MAW SON NYA, Myanmar — Mohamed Akbar*, a 32-year old father of five, cannot move. Lying on a bed of old rags, he struggles to even turn his head toward the sunlight glinting through the door of his family’s bamboo shack.
Akbar, one of the nearly 140,000 stateless Muslim Rohingya living in overcrowded refugee camps in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, thinks he could be HIV-positive. But since the government expelled medical aid group Doctors Without Borders from the state in February, slashing medical services in the camps, he has no way of finding out.
“I have been sick off and on for two years, but it is much worse these last few weeks. Now I cannot get up at all,” he says.
Akbar’s scarred ankles are thinner than an average man’s wrists. Apart from an occasional involuntary tremble, his shrivelled arms lie motionless by his side.
Akbar and his family are among the thousands of Muslims who sought refuge or were sent to these camps by local officials after deadly sectarian violence began wracking the state in mid-2012. While the conflict between Buddhist and Muslim populations was initially two-way, most of the displaced are Rohingya, with around 5,000 Buddhist Rakhine left homeless by the destruction, according to the United Nations.
The Myanmar government says most Rohingya — or “Bengalis,” as the the country’s Burman majority calls them — are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refuses to recognize them as citizens, even though many have resided in Myanmar for generations.
Their plight has prompted protests from some Western governments and their counterparts in majority-Muslim countries. U.S. President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit Myanmar later in 2014, told an audience in Kuala Lumpur in late April that the country’s treatment of its Muslim minorities could undermine the country’s prospects for reform.
“You have a Muslim minority … that the broader population has historically looked down upon and whose rights are not being fully protected,” he said.
Obama’s warning appears to have had an effect. After insisting the deteriorating situation in Rakhine was a “domestic matter,” Myanmar’s government appears to have softened its stance, with Vice President Sai Mauk Kham recently acknowledging that the region’s problems have “turned the international community’s positive view (of Myanmar) into a negative view.”
Some of the marginalized include supporters of the country’s ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Nur Mohamed, 60, used to be a police sergeant in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine. A USDP member, he now lives in a refugee camp on the outskirts of the city, near the village of Thay Chaung. He has been at the camp since his home in Sittwe, which he describes wistfully as “a fine building,” was looted and burned down in June 2012. One of his 16 children is in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have tried to flee Myanmar, often unsuccessfully, by making the dangerous and costly journey across the sea in ramshackle boats to neighboring countries.
On March 30, Myanmar began conducting its first national census in more than 30 years. But the census-takers who visited Mohamed’s camp in early April were under orders not to register anyone who identified themselves as Rohingya.
“They went to the house owner and asked, ‘What is your race and name?’ He replied, ‘Rohingya,’ then they said ‘thank you’ and left without writing anything,” Nur Mohamed recalls, speaking through a translator.
In a sign of local Buddhist opposition to both the census and the dispensing of aid to Rohingya camps, extremists attacked more than 30 offices of foreign aid agencies in Sittwe in March, looting supplies and forcing the temporary shutdown of aid operations there.
Some Rakhine Buddhists accuse foreign aid workers of a pro-Rohingya bias. “This is our land, they are trying to occupy our land. The Muslims are surrounding us,” says Thein Khine, chairman of the Sittwe branch of the newly formed Arakan National Party (ANP). “The government does not help us Rakhine people, and the NGOs only help the Muslims.”
The ANP is an amalgam of two Rakhine nationalist parties, and its leaders hope to win a majority of the state’s parliamentary seats in national elections scheduled for late 2015. Arakan is the old name for Rakhine, widely used before 1989, when the military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar.
Thein Khine was speaking in downtown Sittwe, which is now empty of Muslims – who were driven out in 2012 or forced by the government into the camps that ring the town.
Outside the camps, business is still brisk in the market area of Thay Chaung, near Sittwe University. But the village and its adjacent camps are sealed off from the capital by police checkpoints.
