Rohingya refugees

Pic: AP.

In August 2012 the Bangladeshi government placed a ban on charities providing aid to the Rohingya. The reason was that Bangladesh feared the aid would create a pull factor for more refugees to come across from western Burma and settle in the country. It’s the same reason why the UN’s refugee agency has only been allowed to register around 28,000 of the 300,000 Rohingya who live in camps or squatter tenements in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh. In essence, Dhaka doesn’t want Rohingya in the country, and the most effective way of driving them out, short of a pogrom that would create an international scandal, is to cut off a key lifeline.

A similar situation is now being mirrored across the border in Burma’s Rakhine State. The spokesperson for the Burmese government, Ye Htut, announced on Friday that the license for the French aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has been assisting Rohingya driven into camps following several outbreaks of violence in 2012, would not be renewed. The outcome is that they will likely be kicked out of Burma, where they’ve been working since 1992. The main reason given by the government relates to MSF’s claim that it treated 22 people with knife and gunshot wounds following the alleged massacre of 48 Rohingya men, women and children in Maungdaw in northern Rakhine state in January. The government has consistently denied reports of a massacre first raised by the UN, which said security forces were involved. It asked MSF to present government officials with the victims, something MSF obviously wouldn’t do given confidentiality codes. Ye Htut also included MSF’s hiring of ‘Bengalis’ – government speak for Rohingya – as staff members as a reason for its expulsion.

In January the government withdrew resources from a hospital near to the Thae Chaung refugee camp in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. When I visited the hospital in February it was empty – no doctors, no equipment, no patients. The reasons are unclear, but regardless, the extra burden will have been placed on the likes of MSF, whose resources are already over-stretched. In the past, Rakhine mobs have blocked aid from entering refugee camps holding Rohingya, and MSF has been the target of frequent mass protests in Sittwe.  The anger towards the aid group among Rakhine Buddhists relates to perceptions that MSF and other bodies provide disproportionate aid to Rohingya, forgetting that in crisis situations like that in Rakhine, dispersal of aid is weighted according to the needs of recipients (some 140,000 Rohingya have been displaced, a number that far outweighs that of Rakhine, although Rakhine have certainly been victim of attacks from Rohingya mobs and many remain in camps). For the government, MSF’s treatment of those who survived the massacre makes the group’s presence in the country very awkward given it can both counter Naypyidaw’s claims that nothing happened, and counter claims that security forces have remained innocent parties in the violence – the gunshot wounds suggest otherwise.

(MORE: Another Rohingya massacre, another media problem for Burma)

Cutting aid to a group being targeted by the local population on ethno-religious grounds spells potential disaster, given there is no sympathetic public to step in and help. While the UN is still active in Rakhine state and providing aid to Rohingya, the move to expel MSF bodes very ill – it suggests the government is prioritizing the shoring up of its own image over the desperate needs of 140,000-plus people.

And it goes beyond just Rakhine state: MSF currently treats over 30,000 HIV/AIDS patients across the country and more than 3,000 TB patients, and accesses remote parts of the country where healthcare is lacking. Last year it conducted nearly 480,000 primary healthcare consultations across the country. It has been so busy because the government provides scant resources for its population, allocating only around 5.7% of the annual budget to healthcare – claims by the Rakhine state health officials today that the government can “fill the gap” created by MSF’s departure look highly dubious, given that Rohingya access to healthcare is made difficult on account of them not being citizens. Furthermore, security guards outside the Rohingya ghettos that have formed in Sittwe have said they will not let Rohingya visit the town’s main hospital unless in case of an emergency, meaning they are forced to travel to clinics in the refugee camps – clinics that until today were mainly run by MSF.

Experts have warned that all the elements of the persecution combined together – statelessness, restrictions on mobility, birth control, coordinated violence, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, and so on – signal a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Yet it’s one that doesn’t have to rely on violence to achieve its goal – conditions can be made so intolerable that Rohingya realise they can no longer live in Burma, hence the tens of thousands who flee on boats each year. Another lifeline that helped keep the heads of those who remained above water has been cut – like Bangladesh, it becomes an effective way of forcing a population out. The government’s proactive involvement in this is a signal of intent, and marks a dramatic worsening of the situation in western Burma.