Lone Buddhist Reaches Out to Rohingya Children in Myanmar
In the Bumay quarter of Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State), a lone Buddhist has been working in the face of public condemnation and state indifference to provide an education and opportunities for children of the displaced Rohingya Muslim community.
Myanmar’s government classifies Rohingya Muslims as stateless foreign migrants even though they have lived in Myanmar for generations. The country’s population also includes Muslims from other ethnic groups. The Rohingya people in Bumay, on the capital’s outskirts, have been confined there since bouts of sectarian violence erupted in the state in 2012, resulting in strict segregation of the ethnic minority to ghettoes and camps for internally displaced people (IDP). The area is now home to about 570 Muslim households.
Sai Han Htike, a 29-year-old ethnic Shan from Lashio, is the only Buddhist living in Bumay. He has been helping displaced children since 2008 following the catastrophic destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, visiting Muslim and Buddhist IDP camps to provide moral support and aid. He later expanded his work to Thandwe and Kyauk Phyu townships in Rakhine State, and in July 2013 set up the NGO that he now operates under the name Our Children, with the help of donors from across the country.
“I am an orphan,” said Sai Han Htike. “I like children very much and I know what it means to belong to a persecuted minority, so when I heard about the plight of Rohingya people here I just wanted to help them.” (DVB)
Staffed by 20 local residents, Our Children is run in a nondescript house on Bumay’s main street. The open-air space offers the children access to amenities that their parents could never dream of providing—television, video games, computers. The children also receive lessons in Burmese and mathematics, as well as haircuts from volunteer apprentices, and can even engage in a little astronomy with a donated telescope. Sai Han Htike has even been able raise awareness overseas for Our Children, organizing an exhibition of artwork created by Rohingya children in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year.
“There needs to be more awareness about the Rohingya, especially the children as they don’t have access to education and health facilities among other things,” he said. (The Star Online)
A Rohingya neighbor, Shofika—a mother of five and grandmother of eight—readily acknowledged the good that Sai Han Htike is doing for the community. “He is a good man who takes care of our children very well. We are all happy to have him here doing what he’s doing for us,” she said. (DVB)
Life at Our Children has not been without difficulties. Vocal elements of radical Buddhism in Myanmar have spread propaganda in social media with the aim of discrediting Sai Han Htike, and Sai Han Htike claims that he has received veiled threats. He noted that he felt more unsafe on his occasional visits to Sittwe’s Arakanese Buddhist areas, saying, “I try not to be more than one hour downtown for fear someone can recognize me and attack me. I always wear a helmet when I go by bike so nobody can see my face. I feel threatened there.” (DVB)
Despite such opposition, Sai Han Htike is defiant in his cause, insisting that his commitment to help Rohingya children stems from his Buddhist beliefs. “Buddha taught us that we have to help others, regardless of religion or race. We need to love each other despite the propaganda.” (DVB)
Many observers now hope for a tide of change in the country towards a more moderate, inclusive government after an apparent landslide election win earlier this month for the opposition National League for Democracy party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Building bridges in Sittwe (DVB)
Artwork exhibition by Rohingya children to be held in KL this weekend (The Star Online)
Arts and crafts of children from Myanmar to be exhibited in Kuala Lumpur this weekend (Pakistan Telegraph)
Aung San Suu Kyi Urges Tolerance and Unity in Myanmar’s Troubled Rakhine State (Buddhistdoor Global)
Radical Buddhists in Myanmar Target Beef Trade (Buddhistdoor Global)
Myanmar Passes Buddhist Nationalist-backed Bills into Law (Buddhistdoor Global)
Myanmar Youth Strike a Pose Against Hatred (Buddhistdoor Global)