A Bottle of Water in Sittwe

Walking on the streets of Sittwe, the tension is always palpable. The capital of Rakhine State in Myanmar is marked by the hesitant smiles of locals and deep gazes that seek to thoroughly pierce through a visitor’s body. When you land at Sittwe airport, they ask you to write your name, your passport number and the details of your stay, including the places you plan on visiting within Rakhine. This is a rule that is applied uniformly to tourists, business visitors, and development/aid workers. As you exit the one-room arrivals terminal, the toothy smiles of taxi drivers bring in a familiar sense of welcome that you would find almost anywhere in Myanmar. The country has opened up to the world, even as in distant quarters of the Union the line between truth and truth-telling has gradually blurred.

Muslim camp on the outskirts of Sittwe town

Muslim camp on the outskirts of Sittwe town

As an international (used here as a synonym for ‘foreigner’) development worker living and working in Myanmar, the time that I spent in Sittwe came to define the boundaries of my engagement with the destinies of those who I wish to help. I visited Sittwe for the first time in February 2016, as part of a field trip that was intended to introduce me to the local context and aid in my research for a working paper on the socio-economic and conflict situation in Rakhine State. The humanitarian situation in Rakhine State has been discussed and reported as a religious and political issue that plagues Myanmar’s transition to democracy. I therefore seek to achieve something different by writing about Rakhine not merely as subject of analysis, but as an experience that throws light upon what makes this humanitarian situation, human.

Consider for a second what you look like. Does your face, the colour of your skin, do these things betray your place of origin? Do they signify your ethnicity or your race? More importantly, are you comfortable with such a betrayal? What if a thousand lives depended on it?

Sittwe was the first place in Myanmar, where I was forced to consider whether my sudden presence in the local context makes things worse. In this regard, the way I look and what it tells the local population about me is important. I am South Asian, with a Bengali heritage and facial features that mark me as physically similar to perhaps a portion of the Muslim population that lives in Myanmar – be it Yangon, or the camps in Sittwe. The similarities and the accompanying looks of suspicion or amazement are something I have normalized as a part of my existence in this country of conundrums. On a particularly hot February afternoon in Sittwe, I walked into a tiny store and asked for a bottle of water. While handing me some change, the man asked me:

Where you from?

India.

Ah. Not Bangladeshi?

At this point I was hesitant to say that I am half-Bengali because the term ‘Bengali’ is used by the government to refer to the Rohingya living in refugee camps in Rakhine.

No, I’m not from Bangladesh.

I thought Bangladeshi. You don’t look like Myanmar.

I thanked him for the water, smiled, and walked away.

My presence in Sittwe that afternoon, and this seemingly innocent exchange between a visitor and a local unknowingly established the “otherness” of people who look like me and seek to live a life of promise in Myanmar. This realization matters to me. It should matter to anyone who wishes to understand the Rakhine conflict from a human perspective.

As pointed out here by a commentator, “On all issues, the people of Myanmar are with you. But on the Rohingya issue, the people will never be with you.”

The failure of the so-called international community to understand this aspect of the humanitarian situation in Rakhine is almost expected, given the lethargy with which the delicate interplay of history, ethnicity, and race is understood by external observers of the conflict in Myanmar. In pointing out the misgivings of contemporary international coverage of Rakhine, I do not seek to condone the abuses being perpetrated against the Rohingya. However, I do seek to address a flaw in our understanding of the dynamics of Myanmar’s society – that in calling for the social and political acceptance of a persecuted minority, we have unknowingly established that it is something that can be accomplished with international pressure. The reality of Myanmar however, is that international pressure cannot and will not transform the Rohingya into a legitimate minority that belongs within the borders of the Union.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy need to play their part in diffusing rumour mongering, and must openly reject the use of excessive force by the military to manage perceived internal threats. However, in Rakhine, indeed in transitional contexts across the world, the survival of minorities is not a question of how much control the majority exercises over them, it is a question of how much control the majority exercises over itself. Daw Suu is still trying to grapple with the latter and the international community needs to support her in that endeavor just as well.

Shagun Gupta

Shagun Gupta

Shagun Gupta is a development worker and has been living in Myanmar since 2015. She holds a master’s degree in global governance and diplomacy from the University of Oxford.
Shagun Gupta

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