‘This is worse than a prison’
In Myanmar, one girl’s plight epitomizes Rohingya struggle
Ever since she was born in this squalid camp for displaced members of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya minority, Rosmaida Bibi has struggled to do something most of the world’s children do effortlessly: grow.
Frail and severely malnourished, Rosmaida is 4 — but she’s barely the size of a 1-year-old.
A tiny girl with big brown eyes, she wobbles unsteadily when she walks. Bones protrude through the flimsy skin of her chest. And while other kids her age chatter incessantly, Rosmaida is listless, only able to speak a handful of first words: “Papa.” ‘‘Mama.” ‘‘Rice.”
Half a decade after a brutal wave of anti-Muslim violence exploded in this predominantly Buddhist nation, forcing more than 120,000 Rohingya Muslims into a series of camps in western Myanmar, this is what the government’s policy of persecution, segregation and neglect looks like up close.
It’s a policy born of decades of military dictatorship and fear that Muslims are encroaching on what should be Buddhist land. The troubling thing today, rights groups say, is that this stance has been adopted by the administration of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and longtime opposition leader who rose to power after her party swept national elections last year.
And any hope that Suu Kyi — once lauded worldwide as a human rights icon — might turn things around has been shattered by her silence and the reality that life for the Rohingya has deteriorated by the day.
“This is worse than a prison,” Rosmaida’s 20-year-old mother, Hamida Begum, said of the makeshift hut they call home — the place where her daughter was born that floods with every heavy rain.
Poor, unemployed, and prohibited from crossing checkpoints into more affluent Buddhist-only areas, Begum has been unable to find anyone who can help.
“I want to give her an education. I want to send her to school like all the other kids,” she said as Rosmaida burrowed into her lap in Dar Paing, near the state capital, Sittwe. “But it’s not possible because she’s so sick ... she cannot grow.”
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, have long been denied citizenship, freedom of movement and basic rights in Myanmar, a country that largely sees them as foreigners from neighbouring Bangladesh even though most were born here.
Although tensions in Rakhine state go back decades, the neighbourhood Begum grew up in in Sittwe was mixed, and she said people there used to get along.
That changed dramatically on June 5, 2012, when Buddhist mobs began attacking Muslims and setting homes ablaze. Begum fled, running barefoot so hard and so fast she realized only later that her feet were covered in blood.
Today her neighbourhood — where denuded trees and the destroyed remains of homes are still visible — is occupied by Buddhist squatters. Although Begum said her grandparents owned their family’s house there, they have neither been allowed to return nor compensated for its destruction.
Aside from a single district, Sittwe is now entirely Buddhist, and Muslims are prohibited from walking its streets.
Suu Kyi has denied such policies equate to ethnic cleansing, but international rights groups insist that’s exactly what they are. Suu Kyi’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Matthew Smith, who runs the advocacy group Fortify Rights, said: “It’s scandalous that these internment camps still exist five years on ... The reality is that there’s a lot she (Suu Kyi) could be doing, but isn’t.
“The Rohingya are no closer now to getting their rights ... and in some respects the situation is much worse,” he said. Over the last year, “there’s been mass killing, mass rape, widespread forced labour and other violations, all committed with complete impunity.”
After a Rohingya insurgent group killed nine officers in northern Rakhine state in October — the first reported attack of its kind — security forces responded by burning entire villages, raping women and killing an unknown number of people in a rampage that sent 75,000 people fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh, according to the United Nations and international rights groups. The government puts the toll at 52 dead or missing and blames extremists for the killings.
Although southern Rakhine state, where Rosmaida lives, was not directly affected, the region has experienced a spike in tensions. On Tuesday, a 100-strong Buddhist mob in Sittwe killed one Rohingya man and injured six others who ventured into the city under police escort to buy boats.
Suu Kyi says her administration is dealing with the issue by implementing the recommendations of a commission led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which called on the government to close the displaced camps and allow their inhabitants to return home.
Most of the camps remain open, though, and Suu Kyi’s administration restricts access to the region, blocking journalists from independent access to the north altogether. Last week, her government said it would also bar members of a U.N.-approved fact-finding mission from entering the country to investigate alleged rights violations by security forces against the Rohingya.
Vanna Sara, a Buddhist abbot at Sittwe’s Seik Ke Daw Min monastery, said harsh policies were necessary to protect Buddhists. Western Myanmar is on the frontline of a population explosion, and Muslims, he said, are trying to “swallow the whole region.”
“They can’t be trusted. No Muslim can be trusted. They’re all scary,” Sara said. “That’s why, to tell you the truth, it’s better that we don’t live with the Muslims. That’s how we feel.”
When Begum settled in Dar Paing after the 2012 violence, she tried to start her life anew. But her tragic story has mirrored that of many Rohingya. The man she married died shortly after he was detained in Malaysia, where he was trying to bring their family for a better life. Their son died a few hours after birth.
Begum has since remarried, but her fisherman husband sometimes comes home from a day of work with less than a dollar, or nothing. That makes it hard to care for her biggest concern — her daughter — who is lucky just to be alive.
A report issued by UNICEF in May said a staggering 150 children under the age of 5 die every day in Myanmar, while nearly 30 per cent are malnourished. Although the UN does not have specific statistics for the camps, half of whose inhabitants are children, aid workers say the situation inside them is even worse.
Begum has taken her daughter to local clinics half a dozen times, but her condition has never improved.
Rosmaida is now being helped by an international humanitarian charity which is giving her ready-to-eat packets of therapeutic food paste to alleviate severe acute malnutrition, which the World Health Organization describes as “a life threatening condition requiring urgent treatment.”
But Begum is concerned because her daughter’s appetite is so low, “she has trouble eating all of them.”
Twice a day, she takes her daughter’s hand and walks her through Dar Paing’s labyrinth corridors, a place Rosmaida has lived in her entire life.
It’s hard, she says, because Rosmaida’s tiny joints often hurt. She can’t walk far, and she’s never been able to run.
Soon, Begum will have another reason to worry: She is pregnant again. People who identify themselves as Rohingya walk at the Dar Paing camp, north of Sittwe, Myanmar.
Rosmaida Bibi, who suffers from severe malnutrition, sits on her mother Hamida Begum’s lap at their makeshift shelter at the Dar Paing camp, north of Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar.