Open-air prison: Rohingya cut off in Myanmar town

Jonah Fisher reports on the Muslims living behind barbed wire

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Getting into Aung Mingalar as a journalist is relatively simple. We visited a couple of government offices, had a letter written for us and then after having our documents forensically examined, were allowed in.

For the Buddhists who dominate the Rakhine capital, Sittwe, it is even easier. Their buses, rickshaws and motorbikes just get waved through by the police. Many even use the main road as a short cut just to reach another part of town.

For the residents of Aung Mingalar, however, things are very different.

The 4,000 Muslim Rohingya who live inside are effectively prisoners - restricted first by the police checkpoints and then by the Rakhine Buddhist community that surrounds them on all sides and constantly looks on.

"The police will not allow us out, because if they do, they know we will be beaten by the Rakhine [Buddhists]," a young Rohingya man said.

Rohingya mother Kurshidaka and her baby girl. Kurshidaka badly needs treatment for her infected wound from a caesarean section Rohingya residents of Aung Mingalar have no regular access to doctors or healthcare

Three years ago the Muslim and Buddhist communities in Sittwe lived fairly amicably side by side. Then in 2012 there were several outbreaks of sectarian violence and most of Sittwe's Muslims fled into camps to the north-west of the town.

Both communities were affected, but the vast majority of those killed and displaced were Rohingya. Stateless and unwanted by either Myanmar (also known as Burma) or Bangladesh, it is thought that about 800,000 of them live in Rakhine state, their movements and rights heavily restricted.

Who are the Rohingya?

The United Nations describes them as a persecuted religious and linguistic minority from western Burma.

The Burmese government, on the other hand, says they are relatively recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent.

Neighbouring Bangladesh already hosts several hundred thousand refugees from Burma and says it cannot take any more.

When violence swept through Sittwe, the people of Aung Mingalar were among the few Muslims who decided to stay in their homes. Their neighbourhood quickly turned into a Rohingya ghetto, wrapped in barbed wire and over-run by security.

Cut off from the outside world, it is now a miserable open-air prison. Despite its central location, there are no regular aid deliveries here and just getting money to buy food is a struggle for many.

Prior to the violence, Maung Ni was a successful tailor working mainly for Buddhist customers. Now he sits in a shack with a leaky roof, sewing on a machine that a friend has kindly lent him.

"I've sold everything I can," he said. "My bicycle, my rickshaw - I just don't know what to do next."

Healthcare 'backbone'

Twice a week, the people of Aung Mingalar club together to make a shopping trip. On Wednesdays and Sundays, six Rohingya pay 20,000 kyat ($20, £12) each in return for a security escort from the police.

There is a big market just round the corner, but such is the local animosity that they must leave Sittwe and go to the camps for displaced Rohingya to buy more supplies.

There is also a hospital, Sittwe General, just a few blocks away. But for now the residents of Aung Mingalar have no access to doctors or healthcare.

Tailor Maung Ni in Aung Mingalar, Rakhine state, Myanmar Tailor Maung Ni successfully worked as a tailor before the sectarian violence

The medical aid agency Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) used to visit regularly and, if necessary, would arrange an escort to one of the 10 beds in the hospital designated for Rohingya patients.

That has now stopped after a well-organised campaign by Buddhist groups led to the government suspending MSF across Rakhine state. It has left a big hole in the international aid effort.

"MSF has been the backbone of the entire international health response in Rakhine. They have been providing healthcare to over half a million people," said Mark Cutts, head of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs Myanmar office.

Few of the aid agencies operating in Rakhine will speak openly about their work.

MSF's "crimes" in the eyes of their critics are two-fold. Firstly, by stressing that they assist people on the basis of needs rather than over simple even-handedness, many Buddhists believe the charity has favoured the Muslims over them.

Secondly, in what may have been the final straw, MSF released information corroborating reports that Rohingya communities had been under attack.

In January the government vehemently denied that there had been violence near the border town of Maungdaw, only for MSF to contradict them by saying their clinic had treated 22 people fleeing the area.

"If MSF were just doing their job - they wouldn't have to leave," said Than Thun, one of the organisers of the anti-MSF demonstrations.

"But MSF kept getting the wrong information about these Bengalis, or Rohingya, and giving it to the international community. They have inflamed the conflict here."

This woman says she is 105 years old and needs treatment for high blood pressure and diabetes The Burmese government says they will be sending medics to Rakhine state

During the day we spent in Aung Mingalar, we saw a sick baby girl, her ailing mother and several elderly people badly in need of medicine. For now there is no one to see them or offer treatment.

The Burmese government say they will send medics from outside Rakhine state to fill the gap left by MSF's suspension. But after years as one the world's most poorly-funded healthcare systems, it is not equipped to move quickly, and the doctors may still not be accepted in Muslim communities.

Thoughts are now turning as to whether the suspension might in fact be temporary and once emotions have cooled, MSF could be quietly allowed back.

It is far from certain that the Buddhists will allow it to happen.

Segregation has brought a degree of stability, but the deep scars from recent violence remain raw and show little sign of healing.

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