Nine months after a ceasefire brought relative calm to Myanmar’s western Rakhine state following a bitter two-year military conflict, Oo Thein Lwin and Ma Saw Yin are still trapped in a refugee camp, recalling the times they grew food to eat and sell, and found regular work in their village.
The couple were driven from their home last year by a conflict that erupted in late 2018 between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic armed group that says it is fighting for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people in what they consider to be their historic homeland on the Bay of Bengal coast,
Before the ceasefire agreed by both sides for November 2020 elections, fighting in Rakhine and adjacent Chin state had killed 300 civilians, injured more than 700 others, and, at its peak, displaced roughly 230,000 people to makeshift refugee camps, temples, and the homes of relatives.
The ceasefire remains intact and Rakhine state has been an island of relative quiet in a country where many regions have erupted in protest and conflict as local militias and ethnic armies fight Myanmar’s military to reverse the coup that ousted Myanmar’s elected government on Feb. 1, citing unproven claims of electoral fraud.
But the coronavirus pandemic, landmines, and lingering fears of junta troop reinforcements have stopped Oo Thein Lwin and Ma Saw Yin and some 100,000 Rakhine refugees from going home.
With food in short supply, the couple are living on taro roots they pick outside the Ngazin Yaing Chaung refugee camp in Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital.
The camp has been home for the couple and their two young daughters since they fled shelling and an intimidating military troop buildup more than a year ago.
‘Everything is a problem now’
They are among 200 people from 40 refugee families from two villages in Paletwa township, a Rakhine majority area of nearby Chin state, close to Bangladesh.
“When we fled from the village, I had only the clothes on my body. Everything was left behind,” Ma Saw Yin told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We didn’t suffer much until recently. My husband used to work outside the home and I sometimes sold produce in the market,” she said.
"Everything is a problem now. Getting food is a problem, and money is also a problem. Living here is a great challenge,” added Ma Saw Yin.
The masonry jobs her husband, Oo Than Lwin, used to pick up in Sittwe, and donations from well-wishers. have dropped off during lockdowns to combat the coronavirus.
“But now with COVID, we cannot go out and there are no jobs because of the shutdown. My children do not even have snacks. We can't even buy medicine for health issues,” added Ma Saw Yin. She said she feeds her family on taro plants and roots she picks near the camp.
“When we lived in our village, we grew sesame and could sell our produce at the market. It was fine while we were there,” Oo Than Lwin told RFA.
“We could store food for the entire year. Now they are all gone. So we’ll just have to bite the bullet. Whether we like it or not, we’ll have to face the challenge ourselves in the refugee camp,” he said.
Rice running out
According to the Rakhine Nationalities Association (REC), an NGO, there are over 60,000 refugees in camps and another 40,000 people living outside organized shelter facilities.
“Normally, the government provides rice for them, just rice. But even that rice is not enough,” said Pinnya Sekka, a leader at the camp. “In the past, we received support from World Food Program, but not anymore.”
“This month, people have to borrow from each other, promising to pay it back when they can get a job,” said Pinnya Sekka.
RFA’s calls to Rakhine State authorities went unanswered.
In July, the junta said it was working on a plan to repatriate Rakhine refugees, but added that some areas were still not safe yet to return to.
"If I could go home today, I would leave straight away. I don’t want to live like a refugee. I have never lived like this,” said Ma Saw Yin.
“Even if I could go home now, I don't have money to pay for the trip."
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.