Northern Rakhine State in western Burma has been off-limits to foreign journalists for decades. Since 2011, when President Thein Sein and his avowedly reformist government took power, only a handful of us have ever visited the region.
That’s a shame, because it’s hard to understand Rakhine State’s tortured politics and geography without going there. It is the poorest part of the second-poorest state in a very poor country. It is also home to most of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, who are now fleeing by boat in unprecedented numbers.
We – the photographer Minzayar and I – needed permission to travel to Maungdaw, one of Northern Rakhine State’s three townships. It was surprisingly easy to get. We sailed upriver from Sittwe, the state capital, with a crisp official letter that would soon be creased and softened by all the Rakhine police and bureaucrats who scrutinized it.
At the jetty in Buthedaung, we were encircled by five men, none of them in uniform, clutching pens and notebooks. They hailed from Immigration, Special Branch, the police, the Border Guard Police and the army. Our letter was passed around reverentially. Then one man wrote down our names while the others leaned in to copy him. It was like being mobbed by cub reporters.
From Buthedaung, Maungdaw was a short drive on a bad road through parched mountains. There, government officials insisted on accompanying us at all times. Other men – we assumed Special Branch – trailed behind on a motorbike. It felt like the old Burma, not the new one.
One morning, Minzayar and I gave our minders the slip to visit Rohingya villages. Afterwards, we were summoned by Khin Maung Win, the affable chief of Maungdaw District. Like many officials we met in Rakhine, he seemed to disdain and fear the Rohingya, who he called “Bengalis.”
Armed militants might be lurking in the villages we visited, he warned. They could abduct us, hold us until nightfall, then spirit us over the border to Bangladesh and into the hands of ISIS. This seemed farcical, but Khin Maung Win was serious. “Bengalis have a habit of crowding around you, and if you say something wrong they might get physical,” he said. “It’s in their nature.”