Fresh fears for new­born ba­bies as Ro­hingyas’ plight wors­ens

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Thaslima Begum, Ben Quinn and Mil­lie Shields

More than 400 ba­bies have been born in the no man’s land be­tween the bor­ders of Bangladesh and Myan­mar in the past 15 days as 400,000 Ro­hingya peo­ple have fled from the vi­o­lence, house burn­ings and gun­fire in Rakhine state.

The Ro­hingya are trapped. Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary has blamed in­sur­gents for the lat­est round of vi­o­lence. The UN has called the sit­u­a­tion a “hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter” and aid agen­cies are over­whelmed. About 80% of those flee­ing are women and chil­dren – and there are ba­bies be­ing born along the way.

Caught be­tween two coun­tries – and wel­come by nei­ther – Su­raiya Sul­tan, 25, is one of those new

mothers. She was wait­ing in a 500yard-long strip of mud when she went into labour. As her con­trac­tions in­creased, Bor­der Guard Bangladesh (BGB) took her on to a boat, where she gave birth to her daugh­ter, Aye­sha, un­der a makeshift sari canopy. Sick and ex­hausted, mother and baby were taken to the Naya­para camp to seek med­i­cal as­sis­tance. Camp of­fi­cer Mohd Mominul Haq said they had re­ceived many oth­ers in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion and that their con­di­tion was “crit­i­cal”.

“We are try­ing our best to help them, but the sit­u­a­tion is be­yond our ca­pac­ity,” he said. Mothers have died dur­ing child­birth; oth­ers gave birth only to watch help­lessly as their new­borns died from sick­ness and poor camp con­di­tions.

Ma­sum Bhadur, 28, lost her son. “He had a fever and wouldn’t stop shak­ing,” she sobbed. Her hus­band Abu Bakr, 35, went to find help, but when he re­turned the baby was dead. There is no proper burial ground in the vicin­ity, as all avail­able space is be­ing used to erect makeshift shel­ters, so Abu Bakr dug a small grave in the for­est nearby and buried their son. He was three days old.

An­other woman did not know what to do with her dead baby. Af­ter car­ry­ing her boy with her for two days, she slipped him into the Naf river. Tears streamed down her face as she told her story. Manzur Kadir Ahmed, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Gonoshasthaya Ken­dra (Peo­ple’s Health Cen­tre), said that the mothers were un­able to breast­feed their ba­bies be­cause of a lack of enough food and water.

Vi­vian Tan, from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, de­scribed how a man ap­proached the clinic at the Naya­para camp look­ing dis­tressed. “He took us to this lit­tle bas­ket cov­ered by a blan­ket ... he opened it and showed us two tiny ba­bies. His wife had just given birth to twins while they were on the run,” she said. One died soon af­ter­wards.

An­thony Lake, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the UN chil­dren’s agency Unicef, said: “Women and chil­dren on both sides of the bor­der need ur­gent help and pro­tec­tion.” While Unicef is scal­ing up its re­sponse in Bangladesh, Myan­mar has blocked all aid-worker ac­cess to civil­ians in north­ern Rakhine, in­clud­ing ba­bies and preg­nant women.

As the sit­u­a­tion on the bor­der of Myan­mar and Bangladesh wors­ens, the global crit­i­cism di­rected at Myan­mar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, over her si­lence about the eth­nic cleans­ing of the Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity, who are mainly Mus­lim, is mount­ing. In the UK, there are grow­ing calls for awards and hon­ours be­stowed on her by a range of uni­ver­si­ties and cities to be with­drawn. In the City of Lon­don – where Aung San Suu Kyi was en­dowed with the hon­orary free­dom of the City as re­cently as May this year – ques­tions are also be­ing asked about how and why she was hon­oured af­ter lo­cal gov­ern­ment mem­bers and oth­ers ex­pressed their con­cerns.

The role of the For­eign Of­fice, which was con­sulted by City of Lon­don of­fi­cials, is also now in the spot­light, and at least one elected mem­ber of the Square Mile’s lo­cal author­ity has now ini­ti­ated dis­cus­sions with col­leagues on whether her hon­our could be with­drawn.

“The City re­mains a fan­tas­ti­cally di­verse place, with a huge num­ber of south Asian Mus­lims liv­ing and work­ing here. This makes it all the more im­por­tant that we hold our­selves to the high­est pos­si­ble stan­dard on this is­sue,” said the let­ter from Thomas An­der­son, which has been seen by the Ob­server.

There are also calls for Aung San Suu Kyi, hav­ing al­ready faced crit­i­cism over her stance by her fel­low No­bel lau­re­ates Malala Yousafzai and Des­mond Tutu, to be stripped of her hon­orary Cana­dian cit­i­zen­ship and the No­bel Peace Prize that she was given in 1991.

In Dublin, where she re­ceived the free­dom of the city in 2012, coun­cil­lors have started to de­bate whether to be­gin the process of tak­ing back that award, with one, Man­nix Flynn, warn­ing col­leagues that they could have “blood on their hands”.

Dis­ap­point­ment at Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance on the vi­o­lence is keenly felt in Ox­ford, her former home. A cam­paign is un­der way there call­ing for with­drawal of the hon­orary doc­tor­ate be­stowed on her in 2012, when she vis­ited af­ter be­ing re­leased from 15 years un­der house ar­rest in her own coun­try.

“Suu Kyi has been widely ad­mired in Ox­ford, to which she has a close per­sonal con­nec­tion, for her coura­geous stance on hu­man rights in Burma, for her per­sis­tence against the odds and for re­main­ing stub­bornly peace­ful in the face of mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion,” said Dr Hazel Dawe, an aca­demic at Ox­ford Brookes Univer­sity and orig­i­na­tor of a change.org pe­ti­tion di­rected to­wards Ox­ford Univer­sity. “There is wide­spread dis­il­lu­sion­ment and dis­ap­point­ment that she ap­pears un­able to ap­ply those same ad­mirable qual­i­ties to the cri­sis fac­ing the Ro­hingya peo­ple.”

Else­where, the leader of Sh­effield coun­cil has ac­cused Aung San Suu Kyi of a “be­trayal” of the city’s sup­port, while coun­cil­lors are to de­bate whether to with­draw the free­dom hon­our be­stowed on her.

In Liver­pool, the city’s guild of stu­dents has al­ready re­moved her name from a room at the main univer­sity’s stu­dent union and called it af­ter Kitty Wilkin­son, the woman who pre­vented the spread of the 1832 cholera epi­demic.

Ananda Mo­han, deputy pres­i­dent of the guild, said that the or­gan­i­sa­tion was re­spond­ing to the vol­ume of stu­dent sup­port for the room to be re­named.

About 80% of those flee­ing are women and chil­dren – and there are ba­bies be­ing born along the way. Pho­to­graph: Dar Yasin/AP

Thou­sands of Ro­hingya refugees are stuck in no man’s land be­tween Myan­mar and Bangladesh. Pho­to­graph: Al­li­son Joyce/Getty Images

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