Wait­ing for the Rain to Come

An un­nat­u­ral dis­as­ter for the Ro­hingya

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - An un­nat­u­ral dis­as­ter for the Ro­hingya by Scott Lud­lam

The sky over the world’s youngest city is hazy, streaked with high cloud. Mem­bers of a work gang pause, lean­ing on their shov­els as we pass. There will be no rain to­day, but they are sand­bag­ging a new cul­vert against the day when the mon­soon rolls in off the Bay of Ben­gal and un­loads across this im­mense, hand­made set­tle­ment. We step out of their way, and from up ahead comes the sound of sing­ing. Chil­dren, in cheer­ful recita­tion, their voices ris­ing from a set of small class­rooms that look like the only per­ma­nent struc­tures in the camp. I hadn’t ex­pected to hear sing­ing to­day. Un­ex­pected mem­o­ries of the last time I vis­ited a school in this cor­ner of the world. Cen­tral Myan­mar, Novem­ber 8, 2015. It was a bright morn­ing, and we were at a school in Taung­gyi, high on a moun­tain plateau in Shan State. There was a buzz of quiet ex­pec­ta­tion in the air. Peo­ple were queu­ing pa­tiently across the quad­ran­gle and into the school hall. Two uni­formed se­cu­rity guys kept their dis­tance. There hadn’t been any dis­tur­bance since the polling booth opened first thing that morn­ing. Against fear­ful ex­pec­ta­tions, Myan­mar’s first real elec­tion in decades ap­peared to be pro­ceed­ing with­out in­ci­dent. Three women on their way out of the hall ap­proached our lit­tle team, and I asked if it was okay to get a photo. With broad smiles, they proudly held up their pinkie fin­gers, which were stained a dark pur­ple from the in­deli­ble dye that elec­tion of­fi­cials were us­ing to pre­vent re­peat vot­ers. Aus­tralia could take some small credit for what was hap­pen­ing here: of­fi­cers from the Aus­tralian Elec­toral Com­mis­sion had been on the ground for months help­ing put the process to­gether, train­ing thou­sands of vol­un­teers and staff who had fanned out across the coun­try. Our cross-party team of elec­tion ob­servers was part of a global ef­fort of the United States, the Euro­pean Union and the United Na­tions to help safe­guard the can­di­dates, the elec­tors and the process it­self. I felt my cyn­i­cism slip­ping, just for the day. The world’s democ­ra­cies had reached out to wel­come a new ar­rival into the fam­ily: an­other small part of the world ex­chang­ing the rule of the gun for the rule of the bal­lot box, de­serv­ing of all the sup­port it could get. By mid­night, de­spite some rear­guard at­tempts at vote tam­per­ing, it was ev­i­dent that the re­sult was a land­slide. No­bel lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi’s Na­tional League for Democ­racy had routed the gen­er­als and their prox­ies. Her party had taken close to 80 per cent of the con­testable seats. Even un­der an ap­palling constitution that re­serves a quar­ter of the par­lia­ment’s seats for the mil­i­tary, she’d be in a po­si­tion to ap­point the pres­i­dent, hold an out­right ma­jor­ity in both houses and lead her torn coun­try into a new chap­ter. It was a stun­ning re­ver­sal from her lonely years un­der house ar­rest. In its cov­er­age, the BBC flipped be­tween a panel of sober