‘Indians Should Watch Out in Myanmar’

‘Indians Should Watch Out in Myanmar’

As an Indian woman traveling across Myanmar for three weeks in September,  I had many wonderful experiences where people’s kindness and generosity surprised me.

So I don’t want what comes next to deter others from venturing into its lush green landscape, tropical forests and slow-paced cities.

This account of my travels should instead be salutary for South Asians planning a trip to India’s beautiful neighbor, which has recently emerged from decades of civil war and military rule and is now increasingly riven by sectarian violence.

I was traveling with a friend who is of South Asian descent and both of us were keen to see more remote parts of the country.  In the former capital Yangon,  we’d been warned by the Indian embassy officials, nonprofit and think-tank employees that traveling to Rakhine, a state in the south west, could be dangerous, mainly because we look like Muslims. Not that it should matter, but we are both Hindu.

Last year, the monk-led anti-Muslim movement, known as “969″, which had fallen dormant in the past few years, returned to the country as Buddhist monks led widespread anti-Muslim riots in many  cities.

They called for the Buddhist community in Myanmar to boycott Muslim businesses, friendships and products. The group has also taken up arms in the fight against the Kalars,  a derogatory term used for Indian or Bangladeshi Muslims.

The consequence, for tourists like us at least, is that looking Muslim can now invite an angry mob to ask uncomfortable questions and become agitated, if not violent.

On setting off from Yangon towards Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital, we were advised to dress like tourists, wear our sunglasses, have our big cameras on show, and talk only in English.

Medha Chaturvedi for The Wall Street Journal
Monks in Yangon.

We followed the suggestions and laughed off the racial slurs of “Kalars” and “Moslaman” (Muslim) we heard on the streets in Sittwe and ignored the suspicious looks cast in our direction.  But what lay ahead in the historical town of Mrauk Oo was less easy to laugh off.

After checking into a colonial style guest house, we went out exploring the various Buddhist monasteries and monuments from the Mrauk Oo dynasty of the 1400s.

On the first day, things remained largely calm. Curious villagers would walk up to us, ask where we were from and when they heard ‘India,’ be more than happy to help us with directions or show us around.

One family even invited us in for some coconut and water. However, on the second day, we came to a more volatile part of the town. As we wandered around small group of men and women started to gather around us, pointing in our direction and talking in the local Rakhinese language. They were agitated, we were alarmed but not overly worried.

It started to rain and so we sought shelter in a Buddhist temple. Although we didn’t step inside the inner sanctum, in our haste to get in from the rain, we climbed the stairs with our shoes on. In normal circumstances, I imagine we would have been mildly reprimanded for such a transgression.

But combined with our looks this offense grew in significance and  the group, which now contained more angry villagers, began screaming at us in a language we didn’t understand.

We started walking away towards the safety of our guesthouse, but the mob caught up with us and surrounded us again. A woman tried to grab my arm and pull me inside a building which looked like a police station.

An English speaking rickshaw driver told us that the villagers suspected we were Muslims out to desecrate their holy shrines, poison their village lake, and kidnap their children.

We asked him to communicate to the villagers that we were Indians and Hindu. We slipped away while the mob was still discussing whether or not to believe us.

Unfortunately, racial slurs, suspicious angry looks and unhelpful attitudes followed us thereafter.

We were refused service in a few restaurants and the friendly curious smiles of locals on the streets turned into suspicious angry stares. We reached the guest house only to find a policeman already there, asking about our credentials and proof we were non-Muslims. We gave him our passports and he took copies to show to the villagers.

Medha Chaturvedi for The Wall Street Journal
Main temple in Mrauk Oo.

The receptionist said that the villagers believed I was more Muslim, but the family who owned the guesthouse were happy for me to stay because I had a nose-piercing, a practice not followed by women in Islam, according to them.

Being singled out like that, waiting for an attack, was unnerving, what was more frightening was the prospect of spending one more day in this hostile town. However, we had planned a boat trip to the exotic Chin villages where a handful of women with ornate face tattoos still live. So, we decided to take that trip and leave the following day.

Another traveler, a German-British former banker, staying in the same guest house, joined us on the uneventful and enjoyable day-trip spent interacting with friendly locals.

As soon as we returned to Mrauk Oo, the suspicious stares started following us again. Some villagers even spat at us in disgust, others mocked, “Indian, Indian?”

We became paranoid. The German-British traveler joked about a lynch mob coming for us while we slept and that he would be spared, because he doesn’t look South Asian. He was not far from the truth.

Around dusk, as I sat alone on the deck outside my room, an angry little girl started screaming at me in the local language. She began to throw stones at me as the same villagers from the day before gathered and pelted stones in my direction.

The guest house owners pushed me inside my room and made me lock it from the inside while they tried to pacify the mob. Some plainclothes officers from the next-door army camp came to my rescue while a few policemen were summoned to maintain law and order. I waited inside my room, praying that the gang wouldn’t burn down the guesthouse. After an hour, the crowd dispersed, but the plainclothes men and my fear remained.

The next morning, before dawn, we left on the fast ferry to Sittwe.  Had it not been for the help of the family who ran the guest house, I would have become a statistic in the intensifying sectarian violence ravaging the country.

Traveling through Myanmar for over three weeks, I found myself overawed by the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the people, but it will be a long time before I erase the memory of that crowd gathered outside my room, pelting stones.

I have worked as a researcher on Myanmar from afar for over four years. This was my first trip to the country and this experience, in a strange way, made my research more complete. I saw the best and the worst that this restive but exquisitely beautiful country has to offer.

Medha Chaturvedi was formerly a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, a New-Delhi based think tank.

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