Shadows in the Golden Land

By | Sep 08, 2016

A Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative Story

Myanmar has finally emerged from decades of military dictatorship. But its new democratic government has yet to confront the persecution of the country’s Muslim minority.

by Cameron Conaway

It’s a place where children pass the time by skipping stones against the stagnant sludge in crude open-air sewage canals, where women peer out from behind the frayed tarpaulin doors of their rotting thatched huts when food rations arrive, and where men like 85-year-old Abdul Azid sit outside on red plastic stools and talk in hushed tones about what it’s like to lose their freedom.

For more than four years, Azid and his wife, children and grandchildren have been imprisoned in a government-designated, internally displaced persons camp on the outskirts of the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe in western Myanmar. They have not committed a crime, but they are not allowed to leave. Ohn Taw Gyi South, located along the Bay of Bengal, is one of at least 80 such camps across the state, which together hold about 140,000 people. Labeled concentration camps by groups and individuals ranging from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to The New York Times to Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, they are jammed with Muslims: former students, shop owners and employees, mechanics, fishermen, caretakers, teachers, food vendors—and thousands and thousands of children.

Azid vividly recalls the day, October 24, 2012, when violence erupted between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State. First, police surrounded his home and those of other Muslims in Kyaukpyu and told them to stay inside to remain safe. Then, mobs armed with bottles of petrol lit house after house on fire. “On that day, the Rakhine [Buddhists] forced us to the ocean,” says Azid. “They made a C-shape around us so that fleeing by boat was our only option if we wanted to stay alive.”

Over a three-day period, riots spread across nine townships, engulfing both Muslim and Buddhist communities: More than 100 people were killed, and 40,000 people lost their homes. This was the second of two rounds of ethnic violence in Rakhine that year: The first occurred in June, days after three Muslim men were sentenced to death for the rape and murder of  Thida Htwe, a 28-year-old Buddhist woman. The exact truth of what happened in the grisly attack may never be known, but the violent aftermath exposed the belief pervasive among Buddhists that Muslims are terrorists who want to take over the country and rape Buddhist women.

It’s a prejudice steeped in history and exacerbated by the rising fear of Islamic extremism around the world. Traditionally, it has been directed toward one Muslim ethnic group, the Rohingya, who are often described as among the most persecuted minorities in the world. The Rohingya practice a form of Sunni Islam mixed with elements of Sufism and speak Rohingya, an Indo-European language related to Chittagonian, which is common in neighboring Bangladesh. Of the 3.5 million Rohingya, nearly a quarter live in Myanmar, a country of 53 million that is more than 85 percent Buddhist. Despite their numbers, they are not recognized as one of Myanmar’s official minorities—as are the Kaman, of which Azid is a member. “While other Muslims in Myanmar also face prejudice, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship and singled out for particular persecution,” says Dan Sullivan, a senior advocate at the humanitarian organization Refugees International. “The Rohingya Muslim population has been concentrated near the Bangladeshi border [in Rakhine State] and has been historically less integrated than other Muslims in Myanmar. Location and lack of integration have helped to fuel views of Rohingya as illegal immigrants and made them more susceptible to false portrayals as a rapidly growing existential threat to Buddhist Burmese culture.”

Back in the camp, a man in his mid-20s is standing nearby, listening to my conversation with Azid. His name is Abbas Ali, and he is a Rohingya. “See these roads here?” Ali interjects, pointing past the gate and its armed guards. “The army lined both sides, and after they pulled us out of work or school they marched us by gunpoint down these roads and into the camps, telling us it was for our own protection,” he says.

Azid says: “We all just want to go back home.”

This year, Myanmar—formerly  Burma—has made headlines in the West for a very different reason. The largest country in mainland Southeast Asia has finally emerged from decades of brutal military rule to become a fledgling democracy with the world’s fastest-growing economy and a booming tourist industry. Last March, Htin Kyaw of Myanmar’s long persecuted National League for Democracy (NLD) took over as president—though he is widely considered a proxy for the charismatic and internationally renowned human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Although this transition is a triumph for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, the arrangement belies a key weakness of the new government: Suu Kyi is forbidden by the military to hold the presidency, and the military controls 25 percent of the seats in parliament, making it impossible for the nation’s constitution to be changed.

