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Myanmar’s Train to Nowhere

The air is thick and humid. For days, rain clouds have refused to break over Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. It is early morning and while the streets are crowded with cars, bikes, and motorized rickshaws, the train station just off the main street is deserted. On the edge of the sole platform, a government worker sells tickets for less than a dollar to the far side of town. But there are few takers.

The rusty locomotive that stands empty on the track will soon start its daily route through the somber landscape of squalid refugee camps on the outskirts of Sittwe. The camps are home to thousands of stateless Muslim Rohingya who fled there after angry Buddhist mobs burned down Muslim-owned houses in the city more than four years ago. Since the violent confrontations in 2012, the two communities remain segregated and tensions are high. Clashes later spread to other parts of the country, including the second-largest city of Mandalay.

Many Buddhist Rakhine consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Many say they don’t trust the Muslims, who until recently were their neighbors, and that they fear for their safety upon entering the camps. When the time comes for the train to depart the only passenger is a young Buddhist woman who squatted on the platform and played games on her phone while she waited.

Slowly, the old engine pulls out of the station. Driving past palm trees and between green fields, the train soon passes the barbed wire that surrounds the handful of camps dotted along the track. Within this demarcation, Muslims can also ride the train. When the first stop comes into sight, a group of men, women, and children can be seen waiting on the platform. Squeaking loudly, the train comes to a halt at the platform. The passengers clamber aboard and their footsteps echo on the steel of the train. Excitedly chatting, the children find themselves a spot at the window. Their mothers, some in colorful headscarves, sit down beside them.

The train journey portrays a false sense of freedom of movement for the Rohingya who, together with other Muslims, are interned in the displaced persons camps by security forces. The government and the military have claimed these rules are enforced to protect the Muslim community from further violence. The beginning and end point of the train journey, both located on the other side of the barbed wire, are out of bounds for Muslim travelers.

Inside the train, the Rohingya are further constrained. The train consists of a single carriage, divided into three smaller compartments. Muslim passengers are restricted to the central compartment and Rakhine Buddhists travel in the smaller sections at the front and end of the train. Neither Muslim nor Buddhist passengers protest these conditions and the train personnel is seemingly indifferent to their role in enforcing them, saying it only “makes sense.” After the Rohingya have boarded the train, two police officers get on too and find a seat in the compartment that, although unlabeled, all passengers know is reserved for Buddhist travelers.

Overgrown leaves and branches scrape the side of the train as it bumps along the track. Rohingya passengers chat among themselves while the train staff and police officers crack jokes and take selfies. The fans on the ceiling hang still overhead and the oppressive heat becomes unbearable for one of the officers, who removes his jacket and walks around the cabin in a sleeveless white shirt.

The train picks up speed and children press their noses against the window to get a good look at the small villages that line the track. The houses are made of wood and many roofs are sealed with large pieces of plastic. Once small settlements, the villages are now engulfed by hundreds of make-shift houses built by the thousands of Muslims displaced from the city. Behind these flimsy constructions malnourished children play with whatever they have found on the rail.

The train that runs through IDP camps in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

After a few more stops, the conductor announces the train will soon be halting near one of the markets inside the camp area and many passengers prepare to disembark. As soon as the train stops, the conductor urges people off, not wanting to waste too much time at the busy stop. Though not all Rohingya passengers understand the orders the conductor barks at them in the Rakhine language, soon enough the market-goers have descended from the carriage.

The train continues and will eventually stop in a village a three-hour walk from any paved road. The usual route takes travelers from Sittwe University on one side of the camp area to the Technological University of Sittwe on the other, but at the time of writing the track was broken beyond the village. The train will stop in this remote settlement for a few hours before passing the market again on its way back to the center of Sittwe.

People chat at the track while they watch the engine, painted in the red and yellow colors of the Myanmar Railways, slowly disappear out of sight. Then the women lift their empty baskets and walk to the market. Large, four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying officials from aid organizations carefully pass them on the narrow street. Lined with shops selling anything from fruit to gold on both sides, the market street is crowded. Many of the gold shops are operated by Rakhine Buddhists who dive away from cameras, afraid that people from within their community would turn against them for doing business with Muslims.

Not far from the market are the displaced persons camps of Baw Du Pha and Thet Kel Pyin, named after the two villages they are next to. Large, U.N.-supplied tents have been erected in some places, while elsewhere refugees have built small houses themselves with whatever money they have left. Their internment in the camps means that most Rohingya have no opportunity to earn money and many depend on aid agencies for meals.

The Rohingya lost their right to vote

The Rohingya have faced state-sponsored discrimination for decades but their plight worsened severely when, only months before the 2015 election, they lost their right to vote. The lack of job opportunities and poor education and health facilities in the camps have pushed many Rohingya onto rickety boats and into the hands of smugglers as they risk their lives attempting to flee across the Bay of Bengal.

Many Muslims who stayed say that they counted on Aung San Suu Kyi to change their lives for the better but, months after her government assumed office, hope is fading. “I supported her for a long time, but now she says there is no Rohingya,” says Mohammed Elliot, a 40-year-old father of five who lives in Thet Kel Pyin village. The government started a citizenship verification scheme that, despite no longer requiring Rohingya to register as Bengali as was a condition under the previous administration, has been marred by distrust and Rohingya refuse to cooperate. Meanwhile, Buddhist nationalists have protested a request made by Aung San Suu Kyi in her role as state counsellor to stop using the terms Rohingya and Bengali to refer to the Muslims living in Rakhine State, because of the strong political connotations attached to both. Internationally, the Nobel prize winner has been criticized for not doing enough to end the oppression of the Rohingya.

In the face of this criticism at home and abroad, Aung San Suu Kyi has requested former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to help find a solution to the ongoing plight of the Muslim community in Rakhine State. Protests welcomed him in Sittwe during his first visit as head of the Rakhine commission on September 6. Demonstrators said the involvement of foreigners in the state’s affairs violated Myanmar’s sovereignty.

Close to midday, the train returns to the track separating Baw Du Pha and Thet Kel Pyin camps. Dark rain clouds continue to hang overhead as rickshaw drivers, worn down by their loads, push their bicycles across the track. When in the distance the red and yellow of the Myanmar Railways become visible again, a flagman steps onto the track. He clears the rail and waves a green flag at the driver, the signal that it is safe for the train to pass.

With a piercing screech, the train comes to a stop at the crossing. There is no platform and passengers struggle to hoist themselves up the high steps. A young girl with yellow-gold thanaka paste on her cheeks is lifted onto the train by the conductor. Shyly she walks into the center compartment and sits down at an open window. Once again the carriage jolts along the track. When it nears Sittwe and the blue roofs of the university become visible in the distance, the girl’s mother points out the institute to her. It is located just outside the camp boundaries and tantalizes the Rohingya who have not been allowed to attend university since the violence of 2012.

A long blast from the horn signals that the train journey nears its end. The police officer puts his uniform jacket back on and straightens his trousers. Standing in the door opening wearing his police cap and a gun hanging loosely of a strap on his shoulder, he jokes with some of the Rakhine Buddhist passengers. He asks one of the men to take his photo before jumping off the steps as the train slows down to make its final stop for Muslim travelers.

Crowding towards the doors, the Rohingya disembark one by one. Then the engine starts again to complete the last leg of its journey back to the center of Sittwe. As it leaves the barbed wire of the camp behind, the Rohingya walk back to their squalid homes and are soon no longer visible through the rear window of the train.

Yola Verbruggen
Yola Verbruggen is a print and radio journalist and has covered Myanmar since 2012. She is currently based in London. Follow her on Twitter @yolaverbruggen.
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