Myanmar’s Rohingya face a humanitarian crisis

Displaced Muslim Rohingya do not have adequate access to healthcare or clean water.

The Rohingya were rendered stateless by a citizenship law passed in 1982 [Reuters]

Sittwe, Myanmar – Ruk and Kun Suma were born five minutes apart on March 27 in a camp for displaced Rohingya in Rakhine State, a northwestern province of Myanmar. Their mother, an emaciated 40-year-old woman named Noor Begun, suffers from tuberculosis and is unable to breastfeed them. The family cannot afford milk either. For the first two weeks of their lives, Ruk and Kuma received only cheap coffee creamer from the tip of Noor’s fingers.

The twins need urgent medical care to survive, but there are no medical doctors stationed in the nine overcrowded camps near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, where more than 75,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) live.

Since the explosion of violence in June 2012 between the Rohingya Muslim minority and the Rakhine Buddhist majority that left 140 dead, entire villages razed to the ground and at least 140,000 IDPs – the overwhelming majority of them Muslims – the Rohingya living in the camps have relied on aid provided by international agencies.

In early March, Myanmar’s government decided to expel Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF-Doctors Without Borders) from Rakhine State after the NGO declared it had treated 22 people in the remote Maungdaw region who were injured in beatings and knife attacks. At least 40 Rohingya had been killed there by Rakhine mobs and Burmese security forces in January, according to the UN and human rights groups. The Myanmar government, which has not allowed independent observers to access the area, forcefully denies the attacks took place.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said the government would not extend the NGO’s permit to operate in Rakhine State, and accused it of not being transparent and giving preferential treatment towards “Bengalis” – the term the government and many Myanmar citizens use for the Rohingya, implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite the fact they have been living in Rakhine for generations.

The Rohingya were rendered stateless by a citizenship law passed in 1982 and, according to a report recently released by Fortify Rights, have been the victims of crimes against humanity at the hand of Myanmar’s government and local authorities.

The expulsion of MSF deprived 750,000 people, including Buddhist Rakhines but mostly Rohingyas, of virtually any healthcare – and has led to dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths. The situation got worse a month later when mobs of infuriated Rakhines attacked the offices of several aid agencies in Sittwe, after a worker from Malteser International took down a Buddhist flag from the organisation’s office. About 150 international workers from Malteser and other organisations were evacuated from Rakhine, and have not yet returned.

Controversial census

Tensions in Rakhine state mounted in the weeks before the national census held from late March to early April, the first such count since 1983. Partly funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the census has been marred by controversy from the beginning.

Questions raised as Myanmar wraps up census

The Washington-based Transnational Institute stated in a detailed report that “the census promises to compound old grievances with a new generation of complexities”.

In late January, the government assured that everybody would have the opportunity to choose the ethnicity they wished, including the Rohingya, according to international standards – against the opposition of the Rakhine community.

There were even negotiations between the Ministry of Immigration and Population and a Rohingya Census Supporting Committee about employing Rohingya census workers in Muslim areas of Rakhine State.

“The Committee offered the Ministry of Immigration a list of Muslim enumerators on December 20, but they refused, claiming that some in the list didn’t hold National Registration Cards. A second list was submitted on January 31, this time composed of people with cards and higher education for consideration, and the ministry said it would consider it, but they refused to accept Rohingya enumerators on March 13, alleging pressures from the Rakhine,” a person close to the negotiations told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

“I think that the government deceived the Rohingya Committee for months and led it to believe that the Rohingya enumerators would be accepted to prevent Rohingya leaders from organising any movement to oppose the census,” concluded the same person.

Eventually, the government sent Rakhine enumerators surrounded by security forces to conduct the census in Rohingya areas of Arakan state. And, on March 30, three days after the attacks against the aid agencies in Sittwe, it announced it would not accept the Rohingya ethnicity in the census. UNFPA issued a statement expressing its concern about the decision, but did not withdraw funding.

According to several Rohingya interviewed by Al Jazeera in the IDP camps, when the enumerators visited them, they first asked for their ethnic group. When they answered “Rohingya”, they simply said “thank you very much” and left, excluding at least 800,000 people from the census.

Aid withdrawn

Today, the IDPs have more urgent things to worry about than being counted in the census. The government has not yet issued travel authorisations to Rakhine state for international workers. The Myanmar government has not been able to fill the gap left by the international organisations and there are even allegations from a witness of the negotiations between the government and the WHO Health Cluster for Myanmar – the body that coordinates policies among different humanitarian groups and UN agencies in the country – that the Myanmar authorities are actively undermining the resumption of aid in Rakhine state.

Aid might yet return to Rakhine, but for many it is already too late. Noor Alam was a one-year-old boy who died on April 6 in the Ohn Taw Gyi camp near Sittwe.

“He woke up with diarrhoea one day, and was dead the next night,” he mother, Hadija Begun, tol Al Jazeera. “There was nothing we could do, as we haven’t seen a doctor here for many days.”

Now she worries that the same fate could await her three-year-old son, Sayed Noor, who, like many others in the camp, suffers the same condition as Noor Alam. Hadija said the cause of her children’s illness is the shortage of drinkable water. This is an opinion shared by many others in the camp, and one of the concerns expressed by the UN, as the disruption of aid has coincided with the peak of the dry season.

Better conditions for others

Meanwhile, conditions look much better for Rakhine Buddhists in IDP camps such as Satyokyak, in the outskirts of Sittwe. The camp shelters 3,000 people living in houses built by the government. The houses, one for each family, have electricity and are elevated to avoid being flooded during the rainy season, in contrast to the dwellings for Rohingya IDPs.

Humanitarian situation worsening for Rohingya

Moreover, the Rakhine IDPs enjoy full freedom of movement and are allowed to go downtown to work, unlike the Rohingyas, who are confined to specific areas. And the Rakhines can go to Sittwe General Hospital, where Rohingya have been refused treatment by the Buddhist staff. There is also a clinic set up by the government in the camp.

According to U Tun Sein, a Rakhine Buddhist who heads the camp committee, the World Food Programme used to provide a sack of rice for every family each month, but “the situation is the same since the NGOs left the state, we don’t have any problem, because the NGOs didn’t help us before anyway”.

There is a widespread and long-standing perception among the local Buddhist population that humanitarian groups are biased in favour of the Rohingya. And declarations from government officials echoing this idea have done little to dispel such a belief.

Many of these organisations have denied accusations, saying that they provide aid according to the necessities of people regardless of ethnicity or religion, but since the outbreak of violence in June 2012, Rakhine organisations have held several demonstrations against foreign agencies operating in the state.

“We don’t want aid from NGOs. They give very little to the Rakhine community and much to the Kalars [a derogatory term used to refer to Muslims and people of Indian origin in Myanmar]. We don’t want any help from them,” said U Tun Sein.

In any case, as U Tun Sein recognises in the Rakhine camp, “There are no cases of malnutrition in the camp or any important health issues here.”

Source: Al Jazeera