the land.
The Muslim villager’s land was confiscated in 1996 as part of a resettlement project by the Ministry of Progress of Border Affairs, National Races and Development Affairs. The ministry has since been renamed – simply – the Ministry of Border Affairs, known by its Myanmar acronym Na Ta La.
The village was built in 2001 and originally settled with people from central Myanmar. In 2008, the village was upgraded to receive a fresh influx of settlers. They were Buddhists from Bangladesh who had fled religious persecution and violence. Government figures show there were about 200 family groups, comprising a total of about 800 males and females. The population of Bangladesh-born Buddhists in the village has since risen to about 1,500.
U Swe Yaw Du Lah said his land was seized because he was renting and not farming it himself, in breach of land use regulations.
“The farmland of many of my friends was also seized,” U Swe Yaw Du Lah said. “They were all given the same reason; it was for breaching land use regulations,” he said.
U Myint Hlaing, the secretary of the Maungdaw Township Development Association, said farms were confiscated throughout the township, in northwestern Rakhine on the border with Bangladesh, for resettlement projects.
The communities developed by the ministry’s Progress of Border Affairs and National Races Department are known as Na Ta La villages.
Na Ta La village projects have been developed in border regions throughout Myanmar since the early 1990s, and their objectives include “demographic management” – settling members of the ethnic Bamar majority in ethnic minority areas as a way to assert control and undermine ethnic minority groups in what they consider their ancestral land.
There have been Na Ta La projects in Kachin, Shan, Kayah, Kayin and Chin states, as well as Rakhine. The Na Ta La villages in Maungdaw Township were built to resettle Buddhists from both Myanmar and Bangladesh. Each head of household was given two acres of the land seized from Muslims, as well two oxen and some goats.
An investigation by Frontier has revealed that few residents of the Na Ta La villages in Maungdaw Township farm the land. “We rent the land and the oxen to others who know how to farm the land,” said Ko Hla Myint, a resident of Mawrawaddy Na Ta La village.
“The government settled us here to persuade us to become farmers but it’s something we don’t care to do,” Ko Hla Myint said.
There are two categories of Na Ta La villages in Rakhine. The first are known as re-integration villages and are for resettling people from elsewhere in Myanmar, predominantly members of the dominant Bamar ethnic group. The second are known as migrant villages, and have become home for Buddhist refugees from Bangladesh.
Many of the ethnic Bamar resettled in re-integration villages are Buddhists who do not like living in northern Rakhine because of its large Muslim population.
U Thant Zin, a senior Maungdaw District official, said some of the reintegration settlers had returned to their home communities elsewhere in the country.
“They went back because the culture is different here,” U Thant Zin said.
Some returned to their home communities because they were afraid of another eruption of sectarian violence like the rash of violence in 2012, which affected Na Ta La villages. After 2012, the government built Na Ta La villages for Buddhists from Bangladesh, some of whom are ethnic Rakhines from across the border, in an attempt by the government to balance the Buddhist and Muslim populations in border areas of Rakhine.
“My grandfather, my father and I were all born in Rakhine but the government says we are not citizens. But the illegal migrants from Bangladesh who are ethnic Rakhines have no problems with the government.”
Yanaungmyin village, a Na Ta La community between Maungdaw and the border with Bangladesh, is home to ethnic Rakhine who migrated from Bangladesh before and after 2012. Its residents include U Yar Lu, an ethnic Mro in his 50s, who cannot speak the Rakhine dialect.
U Yar Lu, a farmer, said he migrated to Myanmar because of harassment by Muslims in Bangladesh.
U Yar Lu said he sold his farm and entered Myanmar as an illegal immigrant because he was aware that the government would likely settle him in a Na Ta La village.
“My farm was in Chittagong District; my neighbours also want to sell their farms and resettle in Myanmar, but they are waiting in hope of getting a better price,” he said.
U Yar Lu has two daughters. One is Su Nin Mar Lar, 12, who like her father cannot speak the Myanmar language. She said in Bengali through an interpreter that she is not happy in Myanmar. She was not happy in Bangladesh either, she says, where she experienced bigotry and discrimination because she is a Buddhist.
Su Nin Mar Lar said she wanted to go to the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, or to Mrauk-U Township, site of the capital of an ancient Rakhine kingdom, but her lack of language skills and not knowing the way were a problem. Her father said he did not mind if she left the village. “She resembles a Rakhine and is unlikely to attract the attention of the authorities,” he said, referring to regulations prohibiting the Bangladeshi Buddhists from leaving their Na Ta La communities.
The ethnic Rakhine who have migrated from Bangladesh include Rakhine, Thet and Daingnet, as well as Mro. Almost all are citizens of Bangladesh.
U Swe Yaw Du Lah said he did not understand why the government was resettling the citizens of another country.
“My grandfather, my father and I were all born in Rakhine but the government says we are not citizens,” U Swe Yaw Du Lah said.
“But the illegal migrants from Bangladesh who are ethnic Rakhines have no problems with the government,” he said.
“I think the reason for this is because they are Buddhists.”
U Hla Thein from the Rakhine government’s News and Information Sub-committee says it is a matter of national responsibility to accept ethnic Rakhine migrants from Bangladesh.
Officials say the ethnic Rakhine migrants from Bangladesh must reside in Myanmar for three years to be able to vote, and those who meet this qualification will be enfranchised for the 2020 election.
Most of the Rohingya Muslims living in Maungdaw District and elsewhere in Rakhine will not vote this year despite having participated in the 2010 election. Even if they could participate and wanted to vote for a Muslim candidate, this would be difficult because almost all Muslim candidates have been disqualified by the Union Election Commission. The government’s decision earlier this year to invalidate the temporary identity documents known as white cards has disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Muslim voters, most of them Rohingya.
There are almost no Muslims in Na Ta La villages in Maungdaw District. This is seen as reflecting the government’s objective of achieving more balance between Buddhists and Muslims in an area where most residents follow Islam. As part of its objective of promoting what are known as the national races, the government is putting more emphasis on bringing ethnic Rakhines from Bangladesh to settle in the state’s border areas, rather than citizens from elsewhere in Myanmar.
An ethnic Rakhine armed organisation, the Arakan Army, said in April last year that it was ready to move from its bases in Kachin State to Rakhine to “defend” the state. It indicated that a possible element of its objective would involve moving ethnic Rakhine into the state from Bangladesh, though it is difficult to understand how this could be achieved.
Security forces in Bangladesh have launched a series of operations this year against AA camps along the border, most recently in August. A Bangladeshi military operation in July resulted in the rescue and repatriation of two Tatmadaw personnel who had been abducted by the AA. It was not known when the pair was captured, but clashes were reported between the Tatmadaw and the AA in northern Maungdaw District in March.
Rohingya Muslims are understandably aggrieved that they are unlikely to ever receive Myanmar citizenship, though it is granted to ethnic Rakhine immigrant children in Na Ta La villages in Maungdaw Township.
“In every country of the world there are people of different faiths,” said U Swe Yaw Du Lah. “If a citizen of one country wants to migrate, there immigration and citizenship laws,” he said.
U Swe Yaw Du Lah said those resettled in Na Ta La villages only needed to be Buddhists to be provided with land, oxen to till the soil, and food.
“Buddhist migrants from Bangladesh only need to wait for three years to qualify for citizenship,” he said.
“Is Myanmar’s government fair?”
Title photo: Children play in the paddy fields near the Na Ta La villages in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township. (Min Min / Frontier)