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As closure of recently organised IDP camps in Rakhine looms, some fear return

A Hindu family is seen at a shelter near Maungdaw, Rakhine State, on 12 September 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

The Rakhine State government is set to close down, by 2 November, temporary camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) affected by the most recent violence to plague the state, insisting that calm has been restored at their original places of residence.

Some remain doubtful, however, and are reluctant to return to home villages where they say they would still feel unsafe.

“We got the official letter [issued by the Rakhine State government] on 28 October. The district administrator also informed us,” said Nimal of the Hindu Social Welfare Organization based in the town of Maungdaw.

“Hindu people are in fear of going back to their villages as their houses were burned down and also they are fearful of living among Muslims. They begged us to let them stay near this town or on the roadside.”

Despite those concerns, “They [government officials] said they will relocate the displaced people to Tamanthar, Kyeinchaung and Shwezar [villages]. However, Hindu people do not dare to live in those Muslim-dominated villages. Some of them lost their houses to fire. Some of their family members were killed. They do not have a place to stay; they are having a crisis,” Nimal said.

A series of attacks on police outposts and a military installation on 25 August by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), and an aggressive counter-insurgency campaign by Burmese security forces, prompted the internal displacement of thousands of civilians over the weeks that followed the ARSA assault.

While the internal displacement has been significant, it pales in comparison to the more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled across the border to Bangladesh since 25 August. Refugees in squalid camps there have accused Burmese security forces of atrocities committed against the Rohingya that the top UN human rights official has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

The government and military deny that widespread abuses have been perpetrated as security forces have sought to track down ARSA militants. State media, meanwhile, has put particular emphasis on the hardships faced by “ethnic” populations affected by the conflict, terminology that is understood to mean non-Rohingya residents of Rakhine State caught up in the violence.

IDPs from Kaing Gyi village, which made headlines as the site of several unexplained murders in early August, have since left camps in Buthidaung Township and are currently residing inside a primary school in Kaing Gyi.

The government has plans to build 50 houses for them. In the meantime, as IDPs from Kaing Gyi village are in urgent need of shelter, they are attempting to build makeshift huts on their own.

“The space in the school is very packed since more than 40 families are residing there. Eight [ethnic Mro] people were killed in our village so we are still very concerned about going back there. We will build some huts by ourselves outside Kaing Gyi village, on the roadside,” said San Tun, a Kaing Gyi village local.

Elsewhere, more than 200 villagers from Nant Thar Taung, a village that was burned to the ground, also continue to seek refuge at temporary camps in Maungdaw town.

“We have not been told that we have to leave the camp yet. We cannot go back to Nant Thar Taung village. We do not dare to,” said Win Hlaing, a local from Nant Thar Taung.

Thousands fled the violence in northern Rakhine State in late August and September and sought refuge in temporary camps in Sittwe, Buthidaung and other townships in Rakhine State.

In the weeks since, many have already left the camps and resettled in their villages. However, for those whose villages were torched, returning home remains an issue.

The remaining IDP families, many of which are Hindu, are residing at the Danyawadi football grounds in Sittwe, the Maungdaw Sasana Beikman relief camp and a high school nearby.

The Rakhine State government has instructed the remaining IDPs to inform township and village administrators of any “necessary arrangements” regarding return to their respective villages. Programmes providing cash assistance and/or rations to the relief camps will end after 2 November.

With reporting by Ko Aung