A conversation with a US fact-finding team in 2012
By Kyaw Zaw Oo
(This article first appeared in 14 September 2012 on Coral Arakan News FB page.)
“I came to hate them at that moment” said my cousin, who has been teaching Bengali Muslim students for about 35 years in the same school of the same neighborhood.
He continued to talk to me in a soft voice that he couldn’t believe what he heard when some maramagree (Buddhist Bengali) girl students reported something to him, just days before the violence broke out. The girls reported to their teachers at the school in Narzi neighborhood of Sittwe (Akyab) that some Bengali students were orchestrating with other students to attack their Arakanese teachers when ‘the time’ came.
And ‘the time’ came on 8th June 2012 when Bengali Muslims in Akyab (Sittwe) and Maung-daw attacked Arakanese Buddhist communities.
In my whole life, I have never heard of my cousin saying he hates somebody. About fifteen years senior to me, my cousin is a fair man always with a smile and a cheerful personality. When he found out that his devotion to his Bengali students was returned only by such un-gratefulness, he couldn’t help saying those words.
A similar but worse episode happened in a village in Maung-daw township when an Arakanese Buddhist teacher (more exactly a headmaster), U Maung Chan Thar, was killed, on 8th June 2012, by some of his Muslim students. One of those murderers was the one whom, for so many years, he had treated like a son, taught as if he was an apple of his eye among his students, then gave a job at his school.
My cousin was fortunate not to be killed like that Zaw-ma-det headmaster was, because teachers in his school (all of them were Arakanese Buddhist) escaped the fate of being killed in the hands of their own students, acting upon the tips provided by maramagree girls, by watching the leading students cautiously, and closing the school gate in time on the outbreak of violence.
I had this conversation with my cousin one week before my fellow Akyabians and I sat at a lunch table and talked with Mr Joseph Yun, a deputy assistant Secretary of U. S. state department, who was leading a fact-finding mission about recent June communal violence in Arakan state of Myanmar.
When will the Muslim IDPs in refuge camps out of Akyab (Sittwe) would be able to come back into town again?
Joseph Yun asked this question to me and my friends who came to the lunch table representing six social organizations and local NGOs.
Maybe this question reflected one of the reasons why he wanted to meet us. To open up ways for Bengali Muslims back into Sittwe.
But our Arakanese community still strongly feels that to get them back into town means a suicidal decision for them. The Bengalis will try to kill them. Or some Arakanese would probably try to attack some Bengalis. Thus, the renewal of the violence again.
My answer to him was to be patient, to wait and see because the tensions between the two communities were still very high. I told the U.S. team (and UNHCR guys) about two incidents that happened around the same day one week ago.
In one incident, in Bengali-majority Buthidaung, an Arakanese girl was attacked by a machete-wielding Bengali guy in a forest while she was collecting eatable fruits, but was rescued by her companions and luckily escaped only with some injuries on one of her legs.
In another incident which happened around the same day in Sittwe, some security forces in three trucks brought about 20 Bengalis, who seemed to be from out of town, to the town market, apparently to let them do some shopping. As soon as people in the market heard about this, a crowd instantaneously gathered at the entrance of the market. The security forces had to take the Bengalis back out of town immediately.
What these incidents have clearly indicated is that the tensions are still high. My assessment of the situation is still correct because one lone Arakenese man was killed the day before yesterday near a Muslim village in Kyauk-taw Township, by having been slit his throat. On 12 September 2012 in Sittwe, some Muslim motor-cyclists dragged along one Arakanese girl by her hair when she was heading back home from work. Her hair pulled off, but she was left behind and escaped.
These attacks happening until these days are indicating who really are wolves and who, in fact, happen to be lambs on the real grounds.
What has been written in David Obama’s article “Jihad in Burma” was what the international community needs to understand.
“Here again we see the same bloody Islamic pattern in Burma. Commit jihad, slaughter non-Muslims and then cry victim. The corrupt enemedia quickly laps it up (“for a price, Ugarte, for a price”), inverts the truth, and voila, the real victims are transformed into the aggressors.”
