2015
06.05

Where libraries still have a card catalog, where cows are a part of city traffic, and where riots took place in 2012.  About a close-lipped town with a history.  About a guy in distress and a short flight with KBZ Air.

I knew when I decided to come to Sittwe that it would be very unlikely that I would get as much as a glimpse beyond the façade of Sittwe and that’s exactly what happened.

I arrived mid day after a 2 hour flight from Yangon with KBZ Air.  KBZ must be quite an institution as I had seen the sign only on KBZ Banks so far.

Yangon Airport is small enough to combine national and international travels in just two terminals under one roof.  I arrived way early with a most unusual character in tow whom I had met at the Thanlwin Guesthouse who was leaving the country that morning as well:  He is a born-again Christian from the US which he will tell anyone who will listen within the first few minutes of a conversation.  He was on a vacation trip with his Philippine wife who was not allowed into the country as supposedly some visa regulations had changed on them overnight.  They quickly had to separate in Malaysia where she was refused continuation of their trip.  He had to continue his trip and she had to stay behind with relatives.  Everything possible went wrong for him.  For starters, he had the phone, she had the charger…  He was overcharged on a flight, etc.  He spent day after day at the Thanlwin Guesthouse trying to straighten out logistics not ever setting foot into town safe one trip down the block to the neighborhood church…  I felt for him but I was also thinking that he did nobody a favor by his distress.  All of his problems would have waited for a week and he could have had a good time in Yangon at least bringing his wife some good photos and some good stories to tell…  But he probably felt that that would have been a very un-Christian thing to do.

I was early.  When the KBZ counter opened, I had my luggage taken and I had a sticker put on my shirt.  I only hoped that this would help me get into the right plane, as none of the announcements which eventually mumbled through the loudspeakers were in English.  I did get onto the right plane, a small propeller plane with only about 10 passengers.  We picked up the majority of travelers at our first stop in Thandwe , a beach resort town famous among tourists.  It was quite stunning how the landing strip in Thandwe was located perpendicular to the coast line cutting right through the beach area.  You could literally walk out of the airport bathing suit in hand, down to the Indian Ocean!

Sittwe too, is located right off the Bay of Bengal and is part of a larger delta area.  We were left off on the air field and allowed to walk to the main building.  There was no luggage belt.  The luggage was eventually just dropped outside the main building for all of us to pick up.  The onslaught of taxi and tri-shaw drivers is instant, of course.  I picked one who spoke some English who took me to a tuk tuk (a small truck equipped with two benches along the sides.  Think of it as a shared taxi.  For locals those fill up to the brim going through town on a hop-on hop-off basis.  When you are a foreigner you usually pay for one by yourself.  I was quoted $5 to the hotel. No way!  I did not know my way around but I knew that the airport was no further than 2 km from town.  I bargained him down to $3.  Most likely a fair deal for both of us.  The first hotel was full.  Wow, off season and full.  I have a feeling that is due to the fact that it got good mention in the LP.  But just around the corner there were more hotels.  And what do I care?  Sittwe is only for one night.  Nobody would come here if it were not the starting port to get to Mrauk-U.

I spent the afternoon arranging for a ticket for the ferry to Mrauk U and paying a visit to the Cultural Museum dedicated to Rakhine Culture.  It was every bit as dusty and useless as the one in Mawlamyine except for a few models of historical sites.  It also had the local library attached consisting of a two-box card catalog and a few closets full of magazines.  There must be more to it.  But a pleasant surprise awaited me upstairs behind some Buddha figures lined up on an old wooden table:  in a small room a group of young women were practicing several dances to be performed during a Rakhine National Holiday.  And they were accompanied by a small live orchestra of traditional instruments.  I spent a lot more time with them than in the entire museum…

Adjacent to the museum and barely visible behind the thick foliage of a tree was Sittwe’s 19th Century Jama Mosque, a building of historic significance.  I circled it in its entirety trying to catch a glimpse or two of its gorgeous architecture hidden behind a tall wall and obscured by large trees.  The building seemed reminiscent of the Taj Mahal.  I tried every conceivable approach only to find that all access ways were boarded off by barbed wire and the main entrance guarded by an armed soldier…

Well, this was a glimpse behind recent history.  As I knew from the news in the US, Sittwe had been the center of anti-Muslim riots in 2012   If I recall this right, a group of monks joined by locals protested and the protest went out of control.  The protest followed the alleged rape of a Buddhist girl.  But the anti-Muslim sentiments must have gone much deeper.  Muslim houses were burned and a lot of damage was done. Many Muslims lost their home.

The situation almost three years later seems to be that those Muslim who lost their homes are being housed in camps.  The remaining Muslims had a choice:  stay or leave as well.  Some stayed, some left.  Muslims in this region are typically Rohingya people whose origin goes back to Bangladesh, in some cases back several generations; in other cases they immigrated more recently.  The current so-called “Boat People” from Myanmar come from this ethnic and religious group and from this area.  The most I got out of people from around here (taxi driver, server at the restaurant, hotel personnel) is that indeed, the Muslims are gone or rarely venture out of their quarter.   The Muslim quarter is also off limits to foreigners.  Journalists need permission and a guide.  The camps are certainly out of reach for me or any other casual visitor.  But on top of that, the mosques in town — and I saw another one closer to the airport — have also been shut down and are now guarded by the military.

From my limited driving around Sittwe I have not seen (as in all the other towns) any Muslims identifiable by dress or head-dress.  Neither in Yangon nor in Mawlamyine do you have to go far before seeing a woman in a chador or a hijab or a man with a keffiyeh.  Not so, here.  I am disappointed that I cannot find out more, standing pretty much in the area of the problem.  As so often, we in the West probably have more information than the locals here.  But the situation does not seem to bother the locals.  It almost is as if the “out of sight out of mind” principle is at work here.  I can only imagine the resentment that is breading among the people in the camps “out there”  and even in the Muslim quarters among people who are dehumanized and subjected to collective punishment.  I wonder how long the government will be able to keep the lid on this problem, using drastic and inhumane measures like this.  If radicalization works anywhere, it is on fertile soil like this…

I spent the early evening at a seaside restaurant overlooking the Bay of Bengal.  I was early sitting at the only table that had been set up outside. By the time I left, seating had been arranged for 50 more people and I have no doubt that they would come.  But I needed some rest as I would have to have an early start tomorrow.

Good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. I am enjoying these your posts Elizabeth. I also like your writing style.

    • Thanks, Stephanie! So glad to hear you are reading along.

  2. How was that Myanmar beer?

    • The beer is great, especially in this kind of heat! It’s lighter than German beer, that’s a good thing, too.