Old Friends: How Villagers Are Rediscovering Common Bonds in Rakhine State

Sep 27, 2016

Ar Ci Mar Khar Tu and Hla Shwe outside the temporary learning center.

Daw Ar Ci Mar Khar Tu lives in the village of Yai Thei, a Muslim community in Mrauk-U Township, Rakhine State. Daw Hla Shwe, lives in Ah Htoke The Ma, anethnic Rakhine community just a seven-minute motorbike ride away.  They became friends when they went to the same middle school.The physical distance between the two villages is small.The villages once traded with each other and shared common schools and markets. But, all this changedafter two waves of inter-communal violence between Muslims and Rakhines in 2012 and 2013 resulted in loss of life, destruction of property, mass displacement, and deep feelings of fear and suspicion. The two villages lost all contact with each other. So did the two friends.

“Before the crisis, we would go to Ah Htoke The Ma to work in the fields and sell our products in the market,” explained a Yai Thei village leader. “All of that stopped with the crisis, we had no jobs and we were scared to go to Rakhine villages. People also stopped sending their children to mixed schools because they were frightened about the violence.”

When the opportunity came to participate in a vocational training workshop for tailoring, Daw Ar Ci Mar Khar Tu and Daw Hla Shwe saw a chance to learn a new skill and launch a business to provide for themselves and their families. Over a period of 8 weeks, they joined other women from a number of neighbouring Muslim and Rakhine villages in Mrauk-U. For many, this was the first time sharing a common space since the outbreak of conflict. For the two women,it was a chance to pick-up where they left off.

“This is the first opportunity I have had to learn a vocational skill. But more importantly, my first opportunity to meet my old friend,” says Daw Hla Shwe.

The vocational training workshop is part of a UNDP-ACTED project that assists 2,597 households affected both by inter-communal conflict and the severe flooding of Cyclone Komen in July 2015. It includes livelihoods grants, infrastructure construction, cash-for-work schemes, training for community based organizations and vocational training. Activities such as joint vocational training clinics and joint cash-for-work infrastructure schemes arecreating opportunities for people to interact through joint training, construction and exchange activities in ethnically diverse village clusters.

There are signs that ties between Yai Thei and Ah Htoke The Ma are being restored through the project. Job opportunities for Muslims have increased from three years ago, as Ah Htoke The Ma villagers now regularly go to Yai Thei to recruit farm labourers for rice paddy harvesting. Both men and women feel comfortable traveling between the villages again, and the young men and women who participated in the vocational training clinics often visit each other and talk on their mobile phones.

“By pairing early recovery support with opportunities to advance social cohesion, projects such as these are able to help rebuild livelihoods that had been damaged by conflict and flooding while re-opening the potential for social and economic ties between Muslim and Rakhine communities,”said UNDP Social Cohesion and Governance Specialist, Dilrukshi Fonseka.

“Both UNDP and ACTED are mindful that improving socio-economic relations at the community level is only a small part of a larger challenge of peace and development in Rakhine State. However, rebuilding socio-economic inter-dependence is an important step towards ensuring that improvements in livelihoods are sustainable and as a starting-point for inter-community trust-building.”

“It is better now,” says U Maung Kyaw Nyut, a village leader from Ah Htoke The Ma, “working and learning together with YaThei has built trust between us again, something we still don’t have with other Muslim villages. We are slowly returning to the way things were before.”

Daw Ar Ci Mar Khar Tu and Daw Hla Shwe eagerly showed off the clothes they had already produced, they spoke of plans to perfect their craft and expand their businesses beyond their own village borders. Moving forward, they will be able to rely on each other for inspiration and motivation—and maybe even a little friendly competition.

This project is part of a broader UNDP project covering 316 villages in 7 States in Myanmar and aiming to reduce socio-economic disparities and strengthen community networks and relationships and develop institutional capacities for social cohesion responsive development. The work is made possible with funds from Finland and UNDP.

** Names have been changed.