Sunday, September 30, 2012

Myanmar Part II

My experience with Sittwe, located in Myanmar's northwest Rakhine State, began long before I stepped off the plane and onto the primitive oceanside airstrip that welcomes visitors to the former fishing village.

Upon returning to Yangon from my trip north through Bagan, Kalaw and Inle Lake, I set out in the morning's humidity to see if I could buy a plane ticket for the following day. My first stop was just downstairs-- the lobby of a small guesthouse I'd stumbled on with a few other travelers my first night in Burma.

"No foreigners allowed," mumbled the manager after a quick phone call to a local travel agent. His firm  dismissal came as a bit of a surprise; the evening prior, I'd received nothing but smiles and nodding heads from the front desk upon mentioning that I was interested in booking a ticket to Sittwe. My bags were packed, equipment charged-- I was practically fishing for my wallet when I received the disappointing news. 

But, as I'd come to learn quickly in the weeks prior, every "no" is at the very least as good as a "maybe" in Burma.

So, with that thought in mind, I walked out to the street and flagged down a taxi. Or, at least that's what the sign on the roof said-- many taxis in Myanmar have a greater resemblance to forms of transportation you may find in an episode of The Flintstones than any vision of a typical Western car-for-hire. The day before, I'd stepped into one of these vehicles only to arrive at my destination sufficiently soaked. A mid-drive downpour had come in through the taxi's four nonexistent side windows and drenched the interior. The driver didn't seem to mind though as he sped through the afternoon traffic hawking blobs of red betel nut spit every few minutes, some of which would find its way back into the car via the open window I was sitting near behind him.

My destination after the encounter I'd had at my guesthouse was the domestic airport where I hoped to speak directly with an airline. And, as it turns out, Sittwe was suddenly (and quite mysteriously) no longer closed to foreigners. I flew out the next day.

What I found in the ensuing week was a quiet town. But, as my days there came to pass, it became increasingly apparent that the peaceful atmosphere had come with a severe cost. The Muslim Rohingya's had, for the most part, been run out of town. Essentially, there was just no one left to fight with.

In June, a group of Rohingya men allegedly raped a Rakhine woman which set off a week of conflict between the two groups. The Rohingyas, whose ancestral roots can be traced to nearby Bangladesh, have lived in Myanmar for generations. Today, most live in camps near the border, wanted by neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar as Burmese President Thein Sein made clear when he stated that he would gladly send the ethnic minority group to any country that would accept them. 

On my third day in Sittwe I visited a local monastery where I met a young man who could speak basic English. I told him that I'd seen the burned out remnants of a Rohingya neighborhood but still had yet to come across any Rakhine houses that had been set aflame. Together we walked out to the road where he had arranged for a bicycle taxi to pick me up and after a few minutes I was on my way, at an excruciatingly slow-- amusingly slow-- pace. We continued at this speed past small shacks, over the numerous potholes that dot the back roads of Sittwe, and then, to my surprise, right through a gap in the barbed wire fencing of a military checkpoint.

Once inside, I was taken by a group of local Rakhine men down a side street where the road opened up to the charred remains of what was once a thriving neighborhood. Far across the field, a group of children played amongst the wreckage. 

"Rohingya," said one man, the distaste in his voice bordering on fanatical with its intensity. Moments later, after I'd taken a few steps closer to the kids, the men called me back, as if worried by some matter of proximity I may become infected with evil just by the presence of the rival group. 

The following day I was invited for tea by a group of men sitting in a circle of plastic chairs on a sidewalk near the ocean. The men have been meeting for years in the same spot every evening after work to talk about politics and Buddhism, the philosophy of the Rakhine people. On that particular day "Niban", the Burmese word for what is more commonly known as enlightenment, was the topic of discussion.

After some time, the conversation turned to the ongoing conflict. I asked the men how, as devout Buddhists, they could possibly condone the violence that had taken place in Sittwe. 

"We have tolerated the Rohingya people for years," said one man. "But we've had enough of them disrespecting our culture and disrespecting our women." 

It was clear then that the path to "Niban" did not include living in harmony with the Rohingya people.

Sittwe, Myanmar. 
In a Rakhine neighborhood, only the front steps remain of one home that was burned down in June.

A boy flies a kite among the charred remains of what used to be a Rohingya neighborhood in Sittwe, Myanmar.

The flag of Myanmar hangs in a burned down Rakhine neighborhood.

On Sittwe's main street, Rakhine men get their hair cut at a barber shop.

On Sittwe's coast, a young monk collecting offerings is reflected in the mirror of a motorcycle.

A member of the Burmese military stands watch as evening traffic passes by. A curfew of 7 p.m. was in place which left the streets nearly empty at night.

A woman passes by a parked police truck in Sittwe, Myanmar.

Barbed wire fencing blocks the road to an area of Sittwe where some Rohingya remain. 

A man flies a kite in the late afternoon on Sittwe's coastline.

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