Another thing I pointed out to Joseph Yun was how Human Rights Watch’s report on recent Bengali-Arakan communal violence is biased. At least in the “background” section of it.
In the section “background,” it didn’t mention anything about the 1942 massacre in which not less than 40,000 Arakanese Buddhists were killed. Retreating British forces had armed the Bengali communities in northern Arakan prior to that massacre. We can trace it back in Wikipedia article “V Force.” The following is an excerpt from it.
“In the Arakan, V Force became involved in a local conflict between the mainly Moslem Maugh and Buddhist Arakanese peoples. The Maughs provided most recruits for V Force, the Arakanese supported the Japanese. Over the three years during which the Allies and Japanese fought over the Mayu peninsula, the Maughs engaged in a campaign against Arakanese communities, in many cases using weapons provided by V Force. In defence of the force, it can only be said that the conflict was no part of official policy, and possibly unavoidable in the situation.”
As intruder Bengalis haven’t invented, in those days, the name ‘Rohingya,’ the historians have recorded them as “Moslem Maughs” though both of them were misnomers. Some British writers recorded them as “Chittagonians” as they came from Chittagong region of west Bengal.
(Even though I remember HRW’s wrongful claim for the term ‘Rooinga’ to date back to 1799, I did not bring up the topic into the conversation with Joseph Yun, as our time for the conversation was limited. An Arakan historian expert, Jaques Leider, has already announced his knowledge about the name ‘Rohingya,’ saying that the term ‘Rooinga’ of 1788 has no relation with the present Muslim conclave in Northern Arakan state. The usage of the term ‘Rohingya’ to suit Bengali immigrant’s political inspirations was first found in 1951.)
I still remembered talking to a middle-aged Arakanese woman while I was strolling on the earth lane outside Kudaung village of Rathedaung Township, just ten days after that unfortunate violence between Arakanese Kudaung villagers and Bengali Anauk-pran villagers which had left ten Arakanese and two Bengali dead.
She told me, “I am afraid of Bengalis from Anauk-pran village.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “Your village alone has a much larger population than Anauk-pran, as much as double.”
But she replied in a serious manner, “What are we going to do if they go and hire Rajput soldiers like things turned out during the great war (i.e. the second world war).”
I burst out laughing and tried to ease out her fear, explaining that there no longer were such guys as Rajput soldiers these days.
The genocide of 1942 is still haunting the villagers of present-day Kudaung, whose eight villagers’ and two guests’ mutilated dead bodies, during recent June Violence, were found buried under Anauk-pran Bengali villagers’ fences or under transplanted banana palms.
In 1942, Kudaung was as nearly big as today, but the then Anauk-pran was smaller than its today’s population and as nearly as one forth of Kudaung’s in those days. But Anauk-pran Bengalis hired local operatives of the V Force and burned down the whole Kudaung village in just one night. More than half of the village population was killed during their armed attack. There was no media to cover their genocide in those days. No human rights watch. Nothing. And the Arakanese villagers had to start their lives again without anybody to support them with oil money or zakat donation.
During our assessment trip into Maung-daw one week after the communal violence had started, we accompanied Nilar Thein and Mie Mie of 88-Generation Students group. While we were looking at the scorched land plots which used to be Tharay Konbaung village, I asked Mie Mie why the name of the neighboring Bengali village is Tharay Kon-dan, an Arakanese name. Do you know?
I knew she had no idea for this. My question was just a leading one in order to reach certain explanation.
The answer was that, because the whole village used to be inhabited by Arakanese populace, it still had an Arakanese name. All of them must have been killed or driven out by rob-rape-raze methods by Bengalis in 1942 massacre and successive Bengali insurgencies.
Hundreds of villages (more exactly nearly all of them) in Buthidaung and Maung-daw are named with Arakanese names. They were populated by fair-skinned Buddhist Arakanese 70 years ago. Those Arakanese Buddhist did not just give up their lands, as donations, to be occupied by darker-skinned Muslims, out of their Buddhist compassionate kindness. They were killed or driven out through years.