Some of the challenges facing the new government are daunting. Civil wars with armed insurgents have been raging for years, including what many consider the world’s longest-running civil war, the Karen people’s fight for an independent Karen state, which began shortly after the British withdrew from Burma in 1948. The country is also riddled with ethno-religious nationalism stemming from bitter memories of British occupation, which has led to yet another turbulent front: a violent campaign by a powerful organization of radical Buddhist monks to stigmatize and isolate Muslims, which has been backed by the policies and practices of the military.

A major part of this effort has been focused on erasing the Rohingya from the nation’s history. This is why the government refers to them officially as “Bengalis,” as do most Buddhists. (The racial epithet kalar, meaning “black,” is also widely used for the Rohingya and other Muslims of South Asian appearance.) Calling the Rohingya “Bengalis” denies their long-term presence in the country by linking their arrival to the first British incursion into Burma in Arakan, now Rakhine State, in 1824. “Bengali” implies that the Rohingya, who are darker-skinned than most Buddhists, are foreigners who emigrated from Bangladesh and India during British rule. Not so, says Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan, nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. “A significant Muslim population lived in the independent Kingdom of Mrauk-U that ruled modern-day Rakhine State from the mid-15th century to the late 18th century,” he says. “Many of the Buddhist kings of Mrauk-U even took Muslim honorifics. The evidence suggests that this community is the origin of today’s Rohingya. The Rohingya likely assimilated later waves of immigrants from Bangladesh during and after British rule, but their origin in the country did not begin with them.”

Over the next hundred years, some Buddhist communities were displaced by Muslim immigrants, leading to competition for the area’s resources, according to the Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project.  But tensions reached a fever pitch when the Rohingya sided with the British during World War II, while many Burmese Buddhists sided with Japan. When the military forcibly took control in 1962, Muslim-Buddhist relations further deteriorated. Junta leader Ne Win used anti-Muslim propaganda tactics to consolidate his power, starting with mass expulsions, including one in 1978 in which some 250,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh.

It was Ne Win who promulgated the still infamous 1982 Citizenship Law, a gradually implemented stricture that required all residents in the country to reapply for citizenship by exchanging their old identity documents for new ones. The law divided the country’s citizens into three tiers: full, associate and naturalized. Ne Win established the list of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, which excluded the Rohingya and made them ineligible for full citizenship. People also had to show proof (accepted at the government’s discretion) that they had permanently settled in the country before 1823.


Abdul Azid © Maggie Chestney

Since Ne Win stepped down as head of his party in 1988, the country’s history has been one of struggle between the military and pro-democracy protestors who have risen from an oppressed and impoverished population. That year, the military crushed the student-led 8888 Uprising, but not before the movement found its voice in Aung San Suu Kyi. When she and her National League for Democracy won the 1990 election, the military ignored the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she would remain for 15 out of 21 years—even after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The military also quashed the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” when students, activists and monks took to the streets in nonviolent protests. Meanwhile, the military moved the country’s capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to the secluded new city of Naypyidaw, where it worked to draft a new constitution to consolidate its control.

In 2011, Thein Sein, a retired army general, was appointed president, and he actively pursued anti-Rohingya legislation. He also signed a series of  Race and Religion Protection Laws in 2015 that make it a criminal act to have more than one spouse or to live with an unmarried partner; force people in Myanmar to obtain approval and undergo a rigorous process to change their religion; regulate the marriages of Buddhist women to non-Buddhist men; and space out the birth of children in “certain regions.” Although the laws make no explicit mention of Muslims, they were condemned by Amnesty International and Fortify Rights, a nonprofit human rights organization in Thailand, for targeting them.

One of Sein’s chief allies in shaping these laws was a Buddhist monk named Ashin Wirathu, who was imprisoned in 2003 for inciting religious violence. Soon after his release in 2012, he joined forces with Sein. Wirathu is the leader of Myanmar’s Association to Protect Race and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha.

At age 48, Wirathu possesses a diminutive figure and boyish face that belie his violent influence. As the leader of Ma Ba Tha, he stokes public fear through his portrayals of Muslims as a group of people he believes are intent on taking over his country, and then the world. “Muslims are like the African carp,” he told GlobalPost in 2013. “They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering under the burden they bring us.” On display at Wirathu’s monastery in the city of Mandalay in northern Myanmar is an exhibit of images depicting bloody mangled corpses—the victims, allegedly, of Muslims. Monks of all ages are encouraged to dedicate periods of time contemplating this display to, as Wirathu told the BBC, “…protect our religion and our national interest.”

