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Myanmar’s Rakhine Lawmakers Want More ‘Ethnic Villages’ in Muslim-Majority Areas

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Lawmakers from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state urged the government on Monday to build more ethnic Rakhine villages in Muslim-majority townships in the northern part of the state where a recent four-month crackdown on Rohingya Muslims forced tens of thousands of people to flee.

Replying to a question by Rakhine state legislator Thet Tun Aung during a meeting in the upper house of the state parliament, General Than Htut, deputy minister of border affairs, said 36 ethnic Rakhine villages had already been built in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships.

“We have built 14 ethnic villages in Maungdaw,” said Than Htut from the ministry responsible for the development of border areas and national races.

“A total of 36 villages have already been built in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships,” he said, but did not mention any plans to construct additional non-Muslim ethnic villages.

Buthidaung and Maungdaw along with adjacent Rathedaung township in northern Rakhine were under a four-month crackdown from October 2016 to February 2017 after a deadly raid on border guard posts by a militant group that claimed to represent the country’s Muslim Rohingya community.

About 1,000 people were killed during the crackdown, and roughly 90,000 Rohingya were displaced, with many of them fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh where they are living in refugee camps.

Some ethic Rakhine people also fled the area during the violence.

The villages are for local Rakhine ethnics and those from Yangon region who want to move to northern Rakhine state, Than Htut said.

The government is providing each new non-Muslim household in the village in the two townships with a place to live, two acres of farmland, one acre of garden space, a trishaw, sewing machine, rice and other food supplies, and a cultivator, he said.

About 3,400 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists comprising 74 households who moved into Buthidaung and Maungdaw from neighboring Bangladesh have also been placed in some of the villages and have received rice and other rations from the government, he said.

The ethnic Rakhine living in Bangladesh had fled the state in 2012 following communal violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims that left more than 200 people dead and displaced tens of thousands.

The government started building ethnic villages to attract non-Muslims back to the area as a measure to balance out the population of which Rohingya and Kaman Muslims constitute the majority.

Rakhine state is home to about 1.1 million Rohingya, about 120,000 of whom live in internally displaced persons camps as a result of the 2012 communal violence.

The Rohingya are denied basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education because they are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although most have lived in Myanmar for generations.

Rakine Advisory Commission visit

In a related development, members of the Rakhine community in the state capital Sittwe on Monday asked an advisory commission appointed by the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to help resolve the religious and ethnic divisions in the unstable region, to reconsider resettling Muslims from the Kanyindaw refugee camp in Kyaukpyu township that was closed down last month.

The Rakhine state government closed down the camp in May as part of three planned camp closures in accordance with the commission’s recommendation.

Sittwe resident Zaw Tun said people who lived in the Kanyindaw camps were placed in homes after the facilities were shut down, but they have experienced flooding and sanitation problems in the new houses.

“The commission should go and check the new places where they were resettled and see if they are OK with these houses and ask them about their job opportunities,” said Zaw Tun.

The state's camps house Kaman Muslims, ethnic Rakhine people, and Rohingya Muslims who have been living in them since 2012 when they were displaced by communal violence.

Led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, the nine-member commission met with students and other youths, farmers and representatives from civil society organizations in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe as part of a five-day trip.

Annan, however, is not joining the rest of the committee members on this trip, which also includes stops in the towns of Kyauttaw, Mrauk-U and Thandwe.

When the commission asked young people in Sittwe if they thought it was possible for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists to work with local Muslims in the divided state, they replied that the time was still not right, Zaw Tun said.

Though the commission is not responsible for evaluating the human rights situation in Rakhine, it did suggest in an interim report issued in March that the government should immediately begin allowing displaced Rohingya to return to their homes in Rakhine and eventually shut down the internal camps where more than 120,000 have resided following communal violence with Buddhist nationalists in 2012.

The report included 30 recommendations, including allowing humanitarian groups and media to visit conflict areas in Rakhine, providing equal access to health care and education, training police, recognizing Rohingya as Myanmar citizens and giving them citizen’s rights, and resettling the Rohingya.

The Myanmar government agreed with the findings and said it would implement the majority of its recommendations.

The commission will also submit a final report on its findings to the government in late August.

Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.