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A Muslim neighborhood in Myanmar becomes a virtual prison as sectarian divide hardens

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By Associated Press, Published: June 30

SITTWE, Myanmar — From inside the neighborhood that has become their prison, they can look over the walls and fences and into a living city.

Stores are open out there. Sidewalk restaurants are serving bottles of Mandalay beer. There are no barbed-wire roadblocks marking neighborhood boundaries, no armed policemen guarding checkpoints. In the rest of Sittwe, this city of 200,000 people along Myanmar’s coast, no one pays a bribe to take a sick baby to the doctor.


But here it’s different.

___

EDITOR’S NOTE — This story is part of “Portraits of Change,” a yearlong series by The Associated Press examining how the opening of Myanmar after decades of military rule is — and is not — changing life in the long-isolated Southeast Asian country.

___

Aung Mingalar is just a few square blocks. You can walk it in 10 minutes, stopping only when you come to the end of the road and a policeman with an assault rifle waves you back inside, back into a maze of shuttered storefronts, unemployment and boredom.

In the evenings, when bats fly through the twilight, the men gather for prayers at Aung Mingalar’s main mosque, the one that wasn’t destroyed in last year’s violence.

Zahad Tuson is among them. He had spent his life pedaling fares around this state capital, a fraying town, built by British colonials, full of bureaucrats and monsoon-battered concrete buildings. Now his bicycle rickshaw sits at home unused. He hasn’t left Aung Mingalar in nearly a year.

“We could go out whenever we wanted!” he says. His voice is a mixture of anger and wonder.

What has caused this place to become a ghetto that no one can leave and few can enter? A basic fact: Aung Mingalar is a Muslim neighborhood.

A year after sectarian violence tore through Myanmar, the fury of religious pogroms has hardened into an officially sanctioned sectarian divide, a foray into apartheid-style policies that has turned Aung Mingalar into a prison for Sittwe’s Muslims and that threatens this country’s fragile transition to democracy.

Muslims, Tuson says, are not welcome in today’s Myanmar.

It’s simple, he says: “They want us gone.”

___

For generations, Aung Mingalar existed as just another tangle of streets and alleys in the heart of Sittwe. It was a Muslim quarter; everybody knew that. But the distinction seldom meant much.

Until suddenly it meant everything.

Last year, violence twice erupted between two ethnic groups in this part of Myanmar: the Rakhine, who are Buddhist, and a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya. While carnage was widespread on both sides of the religious divide, it was Muslims who suffered most, and who continue to suffer badly more than a year later.

Across Rakhine state, more than 200 people were killed, 70 percent of them Muslim. In Sittwe, where Muslims were once almost half the population, five of the six Muslim neighborhoods were destroyed. Over 135,000 people remain homeless in Rakhine state, the vast majority of them Muslims forced into bamboo refugee camps that smell of dust and wood smoke and too many people living too close together.
Source link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/a-muslim-neighborhood-in-myanmar-becomes-a-virtual-prison-as-sectarian-divide-hardens/2013/06/30/c97c9bc4-e17f-11e2-8657-fdff0c195a79_story.html#

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