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Rohingya, impoverished and persecuted, in northern Rakhine state

By Thin Lei Win
July 29, 2014

International news coverage of the plight of the stateless Rohingya Muslims has focused on those displaced by sectarian violence and living in sprawling, squalid camps outside the Rakhine state capital Sittwe. However, a majority of the country’s 1.3 million Rohingya live in northern Rakhine state in apartheid-like conditions.

Access to Northern Rakhine state along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border is tightly restricted. Only a handful of foreign journalists have been there, and getting in requires passing through numerous checkpoints and showing official documents to prove that the government has granted permission to visit.

It is one of the poorest, most remote and most densely populated parts of the country and suffers high levels of malnutrition.

Although the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations, the government denies them citizenship and calls them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which also does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens. The United Nations has called them “virtually friendless”.

Reuters and Thomson Reuters Foundation were granted access to the region in early June and reached Maungdaw, the westernmost town in Myanmar, after a six-hour public boat ride from Sittwe and another hour’s drive on winding roads.

The bucolic setting of northern Rakhine state – its roads winding along stunning coastline and inland through sleepy farming villages – belies the harsh reality of life for the Rohingya.

Many of them cannot travel, get married or even seek medical treatment without official permission, which is costly and difficult to obtain.

Access to healthcare has worsened since Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF-H) and Malteser International, which between them provided the bulk of medical consultations and referrals, were expelled from Rakhine earlier this year. 

In late February MSF-H, the primary healthcare provider for half a million Rohingya, was told to leave Rakhine. Local media reported that government officials had been angry with MSF for saying it had treated victims near the scene of an alleged massacre of Rohingya in a village in NRS. Myanmar’s government denies any killing took place. 

On the night of March 27, Buddhist nationalist mobs attacked aid agency offices over rumours a Malteser aid worker had handled a Buddhist flag inappropriately. A government-appointed commission found no justification for the rumour but Rakhine officials said Malteser must leave and could not return. 

Picture: Soe Zeya Tun, taken on June 6

“I have no appetite and I’m tired all the time,” said Zawrina Hattu, 52. She had been feeling ill for about a month. She and her husband first went to MSF-H and Malteser clinics, where they would normally get free treatment, but both were closed. 

They then went to the government clinic at the top of their village, a few miles from Maungdaw. The nurse gave Hattu some pills but did not tell her what was wrong with her, she said. 

Her husband, Momi Ramed, 60, said they have no money to go to Bangladesh for treatment and are barred from going to Sittwe hospital. 

Picture: Soe Zeya Tun, taken on June 6

Nurfasa was born in late May. All she has had for nutrition since then is ground rice powder mixed with water, as her mother, legs swollen and womb racked with pain, could not produce enough milk to feed her.

She will not be getting nutritional supplements or vaccinations any time soon because the MSF-H clinic in their village, a back-breaking two-hour drive south of Maungdaw, is shut indefinitely. There is a government clinic, but on the day of our visit it looked as if it had been closed for some time.

Nurfasa was fidgeting constantly in her grandmother’s arms, her breath laboured, her tongue sticking out. Her mouth opened wide as if she wanted to cry, but no sound came out. 

Picture: Soe Zeya Tun, taken on June 6

A border guard stands in a watch tower in Maungdaw, near the border fence and the Naf river separating Myanmar from Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh has lodged a protest with Myanmar over what it called an unprovoked attack on its border guards by Myanmar security forces on May 30, following an earlier exchange of fire in which one Bangladeshi guard was killed.

Myanmar has given a different version of events and has warned Bangladesh it will not tolerate any violation of its sovereignty or territory. It has also suggested that “suspected armed Bengalis” are to blame. In Myanmar, the term "Bengali" refers to the Rohingya. 

Picture: Soe Zeya Tun, taken on June 5

Everyday life in NRS may be hard but it is not without celebrations and laughter. We chanced upon a wedding party near a remote village south of Maungdaw, with music and dancing accompanying the bride and groom. 

Here, the Rohingya bride, centre, face covered, posed with members of the bridal entourage. 

The groom, walking a few steps in front of the bride, looked solemn but pleased. 

Pictures: Soe Zeya Tun, taken on June 6

We also came across a traditional wrestling festival at Kyaukpannu village. The wrestling, in which Rohingya men and children took part, was preceded by more music and dancing. 

The winners received some cash - usually a few hundred kyats (about 1,000 Kyats to a dollar) - and sweets, which they share with the enthusiastic audience. 

Picture: Thin Lei Win, taken on June 6

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