The riots have ceased and the machetes are sheathed, but Maung Kyaw Nu says Rohingya are in more danger now than ever before. In his eyes, the 2012 knife attacks inflicted on his fellow Burmese Muslims pale in comparison to their current lack of scalpels, medicine and qualified doctors.
“The attacks were big, but they aren’t always happening. The health problems that the Rohingya face are their biggest concern now,” says Maung, president of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand, of the dismal conditions his people are contending with, during a recent telephone interview with Asian Correspondent.
Maung (whose association helps Rohingya refugees settle in Thailand) adds that the issue stems all the way back to the summer of 2012 when more than 100,000 members of Burma’s Muslim minority were displaced by mobs of torch toting, knife wielding Rakhine Buddhists. Since then, those homeless Rohingya have taken refuge in small camps in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, on the nation’s west coast. But critics compare those facilities to detainment centers, where the Rohingya are restricted in both movement and supplies.
“The Rohingya are effectively locked down in their settlements and IDP camps, without adequate access to health care,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director for the Asian division of Human Rights Watch, says during a recent interview with Asian Correspondent. He adds: “The severe restrictions that prevent Rohingya from getting to hospitals and other health care facilities are killing people.”
Fears of a humanitarian crisis have been mounting since February when the government of Burma (Myanmar) ousted Medecins Sans Frontiers-Holland (MSF-H), the chief aid group offering health care to the refugees. Activists like Maung say the thousands of Rohingya refugees in Rakhine face a brutal dilemma: risk another Buddhist attack while venturing out to nearby hospitals; or huddle in the camps as resources dwindle, diarrhea becomes fatal for more children, and fewer pregnant mothers survive childbirth. (MSF-H declined to be interviewed for this story as negotiations with Burmese authorities are ongoing. Burmese health officials were also unresponsive to requests for comment).
Ko Aung, of the Rohingya Association of Thailand, says the expulsion of MSF-H made the government’s intentions clear.
“The Rakhine state government and Buddhist extremists made plans to kick out NGOs including MSF, giving different unacceptable excuses,” he says, adding that he disputes government claims that some of these aid organizations provided weapons to the Rohingya during the 2012 riots, or that their hiring policies are biased toward Muslims. He goes on to say: “These are their policies to repress the Rohingya, giving many poor excuses to the international community and keeping the Muslims in a difficult situation so that they will flee wherever they can. It’s long-term ethnic cleansing.”
International organizations are, for the most part, more tactful in their statements about the issue. But they mostly agree that the Rohingya are being repressed, with a statement from the United Nations saying at least 40 members of the Muslim minority were killed by rioting Rakhine Buddhists early this year. The Burmese government, however, says no such murders took place.
Meanwhile, Rakhine state officials say the Rohingya share much of the blame for their current healthcare ails. State spokesman Win Myaing, in a recent interview with Reuters, said: “There is a group of people in one of these camps that shows the same sick children to anyone who visits. Even when the government arranges for treatment, they refuse it.”
But Robertson doubts Win’s claims, saying the government spokesperson has lied about the state’s handling of the Rohingya matters on numerous occasions (Win could not be reached for comment before press time).
“Win Myaing has been deliberately deceitful on a regular basis when it comes to… his past denials of obvious facts, such as the existence of racist, discriminatory policies like the two-child policy enforced on stateless Rohingya,” Robertson says, adding: “Fortunately, his statements are so ludicrous and divorced from reality that they inspire ridicule, and expose the Rakhine state government’s ethical bankruptcy when it comes to how they deal with the Rohingya.”
And yet Win is not the only one who says the Rohingya refused treatment. Dr. Liviu Vedrasco, health cluster coordinator for the World Health Organization (a branch of the UN overseeing medical collaborations in the region between the Red Cross, the Myanmar Nurse and Midwife Association, and other groups) agrees that some of the Rohingya have declined aid, and the situation is far more nuanced than it appears.
“Some patients on a number of occasions over the last month have indeed refused to be referred to the Sittwe General Hospital,” Vedrasco said in an interview with Asian Correspondent, adding that he estimates at least a few dozen Rohingya have declined treatment in the last month.
Vedrasco went on to say that despite rampant criticism from many international organizations, the government has stepped up its healthcare efforts at the camps as of late.
“Access to health care in the IDP camps in Rakhine has improved in May compared to April. And most of the camps are visited regularly by mobile clinics organized jointly by the Ministry of Health and NGO partners,” he says, adding that the number of patient consultations in May has jumped to 13,000, compared to April’s 6,000.
That encouraging trend has not been enough to sway all of the Burmese government’s critics. Robertson (of Human Rights Watch) says many Rohingya may be refusing treatment because their afflictions won’t be as deadly as the commute to the nearby Sittwe hospital.
“I suspect many Rohingya would fear that they cannot receive any real guarantee of protection if they were transferred to Sittwe General Hospital,” Robertson says of the Rakhine attacks that are still fresh in the Muslims’ minds, especially since Buddhist rioters escalated the situation by lashing out at foreign aid workers in late March. He adds that a lack of management on the authorities’ part is also a serious concern: “The delays that the Rakhine dominated state government and security forces impose on such transfers likely leads to many preventable deaths.”
But even some of the government’s harshest detractors admit that it has taken steps to amend some of its worst missteps, especially at the federal level.