by Robert Salisbury, August 21, 2013
In Sittwe the bats fly at dusk. The rude squawky crows that rule the airspace during the days have all settled in for the night. These bats aren’t the little fluttery things we think of but large graceful fruit bats with faces similar to foxes. During the day they roost upside down in one part of town and as night falls they fan out flying silently in a direct line. Where they go I do not know.
For once it’s not raining. Yvonne and I sit on our little balcony overlooking the street. The neighborhood is abuzz with school kids returning home or already reciting their lessons, sounds like chanting. The trishaw drivers hauling all manner of people and stuff, pots, pans, groceries, 20ft sections of rebar, sacks of rice. Bicycles and motorbikes with folks coming from work. There is chatter and laughter. Seems like everyone stops in at the little store next door, people put out chairs on front of their houses and visit. We hear a guitar and singing. Always the monks in their robes, shaved heads and begging bowls walking, walking. Privacy here is minimal. Everyone knows everybody else’s business. From our balcony we look right into our neighbor's living room. Might as well bring our chairs out on the street and join in.
We are the outsiders, the other, the INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) who come and go with our strange faces (which all look alike to the locals), our clumsy movements and shiny gear. Who knows what we’re up to? Rumors abound. Doctors Without Borders, (MSF), is hiding Muslim terrorists, UNHCR (the UN's refugee agency) gives all the jobs to Muslims; Save the Children won’t build a health clinic in the Rakhine camps. Whatever, when we don’t get to know each other anything is possible. When the fruit bats fly it’s time to get the chairs out on the street.
This is one of hopefully many letters from Myanmar discussing what I am seeing and experiencing as an aid worker or English teacher in the midst of a complex ethnic struggle.
Here, in the town of Sittwe, I am “married” to Yvonne, (my partner in Mendocino), my name is Robert , (many of you know me as Captain Rainbow), and I’m jobless. Yvonne works for an NGO. Her contract is for another 10 months. She’s the big cheese with a local staff of about 70, and, as they come and go, about 3 ex pats. We live in a house with the other expats. The house is rather uptown. Concrete and tile, a lurid pink color, flush toilets! (who knows where it goes), a refrigerator, and to the amazement of everybody, a washer and dryer just showed up which nobody knows how to set up or use.
Sittwe is the administrative capitol of Rakhine state, situated on the West coast of Myanmar bordering the Bay of Bengal. Though it is possible to get here by road, Rakhine state is isolated by a mountain range from the rest of the country and travel by land is difficult. The UN and NGO’s, (non governmental organizations), have been here for years and more are coming .They are here basically because sectarian violence and destruction of villages by cyclones over the past several years has caused the government to relocate these populations. The NGO’s and UN, in cooperation with the government, provide the shelter, healthcare, water and sanitation. Coming will be more schools and livelihood projects. There is training for carpenters and projects planting mangroves along the shoreline. Sounds like a plan, don’t it?
Well, if that’s what you think, think again. In fact, if you begin with that concept (and many of us in the West do, myself included, and I should know better), you will be hopelessly misled. If we stay with our boxed linear thinking, accepting the happy talk description offered by the media, there is no chance we can understand. There are layers upon layers of history, political maneuvering, corruption, cultural nuances, bungling and bad will at play here. All of this leading to distrust and suspicion among all of the “stakeholders” (NGO speak for anybody involved). I am a little hesitant at present to lay out the background as many of the assumptions I came here with have been proven wrong and I’m learning stuff every day. For a very general overview try Wikipedia or google Myanmar, taking into consideration the Westerncentric point of view. From there read BBC and Al-Jazeera reports from the last couple years, but use that as a very informal frame of reference, subject to change.
You may have heard about the troubles that began in this area a couple of years ago. There was burning of hundreds of homes and businesses. A few hundred people have been killed and many more injured. This violence has been between the majority Rakhine, Buddhist population and the minority Muslim/Bengali/Rohinga population. (No one can agree on what to call these folks). Add to the mix the central government which has issues with both groups, appoints the officials (who for the most part are not from Rakhine State), and controls the police and military. Don’t forget to throw in the radical Buddhist monks whipping up public sentiment throughout Myanmar against the ethnic minority Muslims concentrated in Rakhine state. And of course the icing on the cake, the international community which brings it’s own set of priorities to this stew.
The result of all these stakeholders (and there are many subgroups within those mentioned) maneuvering for their own interests is the predictable mess. Much of the Muslim population in some areas have been moved to camps. There are Rakhine camps as well. There are well over 100,000 people now, some still in tents, in areas prone to flooding — remember it’s monsoon season with cyclone season coming up. These are called temporary camps meaning there’s been no real planning, latrines are flooding, wooden walkways are being torn up as soon as they are built for cooking fires. A vacuum of community organizing has allowed "sharks” to come in, controlling the contracting for camp construction and the economy within the camps. A mafia that is rumored to demand half of people's food rations and resell them.
I watch a barefoot monk on the street. He is perfectly framed by our doorway as he pauses to of all things light a cigarette. The rain thunders down so hard it appears as smoke on the rooftops. The monk hunkers under his umbrella as he flicks his bic. I try to imagine from my dry as damp can be condition what it must be like in those camps. I can’t, but I’ll tell you about it when I can.