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Rohingya remaining in Rakhine face uncertain future

YANGON and DHAKA (UCAN): Mohammad Salim and his family were packing their belongings and getting ready to flee when the violence erupted on 25 August 2017 in the north of Rakhine State, Myanmar, as the military sought to target Rohingya Muslim militants.
However, unlike hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have left the strife-torn state to live in camps in neighboring Bangladesh for fear of ethnic persecution at the hands of the army, Salim decided to stay put.
“We would have left if the situation deteriorated any further because we were living in a state of fear,” said the 71-year-old former schoolteacher from Myo Ma Ka Nyin Tan village near the town of Maungdaw.
Salim’s village was not unscathed by the troubles, as the army razed homes and made what rights advocates claim were arbitrary arrests to scare the Rohingya into leaving. But the village escaped the brunt of the campaign.
While a third of its residents opted to leave and make their way to Bangladesh, 800 of the original population of 1,200 people, elected to stay and brave it out.
Salim’s daughter, who is married and living in another village, decided to join the legions of refugees after seeing so many people’s homes burned down by security forces and fearing her house could be next on the list.
Salim makes his livelihood on the crops he grows on four acres of paddy field, bolstered by income from his son’s grocery shop.
However, he says supplies often run low and fears of hunger and state-sanctioned violence prey on the villagers’ minds despite Myanmar and Bangladesh inking a repatriation deal that Dhaka recently delayed.
As Salim’s community faces food shortages, the government has dispatched aid there in the form of rice sacks on two occasions since August in collaboration with the International Red Cross.
“We fight for our daily survival and right now we have just about enough food to get by. But we can’t tell what will happen in the future,” he explained. 
He recalled similar episodes of violence that erupted in the state in the late 1970s and the 1990s, when masses of Rohingya also fled across the border.
But Salim described the current situation as setting a new precedent in terms of scale and terror.
“In my life, this is the worst situation I’ve ever seen,” Salim said.
Over 671,000 Rohingya have left the state since the army’s brutal crackdown began last summer following alleged attacks on police posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Hundreds are reported to still be fleeing the ravaged area on a weekly if not daily basis as reports emerge that the military is setting up security outposts on top of razed Rohingya villages.
Critics see this as a sign the refugees are not welcome to return. Myanmar refuses to recognise the name Rohingya or grant them citizenship status. It refers to the Muslim minority as Bangladeshi migrants.
Mohammad Furuk, a Rohingya from Pan Taw Pyi near Maungdaw, said he watched over 1,000 people scramble to leave the village in a panic but he decided to stay, a decision he doesn’t regret.
“The situation is normalising and the local authorities have urged us not to leave,” the 60-year-old said.
The father of 10 owns a few acres of farmland but he says this is not enough to feed his family. Fortunately, the government has helped to provide rice sacks which have until now managed to bridge the gap.
“We are surviving, for now, but I can’t say what will happen tomorrow,” he adds.
Furuk refuted rumours that Rohingya were being forced to leave by insurgent groups.
“The ARSA’s name has come up a lot since last August, but to be honest we don’t know who they really are,” he said.
In a sign of recognition of the plight of Furuk’s community, state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited the village on 2 November 2017.
There were an estimated 1.09 million Rohingya in Rakhine State who were not enumerated in the 2014 census, according to a government report on religion released in July 2016.
Diplomats estimate that not more than 100,000 Rohingya remain in the three major townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung in the northern part of the state. The Irrawaddy citing statistics provided by the local General Administration Department (GAD), reported on February 23 that only 79,000 Rohingya are still living in the state. 
The GAD put the total Rohingya population before the latest crisis at 767,038, meaning the number has since dwindled by almost 90 per cent.
The Irrawaddy added that Rohingya accounted for 93 per cent of the population in Maungdaw, 84 pe rcent in Buthidaung and just six per cent in Rathedaung as of last summer.
The centre of Rakhine has not been as badly affected by the violence. Here, over 120,000 Rohingya remain in camps for internally displaced persons, while another 150,000 have been scattered among villages in various townships such as Sittwe and Myauk-Oo.

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