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'Dire' conditions for displaced in western Myanmar, U.N. warns

December 06, 2012|By Emily Alpert
  • Rohingya patients wait for medical care at a government-run medical clinic on the outskirts of Sittwe, Myanmar.
Rohingya patients wait for medical care at a government-run medical clinic… (Paula Bronstein / Getty…)

In Myanmar, thousands of people ejected from their homes as violence flared this year between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims are living in “dire” conditions without jobs, schooling or the freedom to leave, the United Nations humanitarian chief said.

The eruption of violence from June to October dampened excitement over progress in Myanmar, which has taken steps toward reform this year. The June attacks in the western state of Rakhine began after state media reported that three Muslim men allegedly raped and murdered a Buddhist woman.

Human rights groups allege government forces stood by during attacks on both sides, then joined in killing and raping the Rohingya as their villages were ransacked. Myanmar officials have argued that the clashes, while unfortunate, had nothing to do with the government.

In the aftermath of the violence, grim conditions for the displaced and continued disenfranchisement of the Rohingya have again raised questions about whether Myanmar, also known as Burma, can overcome its history of ethnic strife. President Obama alluded to the clashes during his visit to Myanmar last month.

“I was shocked to see so many soldiers everywhere keeping communities away from each other,” said Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, in a statement Wednesday. Both Buddhists and Muslims “are living in fear and want to go back to living a normal life.”

The U.N. says 115,000 people are living in camps or with host families across Rakhine. Reports indicate that the vast majority are Rohingya Muslims who remain barred from citizenship under Myanmar law, seen by many Buddhists as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Amos traveled to a string of camps this week across Rakhine state, where the displaced are living in limbo. In Myebon, overcrowded camps suffer from shoddy sanitation, Amos said. People are not allowed to leave the camp and are languishing without jobs or schools.

Though the area is rich in fish, rice and coconuts, thousands of children are starving, according to agencies active in the region. UNICEF estimates that as of October, about 2,900 severely malnourished children were at risk of dying and 12,000 more needed nutritional supplements.

Aid agencies say reaching some of those in need remains difficult, with efforts hampered by ongoing violence and threats against humanitarian workers. Rakhine Buddhists working with aid agencies have been threatened by fellow Buddhists, according to Refugees International.

“If they were to help Rohingya, they were called traitors to their own community,” said Sarnata Reynolds, Refugee International program manager for statelessness. “There is still the threat of being arrested and charged with a crime. The government is not providing much access.”

Instead, Rohingya advocates say, Myanmar is sending its forces into villages to register the religion and ethnicity of Rohingya families. Journalists from the Associated Press recently witnessed government immigration officials carrying out a sort of census to verify citizenship. Rohingya groups say government officials are forcing them to call themselves “Bengali.”

"You write 'Bengali,' you become a foreigner. They're trying to change history," said Wakar Uddin, who directs an international umbrella group for Rohingya organizations. "If they refuse, Burmese forces are beating them."

Although Myanmar and its aid organizations have issued an appeal for $68 million to help the displaced, there is little evidence of plans to return the Rohingya to their communities, Reynolds said. That has stoked fears that the segregated camps could become permanent over time.

“The danger is, if it gets old, nobody will care,” Uddin said. “The Myanmar government knows if they let it drag on, the outcry will die down. It will become normal.”

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