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After retiring from the army in October 2011, Saw Aung returned to his family home in Arakan State’s Ramree Township. He was 73 at the time.
But the idyll of his golden years was short-lived.
One year after coming back, his home was burnt to the ground amid communal violence between Arakanese Buddhists and Muslims in Ramree, part of a wave of clashes that swept the state and left hundreds dead in separate incidents during 2012.
He and his family were sent to a refugee camp, where they lived for four years.
“Although there were some members of the army, police and administrative bodies there, no one tried to stop the fire,” Saw Aung recalled during a press conference at the Royal Rose restaurant in Rangoon in late April.
Saw Aung is Kaman, the only ethnic group of Muslims recognised by Burma’s government. Before 2012, the Kaman, who number in the tens of thousands, enjoyed considerably more rights than the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority of about one million people who were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 and deemed newcomers from Bangladesh.
But after the violence, the Kaman struggled with some of the same problems facing the Rohingya, who make up most of the more than 120,000 people still living in IDP camps in Arakan, which is also known as Rakhine.
Though they could vote in the 2015 election that brought longtime dissident Aung San Suu Kyi to power, many Kaman find it difficult to this day to gain national identity cards, a crucial requirement for freedom of movement.
While they have tried at times to distance themselves from the Rohingya, they face discrimination anyway and some have been accused of trying to fake their own identity to get proper documents.
In a cruel twist, the plight of the Kaman is often overlooked by the international community, who have focused intensely on the much larger Rohingya crisis, especially since a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslim militants started in October following attacks on police border guard posts.
Members of the Kaman community gathered at the Rose Restaurant to raise several concerns about their rights and call for resettlement.
After his house was destroyed, Saw Aung and two relatives lived in a small room at the refugee camp in Ramree that sheltered more than 700 people. It flooded during the rainy season. Fed up with the conditions many in the camp later moved in with relatives in other cities in Burma. Saw Aung and family went to Rangoon.
Tun Myint, another Kaman man who spoke at the Royal Rose, said that more than 1,000 men holding swords had surrounded his village in 2012. But he escaped the mob, hiding in a pigsty owned by Arakanese Buddhist friends.
“This is a proof of our close relationship with Rakhine people. They also protected us from the attackers,” he said.
Although he felt well-off and comfortable in Ramree, Tun Myint had his share of misfortune after 2012. He moved to a refugee camp for three years before taking his family to Rangoon, where he struggled financially.
“We had to live in a bamboo house for more than one year in Yangon [Rangoon], although we had an ordinary life in Ramree. My sons had to live separately from their wives, and we became homeless people,” he said.
Religious oppression a factor?
The Kaman are Muslim, but they share many cultural and traditional traits with their Buddhist Rakhine neighbours, leaving them sometimes stuck in the middle of an enduring conflict.
They continue to be oppressed because of their faith, said Tin Win Hlaing, Secretary of the Kaman National Progressive Party,
“We, Kaman people, were treated unlawfully. We have spent five years of our time at the camps without regard from two successive governments,” he said, referring to the new administration of Suu Kyi and the previous military-backed president Thein Sein, who was at the helm as Burma launched reforms in 2011.
The Kaman should receive better treatment, Tin Win Hlaing argued, because they are “one of Burma’s 135 ethnic races.”
Situations at refugee camps
The Kaman have lived mostly in Arakan in the townships of Sittwe, Thandwe, Ramree and Kyaukphyu.
They were targeted in 2012 and many now live in refugee camps. There are 600 Kaman in a camp near Tan village in Ramree and 1,115 close to Kyauktalone village in Kyaukphyu.
Maung Phyu Shae is from Kyaukphyu but moved to the Kyauktalone camp when riots broke out in October 2012, the second of two major clashes that year. He thought it might be temporary, but he and his family are still there.
The education of his children suffered and his family members could not get work, circumstances that are also rife in Rohingya camps in central and northern Arakan.
His family members have been living in a tarpaulin tent for five years. They have little hope of returning home.
“We do not get a daily income of [more than] 500 kyat [US36 cents] for more than five years at the camp,” he said.
Although the situation has stabilized in Kyaukphyu, the authorities say the Kaman cannot go back, citing security concerns. Instead they want the displaced Kaman to set up new residential wards near Kyaukphyu, using plots set aside for families, Maung Phyu Shae said.
He thinks this is unnecessary.
“No one disturbed us when we went to Kyaukphyu. Extremist Arakanese people in previous riots were the strangers. The local Arakan people and Kaman people have been living in peaceful coexistence for centuries,” he said.
Tun Ngwe, chairman of the Kaman Social Network, a civil society organisation, said community representatives held talks with officials from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Rescue and Resettlement in Sittwe Township on 6 May, and reached an agreement for the return of 65 families from Ramree camp.
But refugees from the Kyauktalone camp have not been allowed to do the same thus far.
“When we asked authorities to go back to our native land that was allocated by an ancient king, they promised to rebuild new homes for refugees,” Tun Ngwe said.