‘This is worse than a prison’

In Myanmar, one girl’s plight epit­o­mizes Ro­hingya strug­gle

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - PERSPECTIVES - BY TODD PIT­MAN

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.

AP PHOTO AP PHOTO

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.

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