Six Rohingya died in a blaze early Friday caused by embers from a kitchen fire at the Ohn Daw Che camp in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, highlighting the dangers of overpopulated camps housing the stateless Muslim minority group, Rakhine fire department officials said.
Among the dead at the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, which houses about 4,000 Rohingya in Sittwe township, are two children, aged 11 and 12, they said. The others who perished are men aged 20, 30, 45, and 60.
Charges have been filed against a Rohingya man who caused the fire that resulted in about 37 million kyats (U.S. $23,150) in damage, fire department officials said.
The blaze burned down 15 buildings that housed more than 800 people from 141 households, forcing them to seek shelter with relatives or in makeshift tents, they said.
“Two-thirds of the fire victims are staying in temporary tents because their relatives don’t have any more room in their homes,” a local resident who did not provide his name told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They urgently need food and waterproof plastic sheets for their temporary tents.”
The Rakhine government has paid 300,000 kyats (U.S. $188) to each family member of those who died in the fire, said state government spokesman Win Myint. It has also provided a week's worth of rice and other goods to the affected families and is building a temporary shelter for those who lost their homes.
Myanmar is in the process of closing down IDP camps in Rakhine’s Sittwe district and in Kyauktaw and Myebon townships, where mostly Rohingya were housed following waves of clashes in the ethnically and religiously divided state in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 140,000 Muslims.
More than 94,000 Rohingya live in the dozen IDP camps that remain in Sittwe township.
Colonel Phone Tint, Rakhine state’s security and border affairs minister, told RFA on Friday that the government has built 100 houses for Muslim IDPs in Myebon, and plans to build 642 additional houses so that the township’s camps can be shut down.
“We are also working to shut down IDP and refugee camps in Sittwe township,” he said.
In August, authorities closed the Nidin IDP camp in Kyauktaw township and resettled the nearly 600 Rohingya who had been living there in new homes in Nidin village.
The camp closures are being overseen by a Myanmar government committee responsible for implementing recommendations by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a group led by late former U.N. chief Kofi Annan that proposed ways to solve sectarian tensions between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the state.
The commission’s report called for the closure of IDP camps, for reviews of Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, and for an end to restrictions on Rohingya to preclude further violence in the region.
‘We are living in a jail’
Those still confined to the camps complain about restrictions on their movements and other limitations that are part of the systematic discrimination that the Rohingya face in Myanmar where they are denied citizenship because they are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“We face many hardships in the camp,” said Thein Maung, an official at the Darpaing IDP camp in the rural area of Sittwe township.
“We could travel freely before when we lived in Sittwe, [but] we now have to travel with security guards, even when we really need to travel for emergency health care,” he said. “It is like we are living in a jail.”
Though the Muslims who live in the camp have rice, cooking oil, salt, and some medicine, they didn’t have cooking oil for two months, but were given money instead, he said.
Thein Maung also said that he told U.N. agency officials about the difficulties the Muslims face when they visited the camp in early October.
"When the Muslims first moved into the camp, they only had coconuts to eat because they couldn’t buy rice as none was available, even if they could pay for it," he said.
But then the World Food Programme stepped in and began providing rice, he added.
“If they pay us money instead for rice and cooking oil, these items are very expensive, and we are not allowed to travel to buy them,” he said.
Kyaw Sein, a resident of the Bawduba IDP camp in Sittwe, said that donor organizations that have provided food to the Rohingya, who have been living there since 2012, don’t always provide enough for them to eat.
“We have food if there are donors, but we have nothing to eat if there are no donors,” he said. “The donors haven’t given us enough rice this month, and they don’t give us any more cooking oil.”
“We can’t work outside the camp because we are not allowed to leave,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
Myanmar has also been building houses for Rohingya refugees who will return to Rakhine state from Bangladesh under a repatriation program that has yet to get fully underway.
About 720,000 Rohingya fled the region and headed across the border during a brutal military crackdown in northern Rakhine state in 2017, a campaign that amounted to genocide according to the U.N. Human Rights Council and other members of the international community.
A report issued by a U.N.-backed fact-finding mission in late August detailed violence by Myanmar security forces and called for the prosecution of top military commanders on genocide charges at the International Criminal Court or at another criminal tribunal.
Burgener in Kachin state
When Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N.’s special envoy to Myanmar, visited northern Rakhine state on Oct. 15, she met with representatives from Muslim, ethnic Rakhine Buddhist, and Hindu communities in the troubled multiethnic region.
Burgener is working with the Myanmar government on how the U.N. can help with the return and resettlement of Rohingya who fled the crackdown by security forces following deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group.
On Wednesday and Thursday, she visited northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, where the Myanmar military has been engaged in hostilities with an ethnic armed group since 2011 and has come under fire by rights groups for committing abuses against ethnic minority civilians. The conflict has displaced more than 100,000 people, many of whom are living in IDP camps.
During a stop at an IDP camp in Kachin’s Waingmaw township, a youth civil society group gave Burgener an open letter about the current political situation there, and called on the U.N. to support a move by the ICC to investigate Myanmar military leaders.
Sut Sai Twel, a member of the Kachin Youth Movement, told RFA that the letter also urged the U.N. to put pressure on the local government to provide education to all and to allow international aid to be delivered to IDPs.
Rights groups accuse the Myanmar government of blocking humanitarian aid to the tens of thousands of Kachin civilians forcibly displaced by civil war.
The letter also called for help from international organizations to address a growing number of arrests and legal actions taken against youth activists who have called for peace.
The Myanmar army filed lawsuits earlier this year against some demonstrators who participated in peaceful protests in Kachin's capital Myitkyina, who demanded an end to hostilities in the state and called on the Myanmar government to rescue of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Thant Zin Oo, and Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.