By Moe Myint
I was born in a rural village in Arakan State’s Kyaukphyu Township. Born in the era of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, my parents didn’t have access to formal education. At the time, the highest level of education that could be obtained in villages came from their monasteries. My father received a monastic education.
It is quite normal in rural villages for boys to be favoured over girls in almost all societal aspects. Boys thus have a greater chance to study than girls.
My mother could barely write until her marriage. But she is hard-working, industrious and stubborn, and had the courage to defy societal norms.
My mother joined classes when adult literacy programmes on the Burmese language were conducted in rural villages. At the time, there were fewer than five people in our village who could write. My mother was one of them. She could think long-term and had her own plans. I inherited those valuable traits from my mother.
My mother knew that her children’s education would go nowhere if they continued to live in the village. She saw how other children’s education turned out.
The place where my village once was is now Danyawaddy naval base, the biggest naval base in Arakan State. Before it was established, there was Taungmaw and some three other villages in its environs.
Because there was no road, locals had to travel through the mountains for three hours and then take a ferry to sell vegetables in the town of Kyaukphyu. On their way back home, they were often robbed by dacoits in the forest.
Before the naval base was established, Taungmaw villagers abandoned their village due to the frequent robberies. The village became deserted as some fled to other villages, and some fled to the town.
It must have been between 1985 and 1990 that Danyawaddy naval base was built. The military forced villagers to do much of the labour for them. At the time, one person per household was summoned to grow crops and dredge lakes for them. There were 200 households in the villages, so there were a total of 200 people being forced to work for them. I was too young at the time, and my older sister, who was in the fifth standard then, had to help with dredging. Those who took a rest without permission were beaten by the soldiers.
Tenants on Their Own Land
We were paid nothing for the labour. Villagers were taken in the morning and only arrived back to their homes at 5 p.m. I once went to see the pounding of gravel to be used in paving the road; it was the only road linking Kyaukphyu and the Danyawaddy base. I also saw prisoners sentenced to hard labour working in road construction.
Today this is also the site of the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a multi-billion dollar project that has put coastal Arakan State on the map of strategic global commerce. The access road laid by the military passes through farmland, but in the building of it, locals were paid no compensation at all.
The military also confiscated mountainsides where locals used to grow crops. Villagers received no compensation. Sittaw and Thitpotetaung villages faced the worst fate. The two villages still remain inside the compound of Danyawaddy naval base.
Locals became tenants on soil they laid claim to, being asked to pay rent to the local Tatmadaw commander to use their own lands. They could no longer enter or leave their villages as they liked, but instead had to follow the timetable set out by the soldiers. Residents of the two villages, most of whom made a living fishing, had to give free fish to soldiers whenever they returned from fishing. If they were unlucky, they were beaten and kicked. In one incident, a villager almost went crazy after a soldier fired a shot next to his ear.
After seeing those problems, and as there were barely any graduates in the village, my mother decided to move to Kyaukphyu town. The education system in the town was in every way much better than it was in rural parts of the state, and country.
An Education in Town
I arrived in Kyaukphyu and after completing my post-primary education, I went to No. 2 Basic Education Middle School (it might be Basic Education High School now), also known as Myoma School. The school is known for intense competition among its students.
The school set an example for other schools in the town, with strong discipline and good instruction. For a child who came from a rural area with a poor family and limited educational background, school life in Kyaukphyu was akin to the yokel who is enraptured by his first trip to the commercial capital Yangon.
There were two classes: A and B. Students who got higher grades went to classroom A and those who got lower grades went to classroom B. I was an average student, switching between A and B. A teacher who I loved told me not to sit in classroom A, but rather to sit in the front row of classroom B. She said I would not be able to focus on lessons if I sat in the back row. She was right.
When I reached fifth standard, I was bullied by some repeaters. They were bigger than others in terms of size, and they made for a big group within the classroom. So most of the students did not dare hit them back. That day, they asked me what had happened to my face. In fact, it was not just my face; my whole body was full of pockmarks, like craters on the moon.
From Prey to Beast
I was delivered by a midwife in a rural village that had no hospital or clinic. As an infant, I suffered severely from an illness that left me with permanent scars on my face and elsewhere, but the Buddha did not let me die. Due to the scars on my face, I was called “Kyauk Belu” (kyauk meaning smallpox and belu meaning ogre).
It was a name that I loathed. I decided not to greet anyone who called me by that name if we saw each other on the street. From 5th to 10th standard, I was called by that name. Even some teachers forgot the name given to me by my parents. As time passed by, my physical scars healed and the mental scars no longer hurt.
We tend to forget the effects of society on us. I eventually forgot that I was once subjected to bullying and instead fell into the habit of bullying others, but not in an obvious way. I called some of my friends by their fathers’ names. Later, I intentionally slurred my speech when I spoke with people from Gant Gar village in rural Kyaukphyu, to mock their accent. In fact, their accent is charming, and so are their customs.
Above, I’ve mentioned incidents in which human rights were violated. I myself went from victim to violator of human rights. It is a violation of human rights to call someone by a name that he/she does not like. We must be civilised people, who consider the feelings of others.
It has been nearly two decades since I left Kyaukphyu. Whenever I look back at life in Kyaukphyu, there is still significant room for improvement, both in terms of mental and physical development among the people there. I have been wondering how many of my friends and juniors have become bullies themselves after being bullied by others.
There are too many, far more than I expected. You may ask, where do I get the data from. Those who left nasty and offensive remarks under a post of mine — ‘Jama Mosque in Sittwe’ in the Burmese language — on April 25 are in fact victims-turned-bullies. The story mainly highlights that a century-old mosque in Sittwe ought to be protected as cultural heritage because of its unique architecture, which has the potential to draw international holidaymakers during their visit to the Arakan State capital.
From 2018 to 2020, they suffered oppression under Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing and the National League for Democracy government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. As their suffering is easing, they are starting to become bullies themselves.
A Society in Need of Healing
There are many people who don’t view Muslims and Rohingya as human beings. Even some Buddhist monks are making verbal offences against their religious ethics.
The years 2021-22 can bring either radical change or no progress at all in the history of both Arakan and Myanmar. Arakan Army (AA) chief Major General Twan Mrat Naing, in his message on the 12th anniversary of the founding of the Arakanese armed group, warned Arakanese soldiers who may have begun to become arrogant. He stressed that a nation can’t be built with soldiers alone; it requires people of varied skill sets.
And he declared an objective — to build a society without discrimination. If that objective is genuine policy, I hope it will be a remedy to the bullying behavior we too often see these days.
About the Author: Moe Myint is an editor for Mizzima TV. He began working as a professional journalist in 2012 and has been closely reporting on Arakan (Rakhine) conflicts and Muslim issues for about five years. He previously served as Deputy Yangon Bureau Chief of RFA - Burmese for one year and also previously with The Irrawaddy - English Edition as a senior journalist for more than four years. He contributes analytical features to the Bangkok Post and Fojo Media Institute on a wide range of Myanmar issues.