In Buddhist-Majority Myanmar, Muslim Minority Gets Pushed To The Margins : Parallels As Myanmar has opened up its political system, it has unleashed long-suppressed tensions. The Rohingya Muslims have been hard hit, with many driven from their homes and now confined to camps.
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In Buddhist-Majority Myanmar, Muslim Minority Gets Pushed To The Margins

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In Buddhist-Majority Myanmar, Muslim Minority Gets Pushed To The Margins

In Buddhist-Majority Myanmar, Muslim Minority Gets Pushed To The Margins

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now let's turn to the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar. It is emerging from decades of military dictatorship. And one thing we've seen there is ethnic tensions boiling over - tensions that were long suppressed by the old regime. This includes two years of violence between Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya community.

Thousands of Rohingya live segregated lives, they're deprived of basic rights and services. The United Nations calls them one of the world's most persecuted peoples. But other ethnic groups in the area have their own grievances as well. NPR's Anthony Kuhn traveled to Western Myanmar and he filed this report.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thirteen-year-old Zomir Hussein is a Rohingya. He lives with his family in a simple wooden home in a village outside the city of Sittwe.

Not long ago, he accidentally overdosed on the medicine he was taking to treat his tuberculosis. Now he lies on the wooden floor, his hands are curled into claws, his eyes stare vacantly. And he calls out to his parents like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF PAINFUL CRYING)

KUHN: Zomir was getting treatment at the main hospital in downtown Sittwe. Then, in June of 2012, violence between Buddhists and Rohingyas broke out, and around 140 people were killed. Zomir's father, Mohamed, says he hasn't been able to take his son to the hospital since then.

MOHAMED HUSSEIN: (Through translator) We called the doctor and asked for his help. He said, I can't go to you to treat your son, and you had better not come to see me. If you do, the Buddhist mobs will kill both of us.

KUHN: Zomir's father says he hopes that someday his son may get proper medical care and recover. But for now, he says, Rohingyas are confined to their camps and villages and banned from going into downtown Sittwe.

HUSSEIN: (Through translator) The police and military stop buses at their checkpoints, and if they see any Rohingya aboard, they pull them off. Outsiders don't know about our situation here. It's like living in a jail.

KUHN: Myanmar's government calls the Rohingya, Bengalis. It considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, not citizens of Myanmar. In a recent nationwide census, people who identified themselves as Rohingya were simply not counted. Bangladesh doesn't recognize them either.

The ethnic violence in 2012 displaced about 146,000 people in western Myanmar's Rakhine state. Most of them are Muslims living near the state capital, Sittwe, but there are some Buddhists, too. Aid agencies say nearly half of these people lack reliable access to safe and nutritious food.

Rohingya fishmongers auction the day's catch at a market on the Bay of Bengal. The wooden boats leaving this port are often crammed with Rohingya fleeing to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. Some of the rickety craft have gone down at sea.

In a nearby camp for displaced Rohingya, I met Mohamed Faisal. He said he paid a human smuggler to get him to Malaysia, but he couldn't find a job there. On the way back, he says his boat ran out of food, so he jumped ship and swam part of the way home. He says conditions in the camps are unbearable.

MOHAMED FAISAL: (Through translator) There's nothing here, no jobs, no food and no medical care. What can we Rohingya do except leave and go to another country?

KUHN: Young Rohingyas in the camp watch Indian music videos in a makeshift theater. Where exactly the Rohingyas come from is a matter of some debate. What is clear is that this whole area has been a complex tapestry of ethnic groups, some Muslim and some Buddhist. Myanmar itself has long been a melting pot of people from the Indian subcontinent and East Asia.

Students at an Islamic school rock back and forth as they recite from the Quran. They're dressed in long robes and white skullcaps. Most of them are displaced Rohingya, and this madrassah is one of the few places they can get an education.

A young teacher named Mohamed Idris says that the Rohingya will remain patient in the face of government neglect.

MOHAMED IDRIS: (Through translator) We teach our students that they are citizens and indigenous to Myanmar. There's no need for them to flee to other countries. For example, I have documents that show that my forefathers were born and raised here.

KUHN: But that's not how the mostly Buddhist Rakhine people see it. Than Tun is a Rakhine community leader in Sittwe.

THAN TUN: (Through translator) Many Bengalis immigrated here in the 1940s. Now these illegal immigrants have died off, but they have many children who remain, and they, too, are illegal immigrants.

KUHN: He also points out that like the country's other ethnic minorities, the Rakhine, too, have a distinct identity and language. And they were suppressed by the junta that ruled this country for five decades until 2011. And like other ethnic groups in Myanmar, he says, the Rakhine are still fighting for autonomy and control of their own natural resources.

TUN: (Through translator) We Rakhine had our own empire, which was more ancient than the Burmese, but we lost it when the Burmese invaded. We have been ruled by the Burmese military government, and again we're not free. This is why we have our own armed insurgent groups.

KUHN: Myanmar's democratic reforms haven't really taken root in ethnic minority areas where insurgencies still simmer. Myanmar is one of Asia's poorest countries and Rakhine is the second poorest state in Myanmar.

Even as overall relations between Myanmar and the U.S. move ahead, President Obama recently cited human rights abuses in Rakhine state as one reason the U.S. is extending some economic sanctions on Myanmar for another year. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yangon.

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