by Robert Salisbury, October 30, 2013
Author’s note: What is this anyway? A saga, a story a travelogue? It began as a report on the situation and quickly disintegrated into vignettes of personal experience. The idea being that maybe, just maybe these sights, sounds, smells, feelings and tastes would add up to — surprise-surprise — a clearer idea of what’s going on. What's true anyway? I'm drawing some conclusions through personal experience. Someone else might have a different take on things. I'm not taking poetic license with this stuff, the reality is much wilder than anything I could dream up. In the future there may be something on Clowns Without Borders, teaching Engrish, Monks, Mirauk Oo, and I hope through a consultancy of something or other more stories from the camps. Yvonne is steering her NGO through some stormy waters, it's amazing the twists and turns and last second surprises. Ah, but that's a story for her to tell if she chooses. News from outside Sittwe is always welcome, what's going on with you? And feedback on these pieces how could I improve them? (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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Monsoon about over, waiting for the next cyclone. Pass dat love around. — Captain Rainbow
After much searching we found a house to rent. It is in the Bauk The Zu Quarter not far from Yvonne’s NGO office but a different quarter. As you will see, this fact becomes quite important. We passed up the fancier, all fixed up for Westerners, very expensive rental with well connected wealthy owners in yet another quarter in favor of a “fixer upper” owned by Kyaw Myra Oo. She rules the roost. The family is not rich. The husband is either drunk or sleeping, her grown son doesn’t appear to like working… There are these random people, a little guy who is either nuts or drunk whom we call Tiger Man; a Hindu woman who never speaks but only stares with these huge doe eyes, a young son whom Kyaw Myra Oo jokes comes with the house; and a young woman with a tiny baby I call Buddha baby.
We signed a contract. We thought we covered all the points. We held back 1 million chat, which is about $1,000 to fix the place up. The idea being that in nine months or so these people would have a real nice house. There was a week for them to move out. The place was piled high with bags and bags of used clothing which they sell at the market.
They cooked with a little fire on the floor in the rear. There’s almost no light back there. I never knew if I was stepping in someone’s dinner or something stranger. People would be found sleeping in odd corners, in the middle of the floor, on piles of clothes.
Napping seemed like a major occupation. They didn’t seem to be moving out, at least not very quickly. Two weeks later most of the stuff was gone, at least enough to see what we were up against. But they were still sleeping and cooking there.
No problem, me and tiny little Khine Khine Aye, our friend who calls Yvonne mother, began cleaning around the remaining piles of stuff and the nappers. It was a daunting prospect. Scraping down the walls, windows and floors, scrubbing years of living close to the bone, finding those bones. The roof leaks, the windows leak, the walls leak.
Never mind, after cyclone season it dries out. Finally, after five or six days we had the inside swabbed out, and with Yvonne’s help had painted the upstairs. The family had stopped sleeping there. Now a mason and carpenter could get to work.
We had forgotten something though.
I found Kyaw Myra Oo very upset. Through a translator she told about the meeting. The Quarter administrator had a gathering at a monastery.
About 100 people from the Quarter were there. It’s unclear who lathered who up, the administrator, the Young Monks Association or a few agitators. At any rate they were lathered up enough to pass a declaration that no foreigners are allowed to rent in their Quarter.
Illegal of course, but lathered is lathered.
Yvonne and I arranged a meeting with the Administrator a couple days later. We brought Hla Min Zu and Than Win from Yvonne’s organization as translators. The administrator had brought all his cronies in for backup I guess. It was not pretty. We thought we could turn this thing around, show much respect, speak to their concerns, dispel some of the wild rumors circulating. Nope, no way, not listening. We also thought that they might share their concerns. We asked politely for a list.
Nothing doing. As is usual it became a discussion between our translators and the administrator’s henchmen speaking Rakhine. We could see which way this was going. Ignorance and intolerance won the day. We left not any wiser than when we showed up, and that group of “out of sight, out of minders” didn’t appear to show any wisdom to begin with, nor were they interested in hearing from us. I had come to the meeting with the naive impression that between Yvonne and her organization’s good standing as far as NGOs go, and my neighborhood balloon man, Tarzan’s, glad hand antics we could win them over.
This thing runs deeper than a few balloon animals.
Kyaw Myra Oo needs to pay back the nine months rent we paid her, but we are sure she has spent all that money renting a place for her and her family. It does not bode well for Yvonne and me ever getting our money back.
This is just a symptom of what is going on here now. Things are very raw.
Did I mention the rumors that Doctors without Borders is hiding dozens of Muslims in their team house? That Sweden is a Muslim country? And the corker for me anyway, the UN and International Red Cross are bringing in truckloads of weapons to the Muslim IDP camps? There are threats against locals and their families who work for the UN or NGOs. Action Faim received a letter saying they better move out of their office or else. Rocks thrown at the newly rented UNICEF office. We’ve heard rumors of ex-pats being jostled on the street, a woman had her purse nabbed by a motorcyclist, something almost unheard of in the past.
These incidents and rumors are minor, but they are increasing. What is not a rumor is that a few weeks ago in Thandwe, south of here, more than 50 Muslim homes were burned with dozens of injuries and five deaths. The Rakhine people are not done with this.
Us foreigners don’t know who is behind it all. Is it the Rakhine political party? What about the Young Monks Association, or extreme Rakhine nationalists. How organized are they? Thandwe, and to a certain extent Sittwe, bear the mark of some kind of planning.
In Sittwe town the populations are totally segregated. A Muslim risks being beaten or worse if he or she steps out of their barbed wire fenced area. In the outlying areas there are IDP camps, (Internally Displaced Persons), holding upwards of 130,000 Muslim people now and separate camps of Rakhine people numbering between 5,000 and 10,000 people. There are also segregated villages. Actually there were always segregated villages, dating back a couple hundred years.
The Rakhine on one side, and Muslim, Rohinga, Bengali, (different names for the same people), populations never mixed, keeping their own languages and religion. There has been trouble over time between the groups, but there has been an economic trading relationship as well.
Now in Sittwe there are no locksmiths, all the best masons and carpenters are gone, and no more cheap labor — all of these people are in the camps, unable to work their trade. There was a web of interlocking relationships that crossed the divide and even now there is some sort of commerce and trading starting up. The how is mysterious but the why is clear (at least to this foreigner): both communities benefit from each other.
It has been fascinating attending some of the meetings between the UN, NGOs and the Minister of Planning and Development. Typical of politicians, the Minister never answers anything directly. A slight man with refined features, he’s got great hand gestures, grabbing the air, palm upraised, as if supporting his thoughts. I get to watch him because he speaks in Myanmar and only later do we get the translation which isn’t half as entertaining as the visuals. Oh, and he wears these cool Asian style jackets buttoned down the side. He’s got the moves and he even kind of comes through sometimes.
However in dealing with a lathered up populace he did not speak to the Rakhine people publicly, but only to NGOs and the UN, saying that we can come live in government compounds. Not acceptable, though if things like the demonstrations this coming weekend turn violent and aid workers may be driven closer to the government.
Meanwhile Yvonne and I keep looking for a place to call home. It’s not getting any easier.