po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts and a ri­otous Man­dalay street party. It was a rare mo­ment: history in mo­tion be­fore our eyes. The blind spot in the cel­e­bra­tions was hid­den in plain sight: some months pre­vi­ously, the au­thor­i­ties had re­voked the al­ready-ten­u­ous rights of any­one with­out full cit­i­zen­ship. An en­tire eth­nic group was dis­en­fran­chised just in time for the elec­tion. If you’re not con­sid­ered a cit­i­zen, you can’t vote, and you cer­tainly can’t put your­self for­ward as a can­di­date. In re­al­ity, this was not some fresh ini­tia­tive but the com­ple­tion of a project that had been un­der­way for decades. It was hardly a se­cret, and nor was it con­sid­ered se­ri­ous enough to break the sur­face ten­sion of in­ter­na­tional sup­port and sol­i­dar­ity. Th­ese ab­sent, voice­less peo­ple wouldn’t get much men­tion on the eu­phoric tele­vi­sion broad­casts. With the best of in­ten­tions, we’d all just helped graft a re­spectable and much-loved face onto some­thing un­speak­able. Less than a fort­night be­fore we swung into Taung­gyi, re­searchers from the Lon­don-based In­ter­na­tional State Crime Ini­tia­tive (ISCI) had de­liv­ered the find­ings of a 12-month re­search project into the sit­u­a­tion fac­ing Myan­mar’s 1.1 mil­lion Ro­hingya peo­ple. The re­port touched on the can­cel­la­tion of cit­i­zen­ship en­ti­tle­ments, but also spoke with chill­ing clar­ity on the deeper cri­sis. “ISCI con­cludes that geno­cide is tak­ing place in Myan­mar and warns of the se­ri­ous and present dan­ger of the an­ni­hi­la­tion of the coun­try’s Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion.” South­ern Bangladesh, Au­gust 2017. They be­gan ar­riv­ing on foot, by the dozen, then in the hun­dreds, and then, sud­denly, in the tens of thou­sands. Sto­ries of mad­ness trailed in their wake. Bud­dhist mili­tias backed by po­lice and a light in­fantry divi­sion of the na­tional army mov­ing into vil­lages and burn­ing peo­ple alive. Mass rape and sex­ual vi­o­lence against women and girls; tor­ture, mass graves, whole­sale bomb­ing and bull­doz­ing of looted vil­lages. A swift regime blackout de­scended: re­porters and in­ter­na­tional ob­servers were pre­vented from reach­ing the area. Two Reuters jour­nal­ists who con­tin­ued their work were ar­rested months later, and are still in jail at the time of writ­ing. From the si­lence of or­bit, satel­lites scanned the de­struc­tion: at least 350 vil­lages and town­ships at­tacked or burned off the map. Médecins Sans Fron­tières es­ti­mates that at least 6700 peo­ple were mur­dered dur­ing this con­vul­sion. In that same month, more than 420,000 peo­ple fled across the bor­der into Bangladesh. At the height, more than 20,000 were cross­ing ev­ery day, mak­ing it one of the largest and most rapid forced mi­gra­tions in mod­ern history. More than half of the evac­uees were chil­dren. Fol­low the end­less sandy beach south­wards from the raggedy re­sort town of Cox’s Bazar in south­ern Bangladesh, then cut in­land through busy mar­kets and farm­ing vil­lages, and you’ll soon no­tice that the whole world is some­how here: a Médecins Sans Fron­tières de­pot, Red Cres­cent am­bu­lances, a Malaysian health com­plex,

