Since I was in kindergarten, Rakhine students and Rohingya students have been sitting together in the same seats in the classroom. We have been playing together in the same playground in our school. We have been drinking water from the same metal pot with a small thick plastic cup. Our school is situated in Maungdaw, Northern Rakhine State.
The desks and chairs in our school are not for individual students, but rather, long worn out wooden benches and desks. We used to sit, three to five students per desk. Boys and girls sat separately in the classroom during the lesson, but there was no separation by ethnicity. Perhaps this is where we were first taught the values of friendship and togetherness.
When I was in grade two, I can vaguely recall that I had a Buddhist boy who sat at the same desk as me in the classroom. I have trouble recalling his name now, but I vividly recall his face, always red-nosed. He was the beloved son of a military Investigation Officer. His parents relocated to our village and he joined our school. I remember he was the best dressed and most stylish boy in our classroom.
Neither of us could understand each other’s language. He didn’t know my language, and I couldn’t understand his Burmese accent at that age. But we found other ways to understand each other. I could help him when I understood his needs. It was simple when we were that young, even without words. We were too young to fear each other, and the idea that we were a threat to each other had never occurred to us.
Since secondary classes, I have had some close Rakhine classmates. They were Aung Naing, Soe Min, Zaw win and Ma Ninn Wai. All of them are from my village. When there were sports matches in our school we took the lead roles together. We enjoyed our time together during festivals and wedding ceremonies of our siblings. We freely visited each other’s homes.
We never argued over anything greater than our sitting arrangements for first-row seats in our classroom. Perhaps we used to tease each other, but harmlessly, never bullying. We all had our own dreams. Aung Naing and I wanted to be schoolteachers. Soe Min and Zaw Win wanted to be in the armed forces. Ma Ninn Wai never told us what she wanted to be.
The more we grew, the stronger our friendships became. We grew close enough to share more with each other. We felt secure in front of each other. We used our exchanges and knowledge to help each other. During our exams we helped each other study. Our friendships were pure, even when we were not.
With a vigorous might and bonding we stayed friends all the way to our matriculation exams. We studied the same subjects and attended the same tuition classes. We never had to feel different while we were together in school.
When the results came in, Aung Naing and I passed the exam. Soe Min, Zaw Win and Ma Ninn Wai were studying again for the next academic year. We were preparing for our higher education. Yet, nothing pushed us apart at all.
A time to dream
Aung Naing and I were on the same path. We shared the same dreams or our lives, and he came from a less privileged family, like mine. We were not able to join Day University. He worked at a goldsmith shop in the market and I ran a tuition class on my town. We both were bookworms and loved learning and reading new books. We shared a passion for writing down quotes, poems and essays. We both were soft spoken, gentle. We were similar in many ways, but that Aung Naing was fatter than me.
In 2011 I joined Distance University of Education in Sittwe for my first year hoping to obtain a B.A. in English. During this time, my friend Aung Naing was studying his final year in Physics. Our friends who failed the matriculation still took their exams in the next academic level. Luck, however, did not favour them. When we were in our village we often met each other. We’d sit in the teashop together watching movies. Everything was simple and fair in our relationship.
When our results were announced I passed my first year. Aung Naing became a graduate in B. SC, Physics. It was time for him to chase his dream, as it was for me and my dream to finish my studies. He had already applied to be a school teacher. I enrolled for a second year. Time moved quickly.
One wave, two shores
In June 2012, sectarian violence broke out. There were deep tensions between the Rakhine people and my Rohingya people. We believe now it was manipulated by the government, to pit our peoples against each other. The violence pitted the Buddhists against the Muslims in our state. With the destruction and loss of property and life came the destruction of the relationship between our communities. Love and kindness between our peoples were replaced by distrust and tension.
Time separates us. Circumstances marginalise us. We have lost the bonds that kept us together as we once were, and our loyalty and closeness is not what it once was. Our coexistence is incomplete. Now, we are not who we were.
Since then no Muslim student has been allowed to attend Sittwe University. At the same time, no restrictions have been placed on the Buddhists. My Buddhist classmates can all still pursue their dreams. When I see them now, they all look quite different. Aung Naing became a school teacher. Soe Min became a Border Guard Police. Zaw Win is a policeman now. I, however have had to remain incomplete. How can a wave crash in two directions on the same shore? I wondered often.
Five years later I’m waiting to rejoin my university. I had hoped to be teaching a classroom in school by now. Even though I am qualified, I have applied but have been rejected for not being Buddhist. My dreams and hope have been lost to this conflict, and I find myself also lost in it.
Even though my dream is the same as Aung Naing’s, we are different in faith. Aung Naing is Buddhist and I am Muslim. In my country this distinction matters, and it has crushed the dreams of my younger self.
Now, we are not who we were
Today, my heart breaks when I see the Rakhine I was friends with in childhood – Aung Naing in his school teacher’s uniform and Soe Min and Zaw Win in their armed forces uniforms. I feel lost and worthless. In my young age I faced the many ways a human can suffer on this planet. I had all the potential to achieve my dreams, but lost them as soon as they should have become reality. It is a suffering I think few can understand in this world.
Even though we are still friends since we have known each other since childhood – since our births really, some external factors divide us. Time separates us. Circumstances marginalise us. We have lost the bonds that kept us together as we once were, and our loyalty and closeness is not what it once was. Our coexistence is incomplete. Now, we are not who we were. We are not children who were peaceful and happy together.
What then should we do now? Should we look at our childhood to learn? How we once were the same and supported and understood each other? Should we see we were born on the same soil and grew together? Should we remember we were taught in the same school, and to this day survive in the same place?
Then why now can we not sit together again at the tea shop? Why can’t we watch movies together as we once did? No longer can we enjoy each other’s’ festivals and ceremonies. We could have this time again. We could revive this once more. My friend and childhood friends! We could once again live peacefully together.
If we only allow ourselves to! So drop down the rope of this distrust and tension. A new peaceful future which looks like our past is waiting for us. We have nothing to pain more but much to gain.
***The names of the characters in the post are changed for the sake of safety and for privacy desire. However, the sequences of the story articulated in this post represent my real childhood, once all Rakhine and Rohingya class-friends were the same and altogether. ***