Mee Mee was shocked to hear this.
The junta had tried to build a ‘human shield’ by setting up dozens of Burmese villages (Natala villages) in Maung-daw Township in the last 20 years’ time. But it took just one day for Bengalis to burn them down and scare away the settlers on 8th June 2012.
There were nobody left in those Natala Burmese villages in the morning of 9th June.
Ok. Let’s not argue about human rights or citizen rights of those Muslims. There are about 800,000 of them on your land. This is a fact and reality. Don’t you think you Arakanese people should do something to find out certain solutions to make this situation better? It is up to you to make your land (and this situation) better. It is up to you. Joseph Yun said as such.
It is up to Bangladesh. I promptly replied.
Then he grinned and said they had already planned to go to Bangladesh after this Arakan trip.
Then I picked up the topics of Immigration laws.
Some have estimated that Bangladesh’s population would be double after 2023. Neighboring such a country with much smaller land area and much bigger population, we must have our own immigration law. No other country or no other international organization can tell us to change our immigration law. I said.
We are not trying to make you change your immigration law. He replied.
The UNHCR team sitting at the end of the long table had only me to talk to and argue with.
General public here (in Arakan) was harboring a lot of anti-UNHCR sentiments. That’s not fair because they (UNHCR) really were neutral in any conflicts, they said.
My reply was that the public’s anti-UNHCR sentiments should be justified if we looked back at the work UNHCR had been doing all these decade long years. I said. What they had been doing was empowering the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh while they were marginalizing the indigenous people in the same area.
Their primary mission in Norhtern Arakan state was to help the Bengali returnees re-integrate into this country. I said I understand this way. And they said yes. In this way, they had been helping a rival group which had been tormenting (or pressing on) the host group for many scores of years, I said. So you are rightly much hated by local people, I said.
Some UN-insider friends of mine told me that some of their programs did not explicitly say to help ‘Bengali Muslims only.’ But the program would help only the villages with at least fifty households, its missions read. Almost all local indigenous villages in UNHCR’s operation areas were of less than fifty households while Bengali villages had hundreds of households in each. I recounted what I had heard from my friends as such, and the UNHCR team at the lunch table did not reply anything about this to me.
At the beginning of our conversation, I told Joseph Yun that even the use of the word ‘Rohingya’ was perceived by Arakan and Myanmar people in general as a threat to Arakanese people, because the coined word for the illegally migrated conclave carries political inspirations behind it.
As long as I can remember, any of them at the lunch table did not utter the word ‘rohingya’ during the conversation. They just used the term “Muslims.” But, on the day after, when the U.S. announced that they have ‘great concern’ for the humanitarian situation in Arakan, they still used the misleading word in their statement.
A journalist telephoned me yesterday asking me how I would like to response to that statement. I answered that the government and other responsible entities were taking good care of the situation and I didn’t see anything to harbor any ‘great concern,’ I answered.
One thing I really am having great concern is that Bengalis are still attacking our people. And the Bengalis cry victim. And the world believes it. Why shouldn’t I be worried about it?
(Kyaw Zaw Oo)
15 September 2012
Kyaw Zaw Oo, at the time when this article was written, was 1one of the directors with Akyab-based Wan-lark foundation which focuses on educational assistance, rural development and disaster response. Representing that local NGO, he attended above-mentioned lunch meeting. He used to work as an engineer for an American company in war-torn Afghanistan during 2009. He has translated half a dozen books from English to Myanmar after he stopped working in 2000 as a staff journalist for Myanmar Times.
As of 2016, he is now serving as a sitting parliamentarian in Rakhine State Hluttaw, representing Akyab (Sittwe) constituency 2.
Note: : the border-crossing Muslim conclave in Arakan is simply called by locals as Bengalis, but they were recorded as Chittagonains or Chittagonian Bengalis in the writings of British colonial times.