A 16-year-old Muslim boy lay dying on a thin metal table. Bitten by a rabid dog a month ago, he convulsed and drooled as his parents wedged a stick between his teeth to stop him from biting off his tongue.
Swift treatment might have saved Waadulae. But there are no doctors, painkillers or vaccines in this primitive hospital near Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar. It is a lonely medical outpost that serves about 85,300 displaced people, almost all of them Muslims who lost their homes in fighting with Buddhist mobs last year.
These trash-strewn camps represent the dark side of Myanmar’s celebrated transition to democracy: apartheid-like policies segregating minority Muslims from the Buddhist majority. As communal violence spreads, nowhere are these practices more brutally enforced than around Sittwe.
In an echo of what happened in the Balkans after the fall of communist Yugoslavia, the loosening of authoritarian control in Myanmar is giving freer rein to ethnic hatred.
President Thein Sein, a former general, said in a May 6 televised speech his government was committed to creating “a peaceful and harmonious society in Rakhine State.”
But the sand dunes and barren paddy fields outside Sittwe hold a different story. Here, emergency shelters set up for Rohingya Muslims last year have become permanent, prison-like ghettos. Muslims are stopped from leaving at gunpoint. Aid workers are threatened. Camps seethe with anger and disease.
In central Sittwe, ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and local officials exult in what they regard as a hard-won triumph: streets almost devoid of Muslims. Before last year’s violence, the city’s Muslims numbered about 73,000, nearly half its population. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 left.
Myanmar’s transformation from global pariah to budding democracy once seemed remarkably smooth. After nearly half a century of military dictatorship, the quasi-civilian government that took power in March 2011 astonished the world by releasing dissidents, relaxing censorship and re-engaging with the West.
Then came the worst sectarian violence for decades. Clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims in June and October 2012 killed at least 192 people and displaced 140,000. Most of the dead and homeless were Muslims.
The crisis poses the biggest domestic challenge yet for the reformist leaders of one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries. Muslims make up about 5 percent of its 60 million people. Minorities, such as the Kachin and the Shan, are watching closely after enduring persecution under the former junta.
Sittwe’s last remaining Muslim-dominated quarter, Aung Mingalar, is locked down by police and soldiers who patrol all streets leading in and out. Muslims can’t leave without written permission from Buddhist local authorities, which Muslims say is almost impossible to secure.
Metal barricades, topped with razor wire, are opened only for Buddhist Rakhines. Despite a ban against foreign journalists, Reuters was able to enter Aung Mingalar. Near-deserted streets were flanked by shuttered shops. Some Muslims peered from doors or windows.
On the other side of the barricades, Rakhine Buddhists revel in the segregation.
“I don’t trust them. They are not honest,” said Khin Mya, 63, who owns a general store on Sittwe’s main street. “Muslims are hot-headed; they like to fight, either with us or among themselves.”
Ei Mon Kyaw, 19, who sells betel nut and chewing tobacco, said Muslims are “really dirty. It is better we live apart.”
State spokesman Win Myaing, a Buddhist, explained why Aung Mingalar’s besieged Muslims were forbidden from speaking to the media. “It’s because they all tell lies,” he said. He also denied the government had engaged in ethnic cleansing, a charge leveled most recently by Human Rights Watch in an April 22 report.
“How can it be ethnic cleansing? They are not an ethnic group,” he said from an office on Sittwe’s main street, overlooking an empty mosque guarded by soldiers and police.
In Sittwe’s harbor, India is funding a $214 million port, river and road network that will carve a trade route into India’s landlocked northeast. From Kyaukphyu, a city 65 miles southeast of Sittwe, gas and oil pipelines stretch to China’s energy-hungry northwest. Both projects capitalize on Myanmar’s growing importance at Asia’s crossroads.
That promise has been interrupted by communal tensions that flared into the open after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men in May last year. Six days later, in retribution, a Buddhist mob beat 10 Muslims to death. Violence then swept Maungdaw, one of the three Rohingya-majority districts bordering Bangladesh, on June 8. Rohingya mobs destroyed homes and killed an unknown number of Rakhines.
The clashes spread to Sittwe. More than 2,500 homes and buildings went up in flames, as Rohingya and Rakhine mobs rampaged. When the smoke cleared, both suffered losses, though the official death toll for Rohingya – 57 – was nearly double that for Buddhist Rakhines. Entire Muslim districts were razed.
October saw more violence. This time, Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim villages across the state over five days, led in some cases by Rakhine nationalists tied to a powerful political party, incited by Buddhist monks and abetted at times by local security forces..
But the violence kept spreading. Anti-Muslim unrest, whipped up by Buddhist monks, killed at least 44 people in the central city of Meikhtila in March. In April and May, Buddhist mobs destroyed mosques and hundreds of Muslim homes just a few hours’ drive from Yangon, the country’s largest city.
Thein Sein responded by sending troops to volatile areas and setting up an independent commission into the Rakhine violence. Its recommendations, released April 27, urged meetings of Muslim and Buddhist leaders to foster tolerance, Muslims to be moved to safer ground ahead of the storm season, and the continued segregation of the two communities “until the overt emotions subside.”