Around 8,000 people live in the village, says Mohamed Amin, registrar at the Thay Chaung fish market. In addition, he says, the nearby Rohingya camps house around 10,000 people. “We don’t think it is normal, of course. There are checkpoints and we cannot go to Sittwe to sell the fish,” he says.
Unlike most of those in the camps, Thay Chaung villagers still have their homes and, in some cases, their livelihoods. Around 300 fishing boats operate out of the nearby harbor, where fresh catches of mackerel, crab and tuna are laid out on mats for buyers.
“We make around 20% to 30% less per fish these days, compared with before, when we could sell directly in the Sittwe market,” Amin says. “Now we have to sell through Rakhine wholesalers who come here, and sometimes we cannot get ice (for keeping fish cold) if demand is high in Sittwe,” he adds.
One bright spot in the otherwise onerous trading conditions, Amin says, is the welcome given to Rakhine businesspeople who come to Thay Chaung.
“It shows that we used to live together before the violence and that we can still work together,” he says. Amin and many other Rohingya believe the anti-Muslim violence is the work of Rakhine hardliners backed by activist outsiders, such as the 969 Buddhist supremacist movement led by Wirathu, a monk from Mandalay.
Wirathu was jailed for many years under the former military junta for inciting religious hatred, but since the introduction of democratic freedoms under the government of President Thein Sein, he has been able to preach his incendiary message freely.
Perhaps biggest threat now to the estimated 18,000 Rohingya in the village and surrounding camps is the lack of medical services, adding to the hardships of an already vulnerable population.
“Before the suspension of (Doctors Without Borders) and attacks on aid organizations, NGOs and others were doing on average 10 emergency referrals per day from the camps and from isolated villages, but those referrals are not happening anymore,” Pierre Peron, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yangon, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
A month after the Sittwe riots, some nongovernment organizations and U.N. agencies have returned to the state, under the condition they report all proposed activities in advance to a new, government-backed body called the Emergency Coordination Center.
In late April, food aid began reaching the camps. Eager recipients could be seen carrying 50kg bags of rice stamped with the World Food Program insignia or loading them onto carts for onward dispatch.
Already, however, there has been a growing number of reports that illness is spreading among the population and infants are dying of disease or malnutrition. The government’s expulsion of Doctors Without Borders from the state has only made the situation worse. The government accused the European medical-relief organization of lying about treating alleged survivors of a Rohingya massacre in a northern Rakhine village in January.
While U.N. agencies believe the massacre took place, the government after an investigation said the episode was fabricated by local Rohingya in an effort to cover up the killing of a policeman.
With the rainy season due in June, the threat of a health crisis in the camps is looming even larger. Among the key concerns are possible outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. Mohamed Isse, a 45-year-old father of 12, says he is particularly worried about his children as the rains approach. “The wet season, it will be difficult. Some of the children could get diarrhea, and because I am coughing, maybe I cannot do any work,” he says.
For now, the Rohingya in Thay Chaung, villagers and displaced alike, must rely on small government medical teams that visit a spartan local clinic -on “most days,” according to Ba Khin, a Rohingya clinic staffer. Most of the facility’s equipment was donated by Mercy Malaysia, an NGO from Myanmar’s Muslim-majority neighbor.
“This morning the mobile team saw about 100 patients, 50% women, the rest divided between children and men,” Ba Khin says. “Since (Doctors Without Borders) left, we are so busy, and we cannot treat everyone.”
Myanmar’s health ministry said on May 1 that it had treated more than 8,000 people in the camps since the expulsion of Doctors without Borders, which says it provided medical services for almost 200,000 people, including in 24 camps, across Rakhine State.
Back at Mohamed Akbar’s shack, his sister Nurul, 40, tells how she left her children with her husband at another camp some 15 kilometers away, to tend to her brother and allow his wife Shadia to cook, clean and look after the couple’s children.
“His fever has increased, and he is not eating much,” Nurul says, fanning her younger brother’s sunken face. “If at least we could have him examined, we could know what is wrong.”
*Pseudonym used to protect the identity of the man and his familyShow