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Rohingya struggle to cope with expulsion of international healthcare providers
THAY CHAUNG – Anuar Begum’s baby boy is just 4 days old and hasn’t been named yet, but the 22-year-old first-time mother is already thinking four weeks ahead.
That’s when heavy rain and storms will begin to blow in from the Bay of Bengal into Rakhine State, bringing the threat of water-borne diseases for the almost 140,000 Rohingya, who, like Anuar Begum, live in camps in this bedeviled region in western Myanmar.
“We are worried about the baby. We are IDPs [internally displaced persons] and there is no doctor in our camp,” she said, perched on the edge of the same rusty-framed bed where she gave birth 4 days back, inside a government clinic outside Sittwe, the regional capital of Rakhine State.
In February the Myanmar government kicked out Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), a key healthcare provider, from Rakhine State, accusing the medical relief organisation of fabricating claims that it treated Rohingya survivors of an alleged January massacre in northern Rakhine. The government’s move has left many Rohingya without access to medical treatment.
For Anuar Begum and her infant son, it is a worrying time. Anuar’s mother Zeitun travelled 20 miles from a camp at Pauktaw, along with her daughter and the baby’s father, fisherman Muhammed Hussein.
“Maybe we will face troubles in the rainy season,” said Zeitun, who added that concerns about storms and pestilence could be compounded by the monsoon deluges that turn Rakhine’s roads into quagmires.
“What will happen if we need to come back here if the baby is sick? The traffic situation will not be good,” she said.
The precarious commute will be necessary if the newborn gets sick, because there is no medical assistance available at the camp where they have stayed since their home in Pauktaw was burned down by a Rakhine mob in October 2012.
Thay Chaung is a Rohingya village a mile from Sittwe University. Unlike some other Muslim districts of Sittwe, it was not hit by the pogroms and looting of mid-2012, but it is now a ghetto, sealed off from the rest of the city by Myanmar soldiers and police. Thay Chaung’s 8,000 inhabitants are not allowed to leave, forced to share the area with around 10,000 IDPs who have been pushed into camps around the village.
The new curbs on healthcare have made their situation worse. Mohamed Ali, 55, had a thriving pharmacy business in Sittwe before his home was incinerated in June 2012. After almost a year and half in Dar Paing camp, about six miles from downtown Sittwe, he managed to set up a small, bare-bones pharmacy in his shack, selling painkillers and anti-malaria pills procured at the market in Thay Chaung village. There Rakhine traders – unperturbed by threats and boycott demands from Rakhine hardliners – continue to trade in Muslim ghettoes such as Thay Chaung and the surrounding camps.
“After some NGO and MSF are kicked out, my business is working better than before,” he conceded, adding, however, that he would be much happier if NGO-backed healthcare services were allowed to resume.
Most United Nations agencies and NGOs have returned to Sittwe after offices were attacked by Rakhine in March. However, the expatriate returnees are hunkered down for now in the beachside Sittwe Hotel, told by Myanmar authorities that an open, full-scale resumption of aid to the Rohingya camps would only rile hardline Rakhine who want Muslims expelled from the region and who accuse the aid organisations of pro-Muslim bias.
Such perceptions are easy to manipulate, given that all but around 5,000 of those left homeless by violence in Rakhine State are Rohingya.
Nonetheless, these telling numbers do not deter Rakhine politicians from peddling anti-NGO sentiment. Thein Khine, chairman of the Sittwe branch of the newly-formed Arakan (Rakhine) National Party, said that NGOs favour the Rohingya, whom he calls “Bengali,” a desgnation that implies the country’s estimated 800,000-1.3million Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh rather than Myanmar citizens.
“They (Rohingya) take for free,” Thein Khine said, making an eating motion with his hands. “We Arakanese work hard, but get nothing from the NGOs.”
As foreign NGOs and international agencies edge back into Rakhine State, they are quick to try to refute Rakhine allegations of discrimination.
“The ICRC works in close collaboration with the authorities in Rakhine, and we have always balanced our activities between the Rakhine and Muslim communities – both are in much need,” said Michael O’Brien, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yangon.