By TODD PITMAN
Sept. 30, 2012 9:50 PM EDT
SITTWE, Myanmar (AP) — There are no Muslim faithful in most of this crumbling town's main mosques anymore, no Muslim students at its university.
They're gone from the market, missing from the port, too terrified to walk on just about any street downtown.
Three-and-a-half months after some of the bloodiest clashes in a generation between Myanmar's ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslims known as Rohingya left the western town of Sittwe in flames, nobody is quite sure when — or even if — the Rohingya will be allowed to resume the lives they once lived here.
The conflict has fundamentally altered the demographic landscape of this coastal state capital, giving way to a disturbing policy of government-backed segregation that contrasts starkly with the democratic reforms Myanmar's leadership has promised the world since half a century of military rule ended last year.
While the Rakhine can move freely, some 75,000 Rohingya have effectively been confined to a series of rural displaced camps outside Sittwe and a single downtown district they dare not leave for fear of being attacked.
For the town's Muslim population, it's a life of exclusion that's separate, and anything but equal.
"We're living like prisoners here," said Thant Sin, a Rohingya shopkeeper who has been holed up since June in the last Rohingya-dominated quarter of central Sittwe that wasn't burned down.
Too afraid to leave, the 47-year-old cannot work anyway. The blue wooden doors of his shuttered pharmaceutical stall sit abandoned inside the city's main market — a place only Rakhine are now allowed to enter.
The crisis in western Myanmar goes back decades and is rooted in a highly controversial dispute over where the region's Muslim inhabitants are really from. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated here as foreigners — intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
The U.N. estimates their number at 800,000. But the government does not count them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups, and so — like Bangladesh — denies them citizenship. Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a distinct Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.
In late May, tensions boiled over after the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman, allegedly by three Rohingya, in a town south of Sittwe. By mid-June, skirmishes between rival mobs carrying swords, spears and iron rods erupted across the region. Conservative estimates put the death toll at around 100 statewide, with 5,000 homes burned along with dozens of mosques and monasteries.
Sittwe suffered more damage than most, and today blackened tracts of rubble-strewn land filled with knotted tree stumps are scattered everywhere. The largest tract, called Narzi, once was home to 10,000 Muslims.
Human Rights Watch accused security forces of colluding with Rakhine mobs at the height of the mayhem, opening fire on Rohingya even as they struggled to douse the flames of their burning homes.
Speaking to a delegation of visiting American diplomats earlier this month, Border Affairs Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Htay described Sittwe's new status quo. Drawing his finger across a city map, he said there are now "lines that cannot be crossed" by either side, or else "there will be aggression ... there will be disputes."
"It's not what we want," he added with a polite smile. "But this is the reality we face."
While police and soldiers are protecting mosques and guarding Rohingya in camps, there is much they cannot control. One group of 300 local Buddhist leaders, for example, issued pamphlets urging the Rakhine not to do business with the Rohingya or even talk to them. It is the only way, they say, to avert violence.
Inside Sittwe's once mixed municipal hospital, a separate ward has been established to serve Muslim patients only; on a recent day, it was filled with just four patients whose families said they could only get there with police escorts.
At the town's university, only Rakhine now attend. And at the main market, plastic identity cards are needed to enter: pink for shopkeepers, yellow for customers, none for Rohingya.
The crisis has posed one of the most serious challenges yet to Thein Sein's nascent government, which declared a state of emergency and warned the unrest could threaten the country's nascent transition toward democracy if it spread.
Although the clashes have been contained and an independent commission has been appointed to study the conflict and recommend solutions, the government has shown little political will to go further.
The Rohingya are a deeply unpopular cause in Myanmar, where even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former political prisoners imprisoned by the army have failed to speak out on their behalf. In July, Thein Sein himself suggested the Rohingya should be sent to any other country willing to take them.
"In that context, we're seeing them segregated into squalid camps, fleeing the country, and in some cases being rounded up and imprisoned," said Matthew Smith, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who authored a recent report for the New York-based group on the latest unrest.
In places like Sittwe, "there is a risk of permanent segregation," Smith said. "None of this bodes well for the prospects of a multi-ethnic democracy."
In the meantime, the government's own statistics indicate the crisis is worsening — at least for the Rohingya.
While the total number of displaced Rakhine statewide has declined from about 24,000 at the start of the crisis to 5,600 today, the number of displaced Rohingya has risen from 52,000 to 70,000, mostly in camps just outside Sittwe.
The government has blamed the rise on Rohingya it says didn't lose homes but who are eager to gain access to aid handouts. Insecurity is also likely a factor, though. Amnesty International has accused authorities of detaining hundreds of Rohingya in a post-conflict crackdown aimed almost exclusively at Muslims. And in August, 3,500 people were displaced after new clashes saw nearly 600 homes burned in the town of Kyauktaw, according to the U.N.
Elsewhere in Rakhine state, the army has resumed forced labor against Muslims, ordering villagers to cultivate the military's paddy fields, act as porters and rebuild destroyed homes, according to a report by the Arakan Project, an activist group.
In Sittwe, mutual fear and distrust runs so high that most of the 7,000 Rohingya crammed inside a dilapidated quarter called Aung Mingalar have not set foot outside it since June. It's the last Muslim-inhabited block downtown, a tiny place that takes about five minutes to cross by foot.
Thant Sin, the Rohingya shopkeeper who lives in Aung Mingalar, said the government delivers rice but getting almost everything else requires exorbitant bribes and connections. There is just one mosque. There are no clinics, medical care or schools, and Thant Sin is worried his savings will run out in weeks.
The married father of five has been unable to open his market stall since authorities ordered it shut three months ago. One told him, "This for the Rakhine now," he recalled.
"All we want to do is go back to work," he said. "The government is doing nothing to help us get our lives back."
All four roads into Aung Mingalar are guarded by police, and outside, past the roadblocks of barbed wire and wood that divide the district from the rest of town, Rakhine walk freely — sometimes yelling racial slurs or hurling stones from slingshots.
Across the street, a 57-year-old Rakhine, Aye Myint, leaned back in a rusted metal chair and peered at a group of bearded Muslim men in Aung Mingalar.
"I feel nothing for those people now," he said. "After what happened ... they cannot be trusted anymore. To tell the truth, we want them out of here."
Hla Thain, the attorney general of Rakhine state, denied there was any official policy of forced segregation, saying security forces are deployed to protect both sides, not keep them apart. But he acknowledged that there were not enough police or soldiers to make the two communities feel safe, and that huge obstacles to reconciliation remain.
"We want them to live together, that is our goal, but we can't force people to change," he said. "Anger is still running high. Neither side can forget that they lost family members, their homes."
For now, he said, the government is studying every possibility to make life "normal" again. For example: having Rakhine students attend university in the morning, while Rohingya go each afternoon.
Thein Htay, the border minister, was more blunt.
"We may have to build another market center, another trading center, another port" for the Rohingya, he said, because it will be "very difficult otherwise."