In early February, I managed to negotiate my way past barbed wire barricades into a majority Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe: a dry and dusty town that sits next to the Bay of Bengal on Burma’s western coast. Automatic rifles were propped against a small wooden table next to the barricades; one policeman manning the post explained that it was his job to ensure no Muslims left the neighborhood — those who tried would be apprehended and taken back to their homes.
Beyond the barricades stretches a gravel road lined on one side by small houses, some wooden, some a drab gray concrete, and opposite a patchwork of dry paddy fields. February marks the beginning of the hot season, when the water reserves that supply the fields begin to dry up and families turn to the rice stocks stored up from the previous monsoon. Any excess produce would be taken by residents to trade in the markets in Sittwe town center, and they would bring back to their homes vital supplies like cooking oil and medicine. That most routine of daily activities, as old as the town itself, began to change in June 2012 when the first burst of frenzied mob violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities struck this western state of Rakhine. Gradually, the several thousand Muslims of Bhumi Quarter, part of the Rohingya minority ethnic group, have watched as their neighborhood has been transformed into a ghetto whose armed guards tightly restrict their movement.