Ma Ba Tha is a sophisticated operation, with its own professional media department, complete with a spokesperson, Khine Khine Tun, who has the official-sounding title of “head of international relations.” To spread its message, Ma Ba Tha puts out four types of print publications—a weekly newspaper, a journal, a bimonthly magazine and books—in addition to CDs, DVDs, billboards and regular programming on one of the country’s leading TV channels. Ma Ba Tha also operates tuk-tuks, equipped with bullhorns, that roam city streets broadcasting nationalistic messages and distributing leaflets to incite anti-Muslim behavior. In addition, Wirathu’s team churns out posters depicting Muslims as lions killing innocent Buddhists and sermons for other monks that remind people that the Rohingya once fought alongside the British.

“Many of these ultra-nationalist monks push the message that the purpose of all mosques in the country is to store weapons and plot a takeover,” says Jennifer Quigley, president of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, the only American-based advocacy organization devoted full-time to Myanmar. “So, when these monks deliver sermons over the course of weeks about this, and then cap it off with leaflets demanding that true Buddhists must protect their religion of peace against these people, it’s easy to see why violence occurs shortly after the leaflets are distributed. But all of this has been taken to another extreme: Buddhist purity has also been linked with ethnic purity. This means most of the country’s Muslims are demonized not only for their faith but for their ethnicity.”


Left: Ashin Wirathu; Right: Thein Sein © AP Images; wikicommons

Wirathu, who enjoys attention, first gained international notoriety when his photograph appeared on the cover of TIME in 2013 with the headline, “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” He told TIME that U.S. President Barack Obama had “been tainted by black Muslim blood” and that 90 percent of Muslims in Myanmar are “radical, bad people.” (Thein Sein rushed to Wirathu’s defense, calling him “a son of Lord Buddha,” and banned that issue of the magazine from entering Myanmar.)

The monk has his own Facebook page and is a savvy user of the media. He recently gave an interview to a Dartmouth College undergraduate, Sarah Khatry, which appeared in the literary magazine Virginia Quarterly Review. In it, he equates the landslide victory of the inexperienced NLD government to a lottery prize that will not benefit the nation’s people. “If the NLD is not clever enough in handling parliament, tensions will grow between them and the military,” he says. “And if the military MPs distrust parliament, they can destroy it. I don’t think Suu Kyi can handle the country very well. Just wait and see when the military will take power back. They can do it.” Of Suu Kyi, he says: “If you love your monkey, you put a bell on her collar to make a sound. Democracy is just the bell.”

More than six months after the NLD took power, Abdul Azid and other Muslims remain confined to the IDP camps in Rakhine State. Most do not have ID cards, and although those who do are still not allowed to leave, many see the cards as the baseline for what they will need to be released. A government ID card is considered the ultimate badge of legitimacy and protection. Nearly everyone I talked to at the Ohn Taw Gyi South camp described the difficulties they faced just to be considered for one. But with or without a card, there are only two ways out of the camp: dying or leaving by boat, the first part of a journey so treacherous it sometimes results in death. Refugees traveling overland through southern Thailand to Malaysia are preyed upon by human traffickers who are notorious for ambushing and imprisoning them in bamboo cages deep in the jungle and holding them for ransom. If ransoms aren’t paid, the captives are killed. Last year, Thai police and security forces unearthed mass graves containing the bodies of 26 captives.

The Rohingya have been hit especially hard by Myanmar’s complex and evolving citizenship requirements. Despite the 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya had National Registration Cards until 1989, at which time the government replaced them with new color-coded Citizenship Scrutiny Cards—pink for full citizen, blue for associate citizen and green for naturalized citizen. It was then, says the Burma Partnership, a network of human rights organizations across the Asia-Pacific region, that the Rohingya were denied Scrutiny Cards and instead were issued temporary registration certificates known as “White Cards.” With the White Cards, the Rohingya didn’t have official citizenship, but they were able to take part in elections until 2015.


