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Fears, Tension and Looming Health Crisis for Rohingya Muslims as Myanmar Census Begins

By Richard Potter
March 31, 2014

After much ambiguity and tension it was officially announced by Myanmar’s presidential spokesman, Ye Htut, that Rohingya would not be permitted to identify as Rohingya during the census. This news comes shortly after several NGO offices were attacked in the Rakhine State’s capitol Sittwe, and almost all NGO workers were forced to evacuate. As a result the Rohingya in Sittwe face harsh uncertainty of how they will obtain any of their basic needs, including food rations. Abdul, a resident in the Sittwe IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps, said, “WFP (World Food Program) distributes food for one month here and tomorrow was supposed to be when they distribute, but the Rakhine broke down all the NGO offices in Sittwe. One of our leaders was in contact with WFP staff and they told him they cannot distribute food after attack. Right now all the IDP’s are wondering where they will get food from. Who will help?” The offices were attacked by mobs of the state’s ethnic majority Rakhine, whose political parties have stated that NGO’s favor Rohingya when providing aid. Similarly Rakhine State authorities and the Myanmar Government forced the organization Doctors Without Borders out of Rakhine state last month, effectively cutting off Rohingya from the vast majority of what little medical treatment was available to them. San is a Rohingya woman living in Sittwe’s Aung Minglar Quarter, which is the last remaining Muslim quarter in the city after riots in 2012 displaced Rohingya from the rest of the city into the camps. Aung Minglar quarter is under police and military guard and Rohingya are not allowed to leave without permission and escort from police. San said in regards to Aung Minglar, “MSF (Doctors Without Borders) was here three times a day before they left. Now there are 5,000 people here without them.”

Noor, a man also in Aung Minglar said, “The Government now sends a doctor once a week for four hours. Only the very sick can see him and only on that day. If an emergency happens we will raise money together to have police escort the sick person to Sittwe Hospital, but sometimes there are monks who patrol the hospital and look for Muslims to make them leave.” The expelling of Doctors Without Borders has been decried as an inhumane government policy which was implemented knowingly that it would result in vast numbers of deaths among the Rohingya in the state. On top of withdrawal of aid and medical care Rohingya are also facing tremendous fears over what may happen during the upcoming census. Rakhine have organized protests during the past month over whether Rohingya will be able to self identify in the census. The Rakhine argue that Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh and will not acknowledge the term ‘Rohingya’, while Rohingya argue that they are indigenous and they have been in Rakhine State for centuries. There is a strong sentiment that Rohingya do not belong in Rakhine State and should be deported to neighboring Bangladesh.

While protests grew so have reports of intimidation, threats, and harassment by police and Rakhine Authorities against Rohingya to complete the census as ‘Bengali’. On this issue Abdul from the Sittwe camps said “Police contacted the Rohingya in our village, they said you must sign the census as Bengali. When the Rohingya said they would sign their own ethnicity the police said they will be attacked if they do not sign as Bengali.”

Similar reports have been echoed all over the state. Various accounts from the SIttwe camp state that the majority of police in the camps have been replaced or reinforced with Burmese Military. Their willingness or responsibility to protect the camps remains unclear, and has been cause for increased fear among the Rohingya living there.

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