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Myanmar's Apartheid: Healthcare and memories of violence

By Assed Baig
March 13, 2014

The Rohingya of Myanmar are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world according to the United Nations. They have suffered pogroms at the hands of extremist Rakhine Buddhists and now as many as 100,000 are left to languish in camps that have turned into ghettos.

Myanmar’s Rohingya are mainly located in the Western state of Rakhine. There, violence against the minority in 2012 resulted in hundreds of deaths and, according to Human Rights Watch, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity were perpetrated against them – with the help of state forces.

The story of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar does not start with the outbreak of violence in 2012. Discrimination and marginalization against them dates back to post-British rule, with one of the most significant points being the 1982 citizenship law, introduced by the military junta, which stripped theRohingya of their citizenship and made them stateless.

The state commonly labels the Rohingya 'Bengalis’, claiming they are recently arrived illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – despite a centuries-long Rohingyapresence in Myanmar. This has been further complicated by the historical placement of boundaries, with the historical kingdom of Rakhine stretching into present-day Bangladesh.

Across the border in Bangladesh, where more than 200,000 have fled, they have been met with hostility and resentment by the government. Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh dates back to the 1990s and the majority are living in unregistered camps or Bangladeshi villages, where there is no legal protection from arrest or abuse and little to no humanitarian assistance. Not wanted by Myanmar or Bangladesh the Rohingya live as a stateless people invisible to the world. 

Extremist Buddhist monks from the "969 Movement" have targeted Muslim minorities in Myanmar, including the Rohingya, telling their followers not to do business with Muslims, not to marry them, not to engage with them and even likening them to animals. One of the most prominent monks, Wirathu, has been likened to neo-Nazis for allegedly using hate speech against Muslims and warning of a Muslim takeover of the country.

- Health

Sittwe hospital is off-limits for the Rohingya. If the case is serious enough, they can be admitted by the International Committee for the Red Cross but are not able to freely enter by themselves.

They are also afraid that ethnic Rakhine doctors will not treat them properly; there are frequent stories ofRohingya dying at Sittwe hospital allegedly because of poor treatment at the hands of Rakhine staff. The claims cannot be substantiated but increase suspicions. Women who need to give birth are refusing to go to Sittwe hospital, even when NGO staff secure their access.

Some doctors visit the camps, where most Rohingyaare forced to live, but stay only for a short while, unable to treat everyone in the queues of people that go on and on. Like all goods, medicine has to be brought into Rohingya areas from the Rakhine side of town. There are makeshift pharmacies selling everything from painkillers to anti-biotics but, as with everything else, medicine is more expensive in the camps than in central Sittwe. 

At the end of February, Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) was told by the Myanmar regime to leave the country. The move came after MSF reported that they had treated 22 Rohingya that had been injured and traumatized after January’s massacre in Maungdaw. The government denied anyone had been killed. MSF were also accused by the government of hiring “Bengalis”. A few days later they were allowed to resume their activities – but only outside Rakhine state.

- Memories

Everyone remembers the violence. They share stories of what happened, how their homes were destroyed, how their family members were killed in front of them and how they fled. Muhammed Hussein tells AA of the time that they were forced out, told to leave by police only to see their homes being burnt by Buddhist extremists.

“The police had first told us to stay in our homes but then told us to leave. They told us that we could come back later after everything had settled down, but as soon as we left the village our houses were set on fire,” he says.

“Everything was fine with our Buddhist neighbors until some men from the Rakhine authorities visited. I do not know what they said to them but our Rakhine neighbors turned on us. We left the old and sick behind in the village believing that we would be back shortly,” he said.

The people gathered around him to listen to the story fell silent; all in the camp from the same village know the story. “A woman in our village with a two-day-old baby. The Rakhine killed her, and they did not spare the baby,” he said.

Hussein says the police did not even let them take their rickshaw bikes: “If they had let us then we could have brought her and the baby with us,” he says regretfully. Others around him share the sense of guilt for leaving people behind, and for believing the authorities that they would be allowed to return.

“When we tried to go back and help, the police fired on us,” claims Hussein.

One man has memories of a time before the 1982 citizenship law, when Rohingya were considered citizens of the state. “My great grandfather and grandfather were recognized as Rohingya. They had passports. My father had an identity card that stated he was a Rohingya. Why am I called a Bengali?” protests 77-year-old Abdul Rahman.

He produces a green identity card, from when he was just 21-years-old, and reminisces of a time when he could live in his family home in Sittwe, rather than a camp.

“Are we not humans? Do we not have a right to exist?” he asks. His grandson shows his white identity card; a temporary one that states he is Bengali, not Rohingya.

In every camp the stories are of pain and suffering. Qadir told AA’s reporter: “We are just living, we are like the living dead. We live without a life, just to survive each day.”

One of AA’s contacts has not stepped out of her house in nine months. It’s a self-imposed restriction in a way but comes from her fear of what would happen if the police decide to arrest her for speaking to foreigners.

She has been targeted because she is known amongst the Rohingya for providing education, distributing food and medicine, listening to people’s grievances and being amongst the few who are educated and capable of communicating in English about the Rohingya’s problems to the outside world.

“The international community just offers us words. Nothing in real terms. I do not expect anything from them anymore,” she says. “We have lost hope,” she adds with a tone of sadness. 

While all this takes place in Myanmar, one of its most prominent political figures remains silent. Nobel peace laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi chooses not to condemn the violence against the Rohingya, who she does not consider part of her support base. In 2013 in an interview with the BBC she said that violence against the Rohingya was not “ethnic cleansing”, despite reports by various human rights organizations.

It is not only the Noble peace laureate that remains silent on the plight of the Rohingya, the international community is doing very little to help the Rohingya on a meaningful level.

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