Left: Aung San Suu Kyi; Right: Htin Kyaw © wikicommons; reuters

In February of that year, Thein Sein announced that all White Cards, which were held primarily by Rohingya, would expire on March 31. Although the vast majority of Muslims had been expected to vote for her in the upcoming November elections, Suu Kyi remained silent. Sympathizers have struggled to explain her behavior. Some suspect that she was afraid of courting another round of house arrest or feared that speaking out might alienate her loyal Buddhist supporters. The result: Nearly 800,000 White Card holders were excluded from participation in the elections that led to the new NLD government.

Voting is not the only right that the White Card holders, even those living outide the camps, have lost. Since 2001, travel restrictions for Muslims have been onerous, and to travel outside of certain city and state limits, people without citizenship cards must obtain signed travel documents from their employer and the local police department. This process can take days, and even then, there’s no guarantee an application will be approved. “Restrictions on movement mean that many of Myanmar’s Muslims can’t pursue a livelihood, they can’t travel to seek better employment, or travel to a health clinic if they become sick, or travel to a school when they want to learn,” says Andrea Gittleman, program manager for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “These restrictions on travel can impact every basic aspect of someone’s life.”

Still, an ID card is no guarantee of equal treatment, says Wai Wai Nu, 30, the founder of Women Peace Network Arakan and cofounder of Justice for Women, a network of women lawyers that gives legal aid to Burmese women. Nu, a  Rohingya, was an 18-year-old law student when she and her family were arrested in 2005 at their home in Yangon. She spent the next seven years at Insein Prison, a facility known for deplorable conditions and repression of political dissidents. “Muslims in Myanmar, even if they have full citizenship and the accompanying ID card, are still discriminated against,” she says. “They are still detained against their will, and they simply have less freedom than what their citizenship card should grant them. This is why, regardless of what card you have, rule of law must be paramount. But consider no rule of law and no ID card? This creates a perfect pathway for a violation of basic human rights.”

Frustration over ID cards is as prevalent in Yangon as in the camps. In a popular Muslim market in the city, a 32-year-old Muslim woman named Thiri, who sells corn and other vegetables, has been trying to obtain an ID card since she was 14 or 15. She says she has all the documents she needs to prove her citizenship. “When the immigration officials denied me in those early years, they told me it was because I was ‘Bengali,’” she says. “Now, they tell me it’s because I am ‘mixed blood.’” Thiri says she is being denied citizenship because she doesn’t “look like a pure Burmese Buddhist.” She says she knows many Buddhists who have also been denied citizenship because of their Indian features. Unless she can get her card, she says, her three-year-old son will be part of yet another non-citizen generation. “It’s been a few years since I’ve applied for an ID card,” she says. “I’ve been disappointed so many times, over so many years, that I can’t afford to be disappointed anymore.”


Wai Wai Nu © Ko Aung Win Htut

A Hindu woman at an adjacent stand overhears our conversation. She, too, has been trying for years, but has been denied an ID card because of her “mixed blood.” Then an elderly Muslim woman grabs me by the arm, insisting that I please deliver a card to her; she’s been trying to get one her entire life. She tells me her children and grandchildren do not have their cards, either, even though her family has lived in Myanmar for centuries. Soon, I’m surrounded by 50 or so vendors, all with the same story: They try; they’re denied. They try again; they’re denied again. After a third or fourth or fifth try, they give up.

Later in the day, at a local tea shop, I speak with Zaw Myint, a 40-year-old street food vendor who specializes in chicken salad and bean soup. “I don’t have a card even though I’ve tried three times over seven years,” he tells me. “It’s embarrassing to talk about, and it’s to a point where I’ve lost all hope.” Discrimination is so bad, he says, that he had to pull his 16-year-old daughter out of school because she was being bullied for wearing traditional Muslim clothing. Tears well up in his eyes when he tells me that because of health complications, his wife cannot have another baby. “If we were able to receive our ID card,” he says, “it would be as special as bringing a new baby into the world.”

Around the corner from the entrance gate to the nearby Mogul Shiah Muslim Burial Ground, I’m invited in by a woman who is pulling weeds. She leads me to an office, and I realize that this burial ground doubles as an educational institution that helps Muslim high school students prepare for college in Iran. I’m greeted by Sheik Irfan Ali Haidari, who introduces himself as a Shia scholar, mentor and activist for peacebuilding between Buddhists and Muslims.

