SITTWE, MYANMAR: Hindus once sold food to Rohingyas, spoke the same language and even cut the hair of their Muslim neighbors. But co-existence among the collage of ethnicities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has been ruptured—perhaps irreversibly—by the bloodshed of the last month.
Violence has periodically cut through the western state, where communal rivalries have been sharpened by British colonial meddling, chicanery by Myanmar’s army and fierce dispute over who does —and does not—belong in Rakhine.
But the events of August 25, when raids by Rohingya militants unleashed a swirl of violence across the north, have sunk Rakhine to new depths of hate.
“All of our family died at the village… we will not go back,” said Chaw Shaw Chaw Thee, one of hundreds of displaced Hindus seeking shelter in the state capital Sittwe.
The 20-year-old said she lost 23 family members as Rohingya militants swarmed the clutch of Hindu villages in Kha Maung Seik, near the Bangladesh border.
On Sunday the army said 28 badly decomposed bodies of Hindu men, women and children had been pulled from two mass graves in the same area.
It was not immediately clear if they belonged to Chaw Shaw Chaw Thee’s family.
Heavily pregnant when she fled, she gave birth at a disused football stadium in Sittwe, where hundreds of traumatized Hindus now sleep on grubby mats in the overcrowded concourse.
An army lockdown has made it impossible to independently verify what happened in the villages of northern Rakhine, an area dominated by Rohingya Muslims who are a minority elsewhere in the mainly Buddhist country.
But allegations, carved along ethnic lines, are spinning out as conspiracy and competing identity claims override empathy between former neighbors.
Hindus, who make up less than one percent of Rakhine’s population, accuse Rohingya of massacreing them, burning their homes and kidnapping women for marriage.
Meanwhile, the Rohingya, some 430,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh, trade accusations with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists of grisly mob attacks and army “clearance operations” that have emptied their villages.
Small ethnic groups such as the Mro, Thet and Diagnet have also been caught up in the killings and chaos of the last month.
“We were barbers for Muslims, our women sold things in Muslim villages, I had Muslim friends, we had no problems,” said Kyaw Kyaw Naing, a 34-year-old Hindu who can dance across linguistic divides in Hindi, Rakhine, Burmese and Rohingya.
Community ties in what is also Myanmar’s poorest state have now unraveled.
“We want to go back, but we will not if the Muslims are there.”
Last week Myanmar’s leader Aung san Suu Kyi told the international community that Rohingya refugees were welcome back if they were properly “verified”.