Wed | Jan 16, 2019

One girl's plight epitomises Rohingya struggle

Published:Thursday | July 6, 2017 | 12:10 AM
In this Friday, March 17, 2017, image made from video, 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.


Ever since she was born in a squalid displaced camp for Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya minority that authorities won't let anyone leave, Rosmaida Bibi has struggled to do something most of the world's children do effortlessly: grow.

Frail and severely malnourished, she looks a lot like every other underfed child here until you realise she's not really like any of them at all.

A tiny girl with big brown eyes, Rosmaida is four but barely the size of a one-year-old.

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 in June 2012, 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.

Worse than prison!

"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 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 realised 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.