I tell him about the conversations I’ve been having. “People in this country are so incredibly nice. If you must only quote one thing I say, please let it be that,” he says with a smile. “But, although the great majority of people here truly have peace in their hearts, a few have been brainwashed.”

He hesitates for a moment, then asks, “Can I show you some photos?” He pulls out his phone and starts scrolling through images of himself alongside various Buddhist monks throughout the country and standing in front of signs at interfaith peace conferences. He tells me how committed he’s been to finding peace between Buddhists and Muslims, and how many of his closest friends are Buddhist monks at nearby temples.

He lowers his voice. “Many of the hurdles this country faces in achieving peace between Buddhists and Muslims have been set up by Ma Ba Tha. The millions of Muslims who feel discriminated against in this country, or who still can’t get their ID cards, much of this has to do with Ma Ba Tha’s influence. They are in cahoots with Thein Sein and the military government, and their unified goal is to stir up problems between the faiths so that all the Muslims leave and they can have a purely Buddhist country.”

It’s important to note that Buddhists also lost their homes in the 2012 riots that cost Azid and Ali their homes. But displaced Buddhists have received resettlement packages—something not offered to the country’s displaced Muslims. In some cases, the resettlement package includes payment for property damage. Bo Ni, a 51-year-old Rakhine Buddhist, was resettled in a new house in Sittwe a few steps away from the CD shop he now runs. He tells me that the relocation has been difficult. “Many of us can no longer do the jobs we love to do,” he says, “and I haven’t met a single Rakhine who has actually been reimbursed in a fair way for what happened in 2012.”

Ni blames the 2012 riots on the Muslims. It occurred “because kalar raped and killed a Buddhist girl,” he says. “The kalar slaughter animals—they even slaughter them as part of celebrations—so it’s no problem for them to slaughter humans also. They are sick, sick people. All they do is think about sick ways to harm us. They complain about the 1982 Citizenship Law, but so what? We struggle with it too. What bothers me is that they pretend to be poor and starving, and the West helps them and forgets about our problems. We must forever stay separated from the kalar.”

I also visited Set Yone Su 3, a Buddhist displacement camp and the only one that remained at the time. Although not luxurious by any means, it was better equipped than its Muslim counterparts. It had more space, no armed guards, and people were free to come and go as they pleased. There was a health clinic within walking distance. But its residents had grievances to air, most directed at their former Muslim neighbors.

A woman named Hle Hle Khin complained: “We aren’t treated fairly. The government gives ten times more things to the kalar than they do to us.” Mg Win Chey, a 36-year-old man at Set Yone Su 3, was also unhappy. “Even when we get relocated, we’re going to have to live close to the kalar. How is this good for us? All they do is think about raping our girls and cutting off the heads of our men. They are all terrorists and we are expected to live close to them?”

Mg Win Chey added: “We Buddhists have no problems with other religions, but it’s the Muslims we can’t stand. They do so many bad things to people all over the world. We Buddhists take pride in being peaceful, and this means we must take pride in protecting our religion from kalar.”

It’s this deep pride that has, over time, been tapped and manipulated into what the U.S. Campaign for Burma’s Jennifer Quigley calls “an irrational fear of the essentially unarmed minority Muslim population.”


Left: Khin Swe Oo with a pink citizenship card at Ohn Taw Gyi South. Center: Mg Win Chey at Set Yone Su 3. Right: Abu Borkor at Ohn Taw Gyi South. © Maggie Chestney

Are the Rohingya heading slowly but surely toward genocide? Some of the preconditions are clearly in place: the state-sponsored delegitimization of an identifiable minority group; the confluence of influential leaders and organizations that seek to stiffen their grip on power by blaming this minority for the country’s woes; and a lack of strong leadership willing to confront these tides.

But there are developments underway that suggest the situation of the Rohingya could improve. For the first time in Myanmar’s history—as the world watches—a democracy-promoting, civilian-led political party has power, albeit limited, inspiring hope for greater transparency and a more peaceful future. This bend toward democracy has already created more safe space for the exercise of free speech. Although the government-controlled media remains under the military’s thumb and still spews propaganda, there is now an alternative. Myanmar Now, supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, is an independent, free news service publishing stories in Burmese and English.