A baby wails, the hu­mid­ity rises and, one by one, peo­ple see a qual­i­fied nurse or doc­tor, per­haps for the first time in their lives.

World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion Toy­otas, Chris­tian Aid in­fra­struc­ture, Ox­fam, the UNHCR. If you in­clude out­ly­ing en­camp­ments and thou­sands of fam­i­lies re­main­ing from ear­lier waves of dis­place­ment, more than 800,000 peo­ple now shel­ter here. Ku­tu­pa­long is a city crafted in haste, born of emer­gency, with a pop­u­la­tion twice the size of Can­berra’s. We pull over to the side of the camp’s main artery, out of the hus­tle and flow of scoot­ers, elec­tric three-wheel­ers, four-wheel drives and bat­tered-look­ing wag­ons laden with sup­plies. I’m here as the guest of MedGlobal, a small US-based net­work of medi­cos who spe­cialise in get­ting vol­un­teer med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als into places where they’re most needed. I don’t know what I’d been ex­pect­ing, but not this. Maybe I’d been con­di­tioned to imag­ine a place of pas­sive help­less­ness, but that mis­ap­pre­hen­sion is soon cor­rected. Ku­tu­pa­long, above all else, is alive, buzzing with de­ter­mi­na­tion and en­ergy. A colour­ful crowd of kids spills from a makeshift pav­il­ion. As we ap­proach, the teach­ers show us the sports day medals they’ll shortly be award­ing. A wild dance party has bro­ken out in the mean­time; if you’re aged be­tween five to about 11 you’re in­vited, but fair warn­ing, th­ese kids can ac­tu­ally dance. There is noth­ing to dis­tin­guish them from a mob of bright lit­tle jump­ing beans in any subur­ban Aus­tralian school, and for a mo­ment it’s pos­si­ble to for­get the cir­cum­stances that have de­liv­ered them here. From a nearby win­dow, lit­tle faces press through to check out the com­mo­tion. Their sing­ing floats above the deliri­ous blasts of dance mu­sic. This you can’t pre­pare for. Ku­tu­pa­long is a city of chil­dren. A jum­ble of shopfronts com­pete for at­ten­tion. Pyra­mids of fresh fruit, racks of bright fabric, sec­ond­hand mo­bile phones, so­lar pan­els. Tides of peo­ple move through th­ese name­less laneways: moth­ers with tiny ones in tow, squads of older kids on er­rands, young men haul­ing cargo on their backs. Mar­ket stalls, aid de­pots, a bar­ber shop … all wo­ven from the same crafty com­bi­na­tion of bam­boo fram­ing and sheets of tar­pau­lin. Ev­ery­thing is soft­ened un­der a layer of heavy, mus­tard­coloured dust. Ev­ery­where are signs of preparation for the rains to come. It is hard to get a sense of Ku­tu­pa­long’s scale from within this im­pro­vised street mar­ket, so as­cend a bam­boo stair­well to one of the steep-sided dunes that jig­saw across the land­scape. Pause, and let it all sink in. A patch­work panorama of can­vas re­cedes to the hori­zon in ev­ery di­rec­tion. Now it ap­pears as the ar­che­typal refugee camp: the peo­ple in­vis­i­ble, de­void of agency, face­less. Ex­cept that we’ve some­how pied piper’d a gag­gle of cu­ri­ous rat­bags from the dance party, who have fol­lowed us up here to see what we’re about. They flat out refuse to be face­less. In the wel­come shade of one of Ku­tu­pa­long’s im­mac­u­late houses I’m in­tro­duced to Rose. In her mid 20s and heav­ily preg­nant, she’s been here for six months. “Our vil­lage was raided by the Burmese mil­i­tary, and peo­ple were shot,” she tells me through an in­ter­preter. “They burned the houses – my whole fam­ily are here, but one of my rel­a­tive’s whole fam­ily was killed. So we knew we had to leave.” I ask if she is seek­ing re­set­tle­ment some­where else or whether she just wants to go home. “If I get the cit­i­zen­ship rights that I de­serve, as a cit­i­zen, then I def­i­nitely want to go back,” she says. Un­til that day, she’s trapped here. The MedGlobal field clinic lies on the pe­riph­ery of the main camp, al­low­ing its staff to serve all com­ers: state­less Ro­hingya or lo­cal Bangladeshi farm­ers and their kids. The pre-ex­ist­ing health­care net­work in this part of the world is patchy at best; one of the ways the med­i­cal teams have tried to soften the im­pact on the host com­mu­nity is to at least en­sure they ben­e­fit from the sud­den surge in re­sources. Dr Nadi­rah Babji is the un­flap­pable clin­i­cal co­or­di­na­tor of MedGlobal’s team here. “We see a lot of res­pi­ra­tory tract in­fec­tion. A lot of psy­cho­log­i­cal ill­ness, men­tal health ill­nesses. A lot of gas­tri­tis, acute gas­troen­teri­tis, stomach pain, a lot of di­ar­rhoea. And maybe five to 10 cases of in­fec­tious dis­eases a day.” By the time we ar­rive, about 40 peo­ple are queu­ing pa­tiently in the shade of the clinic. The lo­cal Hope Foun­da­tion team has been reg­is­ter­ing peo­ple and triag­ing since the early morn­ing. MedGlobal treats a lot of straight­for­ward ail­ments on the spot; any­one pre­sent­ing with more se­ri­ous con­di­tions is re­ferred to one of the four larger field hos­pi­tals run by the big in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions. Tarpaulins pro­vide some pri­vacy for those in the bam­boo-and­chicken-wire con­sult­ing rooms. A baby wails, the hu­mid­ity rises and, one by one, peo­ple see a qual­i­fied nurse or doc­tor, per­haps for the first time in their lives. It’s a deeply un­nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. Dr Ha­jra Si­raj has left her prac­tice in Lon­don for a week and she flew here at her own ex­pense. “Yes­ter­day there was a man who

Al­though the United States and United King­dom sus­pended mil­i­tary ties at the height of the 2017 vi­o­lence, Aus­tralia re­mained at the regime’s side.

