Rohingya Muslims both in refugee camps in Bangladesh and in cities in Myanmar are raising humanitarian relief funds for Buddhist Rakhine people displaced by fighting in their northern Myanmar state, easing traditional hostility between the two ethnic groups, sources say.
Collected funds are going to provide refugees with shelter and food amid a surge of coronavirus infections in Rakhine state, where fighting between government troops and the ethnic Arakan Army (AA) has killed nearly 300 civilians and driven more than 220,000 from their homes since late 2018.
The fighting between the Myanmar military and the AA, an ethnic Rakhine armed force which is battling for greater autonomy in the western state, erupted a year after a scorched-earth military crackdown drove 740,000 Rohingya Muslims from the same region to overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees in those same camps are now raising funds to help displaced ethnic Rakhines despite a long history of communal tensions between the two groups, minorities that share a long history in Rakhine state and recent experience of mistreatment by the Myanmar army, according to one Rohingya source.
“We gave 500,000 Myanmar kyat [U.S. $394] to the war victims in Rakhine through the Rakhine State Students Union,” Maung Maung Tin, a resident of the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“Many young students contributed toward that amount, and adults also contributed,” he said, adding, “We are now working for continued cooperation between the Rakhine Students Union and the Rohingya Students Union.”
Rohingya Muslims living in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, along with Rohingya who were born in Sittwe but now live and work in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, are also seeking donations in their own communities and are sending them back as humanitarian aid, other sources said.
Some has been designated for coronavirus prevention measures in Rakhine, where 1,352 cases of infection and four deaths have recently been confirmed, and is being distributed through the Sittwe-based Wan Lark Foundation.
Rakhine state, which lies on the Bay of Bengal next to Bangladesh, became a coronavirus hotspot in August, as a second wave of the pandemic hit the Southeast Asian country of 54 million people.
A humanitarian effort
Funds are being sent as a “humanitarian effort” and without discriminating between the mostly Buddhist ethnic Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingya, one Rohingya resident of Yangon said.
“We sympathize with anyone who is having difficulties,” the resident named Maung Maung Tun said. “That is our only consideration. We pity them, we sympathize with them—the victims, whoever they may be.”
Victims of the fighting in Rakhine are in fact facing more difficulties now than the Rohingya themselves, said Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya community leader now living in the Thekkeh Byin refugee camp in Sittwe.
“I saw this on Facebook,” he said. “Their houses and other things were set on fire. They have had to move to other places to live, and their shelters do not protect them from the rain or the wind. We feel bad that they have to live like this.”
“We wanted to support them before, but there weren’t any opportunities,” he said.
Rohingya efforts to help the Rakhine are now helping build trust between the two communities, which fought each other in 2012 in violent clashes that drove hundreds of Rohingya from their burned-out homes and into camps, sources said.
‘This is a good sign’
Kyaw Min, chairman of the Rohingya Democracy and Human Rights Party, said that the Muslim Rohingya sympathize with the people of Rakhine who have now also been driven from their homes in clashes with the Myanmar army.
“Since the Rohingya people themselves have been living like this as refugees since 2012, they truly sympathize with others who are going through this too,” he said.
“Since the conflicts in 2012, we can see that relationships are being strengthened,” said Khine Kaung San of the Wan Lark Foundation, adding, “[Rohingya] are showing sympathy for the oppressed Rakhine people, and this is a good sign.”
“These kinds of donations are helping to smooth the original problems between the two groups. Trust can now grow stronger,” he said.
Good will had previously existed between the Rohingya and Rakhine, but had been forgotten because of propaganda focused on race and religion, added Aye Lwin, a Muslim community leader in Yangon.
“It’s true that we have sympathy for each other—especially the young people, the youth from the Students Unions, who are committed to the truth. They are not afraid of anything,” he said. “They demonstrate genuine sympathy.”
“I would like to say that this is a natural law,” said Aye Lwin, a former member of a commission led by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan tasked with finding solutions to the ethnic conflicts in Rakhine.
More than 226,000 peoples have been displaced by fighting in Rakhine state between government troops and the Arakan Army, with over 77,000 now sheltering in 163 refugee camps in ten Rakhine townships, according to figures provided on Oct. 9 by the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, which has been helping war victims in the camps.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Richard Finney.