Reformers such as Myo Win, who founded an organization to promote peace between Buddhists and Muslims, are forming interfaith organizations throughout the country that encourage people to bridge religious gaps and find ways to live together harmoniously. “In the end,” says Myo Win, “if we want true peace and democracy in this country, it can’t simply be given to us by the government or the military. We must also practice it in our hearts and homes.”

Minority voices are also more easily heard: Wai Wai Nu, the Justice for Women cofounder, has catapulted into superstardom. She has been invited to the White House and continues to speak widely on issues faced by all minorities, including women, in Myanmar.

Artists, too, have more room to express themselves. Two popular punk bands—Rebel Riot and No U Turn—are churning out music that openly slams religious hypocrisy and highlights the violence against the Rohingya. But activist-poet Maung Saung Kha recently crossed the boundaries of what is acceptable. In May, he was sentenced to six months in jail for defamation after he used his Facebook page to publish a fictonal poem about having a tattoo of former president Sein on his penis.

Ashin Wirathu’s efforts, however, have continued unabated, although even some monks and Rakhine Buddhists who agree with some of his messaging, have come to see him as a puppet of the military government. In January, Wirathu posted a six-minute video titled “The Black Day” on Facebook. The video, a supposed trailer to a forthcoming longer version, reenacts, in what The Myanmar Times calls “gruesome detail,” the rape and murder of Thida Htwe, which sparked the 2012 riots in Rakhine. The video received more than 120,000 views over three days before Facebook took it down for violating its Community Standards.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the new government’s leaders, however, have yet to enact concrete measures to improve Muslim lives or to combat the bigotry. Indeed, “the new Myanmar government has changed little in the approach to Myanmar’s Muslim minority,” says Sullivan, the Refugees International advocate. Although Suu Kyi recently set up an advisory commission for human rights in Rakhine State, led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, “she has also doubled down on the previous government’s refusal to recognize the rights of Rohingya Muslims and has asked foreign governments not even to utter the name ‘Rohingya,’” says Sullivan. And while government supporters point out that there are limits to what could be expected by a new team in just a few months, Sullivan is concerned that “recent bouts of anti-Muslim violence that resulted in the destruction of prayer halls in central and northern Myanmar have been met by minimal accountability.”

Meanwhile, life has marginally improved in the camps that are now home to Rakhine’s displaced Muslims. The majority of people in Ohn Taw Gyi South, including Azid and Ali, arrived in 2012, when daily life in the camp was an all-out fight for survival. “Life here isn’t good, but it was far worse when we first arrived,” Azid recalls. “It was difficult to get enough food and water; parents and other adults would go hungry so the children could eat; and we never knew when or if the rations would come.”

In response to international criticism, the government has made sure there are increased food rations and basic health care. International agencies working at the camp deliver rations at consistent times, which has relieved some of the desperation. Now, the residents have a rhythm to their lives. They eat at the same times and at the same places each day; some spend afternoons counting how many steps it takes to walk certain routes. On days when they receive packets of powdered tea, friends wile away the hours frequenting huts that have become tea shops. There’s even a small market, as well as a few huts that have been converted into restaurants. “Most of us have been here long enough that it’s starting to feel comfortable, and at least we know we have some of the necessities to survive,” says Ali.

Residents are still fearful of continued violence, but now they have another concern. Their new normal comes with a price—one that has long since been paid by Burmese refugees of the Karen ethnic group. Some 30 years ago, similar camps sprang up along the Thai-Myanmar border to house the Karen. Though envisioned as way stations, they still stand today—nine camps holding an estimated 120,000 people.

“The government wants us to adapt, to develop some kind of acceptance,” says Ali, who dreams of completing the degree he started at Sittwe University, which stands just outside the camp gates and thus out of reach. “A way to do that is to keep us from educating ourselves so we stay stupid, and then to get us to buy into the idea that they are the caretakers keeping us safe. If they kept us desperate or got rid of us quickly the world would be outraged. The government’s way of keeping it all quiet is to slowly eradicate us over a long period of time.” He wonders: “Will we stay here another year, or several decades?”

Cameron Conaway is a journalist and poet. He is the author of five books, including Malaria, Poems, an NPR Best Book of 2014. Conaway’s work has appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian and The Washington Post, among others.

Moment Magazine’s Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative (DPIJI) was established in memory of The Wall Street Journal reporter slain by terrorists in 2002. DPIJI provides grants to support in-depth stories about anti-Semitism and other prejudices.

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