was tor­tured for five days. He had his shoul­der dis­lo­cated … so when we saw him, his shoul­der was de­formed. He had burns on his body and lots of scars. So we’re see­ing a lot of peo­ple with se­vere anx­i­ety and post­trau­matic stress.” At the weekly health sec­tor meet­ing back in Cox’s Bazar, I get a glimpse of the scale of care be­ing wo­ven around this place. Fine-grained track­ing of in­fec­tious dis­ease cases helps keep a lid on out­breaks of diph­the­ria, menin­gi­tis, measles. Half a mil­lion wa­ter-hy­giene kits have been distributed, 47,000 la­trines have been con­structed, and wa­ter-qual­ity data is be­ing mapped in the ef­fort to bring clean wa­ter within easy dis­tance of every­one in the camp. The health sec­tor meet­ing is con­vened with brisk ef­fi­ciency by a co­or­di­na­tor from the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. She has clearly in­stilled a strong sense of col­lab­o­ra­tion among groups of vastly dif­fer­ent scale and ca­pa­bil­ity. Some­how, de­spite the per­ilous re­source short­fall, the cen­tre is hold­ing. At least it seems that way to the MedGlobal crew. “It’s nice that what one or­gan­i­sa­tion has a spe­cialty in, the other ones don’t,” ex­plains Liz Gil­more, a nurse who, when not some­where like this, works in the emer­gency room of an elite pri­vate hos­pi­tal in Abu Dhabi. “Some will take surgery, some will take emer­gency, some will take burns, or ob­stet­rics, or pae­di­atrics. In that sense it’s well bal­anced. It’s just a mat­ter of find­ing who goes where.” The gath­er­ing mon­soon hangs be­hind ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion. Shipping con­tain­ers are be­ing read­ied for dis­per­sal through­out the camp, to act as for­ward sup­ply points for when the roads are cut off. De­tailed satel­lite map­ping is be­ing used to help re­lo­cate peo­ple and fa­cil­i­ties sit­u­ated in po­ten­tial flood­ways or land­slide zones. The whole net­work is be­ing stress tested against the only sce­nario that re­ally mat­ters: What hap­pens when the storms hit? It takes time to come to grips with the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble dis­so­nance at work here. A net­work of UN agen­cies, non-gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions, churches and vol­un­teers from all over the world have stepped up. They are try­ing to make the most of pro­found Bangladeshi gen­eros­ity, and the re­silience and in­ge­nu­ity of the Ro­hingya. From noth­ing has come a col­lec­tive health­care sys­tem, housing, pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion, fresh food, a self-or­gan­ised econ­omy and an emer­gency-pre­pared­ness frame­work. It is easy to cri­tique rough edges and in­ad­e­qua­cies, but those on the front­line are throw­ing the best they have at a cruel sit­u­a­tion. And there hangs the ugly dis­so­nance. All of this is only nec­es­sary be­cause of un­for­giv­able, re­peated global se­cu­rity fail­ures. This has all hap­pened be­fore. In 1978, Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties forced 200,000 Ro­hingya across the bor­der into Bangladesh. In 1991, a quar­ter of a mil­lion peo­ple were up­rooted, flee­ing again to the re­gion of Cox’s Bazar un­der “Oper­a­tion Clean and Beau­ti­ful Na­tion”. And again in 2012, and 2015, and 2016. Each time, in­ter­na­tional agen­cies scram­ble to pro­vide ba­sic sup­port, the peo­ple of Bangladesh pro­vide a place of rel­a­tive safety, and diplo­mats fly into re­gional cap­i­tals to ne­go­ti­ate repa­tri­a­tion. Then the tor­ment of the Ro­hingya fades from the head­lines again. Be­fore, it was hatchet-faced mil­i­tary men who fronted the atroc­i­ties. Now it is the Lady her­self, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was once held in the same re­gard as Nel­son Man­dela and the Dalai Lama. “There have been al­le­ga­tions and counter-al­le­ga­tions” was as far as she was pre­pared to go in Septem­ber 2017, even as half a mil­lion peo­ple were flee­ing into Bangladesh. “We have to make sure that th­ese al­le­ga­tions are based on solid ev­i­dence be­fore we take ac­tion.” Play­ing along with this fee­ble de­flec­tion amounts to com­plic­ity in geno­cide. A mem­ber state of the United Na­tions is ex­e­cut­ing its long-held am­bi­tion to ex­tin­guish an en­tire com­mu­nity, through a com­bi­na­tion of vi­o­lent dis­place­ment and cul­tural stran­gu­la­tion. And yet Myan­mar’s of­fi­cials still get in­vited to ASEAN meet­ings. For­eign in­vest­ment con­tin­ues to pour in. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s sanc­tions on the for­mer dic­ta­tor­ship have largely been lifted. A veil of le­git­i­macy now masks the regime’s un­der­ly­ing con­ti­nu­ity of pur­pose: Aung San Suu Kyi was wel­comed warmly to Can­berra as re­cently as this March. Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment pol­icy on Myan­mar per­fectly ex­presses the com­bi­na­tion of in­dif­fer­ence and as­sis­tance to which the Ro­hingya peo­ple are sub­jected. As the Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade web­site states, “Aus­tralia is work­ing to broaden and deepen our bi­lat­eral part­ner­ship with Myan­mar through strength­en­ing gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment ties, grow­ing trade and in­vest­ment and ex­pand­ing peo­ple-topeo­ple links.” This ex­tends to mil­i­tary col­lab­o­ra­tion. As long ago as 2013, the Gil­lard gov­ern­ment an­nounced that, in view of Myan­mar’s “sig­nif­i­cant re­forms”, it would lift some re­stric­tions on de­fence en­gage­ment. “Our ob­jec­tive is to en­cour­age the de­vel­op­ment of a mod­ern, pro­fes­sional de­fence force in Myan­mar that con­tin­ues to sup­port democrati­sa­tion and re­form.”

