Yangon: For four straight days in January, Rahim Muddinn watched, amazed, as Myanmar’s state-run newspapers published special supplements showing Rohingya Muslims accused of being terrorists nearly 250 photos each day.
For the 41-year-old Rohingya man, it was a surreal moment. He was born and raised in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and far from the western state of Rakhine, where bloody military operations that followed Rohingya militant attacks in August have driven nearly 700,000 Rohingya into refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“When we first saw those pictures, we started laughing. We wondered: When will it be our turn to have our pictures in the paper?” Muddinn, a teacher, said in an interview in his Yangon home.
The pictures are the latest in a series of chilling realizations for the Rohingya minority here.
Though Yangon’s tree-lined boulevards and weathered colonial architecture seem a world away from the rice paddies and isolated villages of Rakhine let alone the tarp-walled huts of the teeming refugee camps the government is increasingly linking Rohingya across the country with what it calls a terrorist threat, Muddinn and others say.
Rohingya in Yangon describe a sense of rising persecution and hatred, of vanishing freedoms and opportunities, of Buddhist neighbours and friends suddenly more willing to publicly express sympathies with the military’s destruction of Rohingya villages in Rakhine.
“One day it really could be my picture in the paper,” said Muddinn. Like most of the other Rohingya who spoke with The Associated Press, he used his Rohingya name because of safety worries. “I do have anxiety. The government can detain anyone it says is a supporter of terrorism or anyone viewed as a threat to the state.”
Though Rohingya have always been persecuted in the country, it got much worse after 2012, when violence in Rakhine killed hundreds and drove about 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya, from their homes to camps.
Violence flared again in 2016 and, most dramatically, following the August attacks, when refugees report widespread killing and rape by Myanmar forces.
The AP in January confirmed, through extensive interviews with survivors and time-stamped video, a massacre and at least five mass graves, all previously unreported, in the Rakhine village of Gu Dar Pyin.
Many Rohingya have been in Myanmar for generations, but, increasingly, the government and media have played up their claim that they’re not citizens but “illegal Bengali interlopers” who entered Myanmar from Bangladesh with the help of corrupt immigration officers.
There are non-Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and they often report rising discrimination, especially those in Rakhine. But generally their situation is less precarious than the Rohingya.