Buddhist And Muslim Relations Underly Southeast Asia Refugee Crisis

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Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has a crisis. The ethnic Buddhists and minority Muslims fought in 2012, and that incident underlies the "boat people" crisis facing several Southeast Asian nations.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next report begins with a woman who was driven from her home. She is a refugee and her story takes us inside a cause of a refugee crisis.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's a conflict between ethnic groups in Myanmar. It's prompting members of one group to flee the country in small boats, at the risk of their lives.

INSKEEP: Those being driven out are known as the Rohingya. They are mostly Muslim, and that makes them a religious minority among Myanmar's majority Buddhists.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited Myanmar, and he visited with that woman who was forced to flee.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Zora Beguns (ph) sits surrounded by piles of red chilies, yellow curry powder and purple shallots. Her spice shop is in a Rohingyan internment camp. She's not allowed to leave the camp except under armed police escort. It's been that way since violence between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists broke out in 2012 after which many Rohingya fled or were forced into the camps. But the Rakhine, Zora Beguns complains, are free to go anywhere they like.

ZORA BEGUNS: (Through interpreter) I cannot return to my own neighborhood. I cannot go to the market or anywhere. But the Rakhine can come here openly. For that, I am angry at the Rakhine.

KUHN: Rakhine merchants still come to the internment camp to deliver their wares to their Rohingya counterparts. One of them is Noor Mohammad (ph), a former Rohingya Police Sergeant. He runs a small secondhand lumber business. He says that while he's already forgiven the Rakhine for the violence of 2012, his relations with his Rakhine suppliers remain a bit touchy.

NOOR MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) We've been living together and doing business here for more than 200 years. But to put it simply, the Rakhine did a bad thing - they looted and destroyed everything we had. So we have little trust right now, and we're not paying them up front. We pay them when they deliver the lumber.

KUHN: Could you live side-by-side with your old neighbors tomorrow, if you were allowed to go?

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) If the authorities can guarantee our security, we have no problem living with the Rakhine. If the government lets us move back, we're ready to go.

KUHN: Myanmar's government says it's working to move the Rohingya out of the camps and into new homes. But it says it will take time to reintegrate the Rohingya and the Rakhine because there's still bad blood between them. Tin Maung Swe is executive secretary of the Rakhine State government.

TIN MAUNG SWE: We have to relocate 5,000 families to the separate house - not like a camp. We will construct a separate house for their normal life.

KUHN: Have you started building yet?

SWE: Yeah. Already, we have constructed 2,000 houses.

KUHN: That's a small fraction of the total number of Rohingya living in the camps, and it's unclear how long it could take to resettle them. The Rohingya cite government policy as part of the problem. It does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens. But Tin Maung Swe adds that the government is helping eligible Rohingya to apply for so-called green cards, which allows them to become naturalized immigrants. Abdul Sallam (ph) is a member of one of the Rohingya internment camp's governing committees. He says that the cards imply that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and that's not fair.

ABDUL SALLAM: (Through interpreter) We have no need to apply for green cards. Those are for foreigners who immigrate to Myanmar. We did not immigrate from another country. We were born and raised here.

KUHN: Abdul Sallam says the government is manipulating the Rohingya crisis for its own political ends. That's an argument I heard from both Rohingya and Rakhine people. It suggests that both groups share a distrust of the government. Tin Tun Aung (ph) is president of the Arakan National Network, a Rakhine civic group.

TIN TUN AUNG: (Through interpreter) There were enough border security forces in the Rakhine State to stop the violence in 2012, but they didn't. They only tried to reap political gains from it.

KUHN: Tin Tun Aung says that the government scores points with Buddhists by appearing to side with them against the Rohingya. And it scores points against opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi by portraying her as sympathetic to the Rohingya. Analysts point out, though, that any domestic political advantage Myanmar's government may have scored has come at a very high cost in terms of international public opinion.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Sittwe, Myanmar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.