The Turn­bull gov­ern­ment has the same view. While the United States and the United King­dom sus­pended mil­i­tary ties at the height of the 2017 vi­o­lence, Aus­tralia re­mained at the regime’s side. This fi­nan­cial year, $398,000 has been bud­geted for Myan­mar as part of our De­fence Co­op­er­a­tion Pro­gram. The gov­ern­ment ar­gues that this sup­ports train­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance and peace­keep­ing, which must surely be of great re­as­sur­ance to the Ro­hingya. By any mea­sure, Aus­tralia’s “en­gage­ment” has failed com­pre­hen­sively. Ti­rana Has­san, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s cri­sis re­sponse direc­tor, is blunt: “Aus­tralia must cut mil­i­tary ties with Myan­mar and they must use their in­flu­ence in the re­gion and their cur­rent po­si­tion on the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil … the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, must face the re­al­ity of what has been hap­pen­ing in Rakhine State for years.” The re­al­ity in­cludes large num­bers of peo­ple who will in­evitably seek shel­ter fur­ther afield than the pre­car­i­ous dune fields of Ku­tu­pa­long. A num­ber of Ro­hingya asy­lum seek­ers are now trapped on Nauru and Manus Is­land, re­port­edly of­fered cash by Bor­der Force of­fi­cers if they agree to re­turn to the arms of the Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties. With one hand, Aus­tralia part­ners with a regime con­duct­ing geno­ci­dal purges of its own peo­ple, and im­pris­ons any evac­uees who stray within range. With the other, we are now the third largest donor to the relief ef­fort in Bangladesh – our with­ered in­ter­na­tional aid bud­get mak­ing up ap­prox­i­mately 8 per cent of the funds re­quired to keep the huge Ku­tu­pa­long camp alive. Surely dis­so­nance this sharp is im­pos­si­ble to sus­tain. The Burmese Ro­hingya Com­mu­nity in Aus­tralia is em­phatic that mil­i­tary col­lab­o­ra­tion must cease, and that the time for diplo­matic pleas­antries is done: “We urge the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment to im­pose tar­geted sanc­tions that would … cre­ate enough pres­sure to end the bru­tal­i­ties waged upon the Ro­hingyas. We urge the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment to re­new sanc­tions un­til the Ro­hingya cri­sis in Myan­mar is re­solved.” “You asked why I came here?” MedGlobal’s Dr Mark Pal­free­man passes me his phone. On it is a photo of him with one of the kids he treated ear­lier this morn­ing; the two smiles could light up a city block. “That’s why.” It’s a pow­er­ful thing, know­ing that even in an emer­gency on this scale, some of the best and bright­est will step in to help. But at the end of the day in the clinic, our team is waved through an armed po­lice cor­don and we’re free to go. Be­hind us in the city of chil­dren, 800,000 peo­ple are still trapped on a sand plain in the world’s largest bam­boo cage, wait­ing for the rain to come.

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