Muslim Minority Suffers Under Harsh Myanmar Rule

June 22, 2009

Author: Michael Sullivan

Source: Southern California Public Radio

Myanmar is a place of misery for many of its citizens. Political dissent isn't tolerated by the repressive, often brutal military rulers. And neither, it seems, is the country's ethnic Muslim minority, known as the Rohingya. NPR's Michael Sullivan visited the country and examined their plight.

A friend brought me some pictures a few weeks back that were pretty disturbing. He works for an international aid agency, and the pictures were from a trip he took to visit some villages in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, near the border with Bangladesh.

The state is home to the Rohingya minority. He was showing me the pictures because he was outraged that people had to live in such squalid conditions. Some of the children were badly undernourished. Their mothers' faces were lined with despair.

It was the despair in these women's eyes that got to my friend the most — the utter lack of hope. My friend, who doesn't want to be named — has been in this line of work for a long time, and he has seen places that he says he does not want to remember.

But none have bothered him as much as this.

'Systematic Oppression'

"The Rohingya situation is very similar to a lot of refugee situations in Africa in the '80s and '90s," my friend says. "In the first four or five weeks, there's no water, there's cholera, there's other health problems. But what's different here is that it's been going on for a very long time. It's systematic oppression that's been going on for years."

In some parts of northern Rakhine state, the global acute malnutrition rate is 25 percent. The World Health Organization considers 15 percent an emergency. It is a situation that many in the majority Buddhist community in Myanmar don't seem to mind.

"I think it's fairly safe to say the military's approach to Rohingya is shared pretty widely throughout Burmese society. Trying to find the foundation for this level of hatred is very difficult," says David Mathieson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"Other ethnic minorities get treated very badly, but not to the savage extent that you see against the Rohingya. Not just being denied citizenship, but being denied they even exist," he says.