In some areas of remote Rakhine State in western Burma (officially the Union of Myanmar), mothers struggle to find medicine for their sick children, people avoid visiting clinics for fear of violence, and entire communities face serious illness and even death from preventable diseases. This black hole of medical care - created specifically to punish members of the minority Rohingya ethnic group - threatens millions of people in Rakhine State.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof captured the severity of the denial of health care and its devastating effects on Rohingya families in his recent series of articles and videos. He chronicled the despair of a pregnant woman in need of assistance during a complicated delivery, the hopelessness of a man left maimed after a violent attack by a mob, and the complacent - and even gleeful - response of their Buddhist neighbors. Kristof rightly points out that the heart of this humanitarian disaster is deeply engrained hatred against Rohingya and other Muslims. Kristof interviewed one young Buddhist boy who remarked that if he saw a Muslim boy his own age, he'd kill him.
Nothing about the hatred, discrimination, or violence against the Rohingya is accidental. While limited resources and poor infrastructure are real problems in Burma, the lack of accessible health care in Rakhine State is not just a result of poor government management. The outright denial of essential services for Rohingya is state policy. It is an immoral and - under international law - illegal extension of the codified discrimination that Rohingya communities face in nearly every aspect of their lives.
Rohingya in Burma are rendered stateless by their non-inclusion in the country's 1982 citizenship law that lists accepted national ethnicities. In addition to the discrimination and inability to access services that accompanies statelessness, the Rohingya also face strict restrictions on movement, marriage, and family choice. These discriminatory policies are officially sanctioned, as revealed in documents obtained by Fortify Rights earlier this year.
A recent government decision that has particularly affected the Rohingya community was the deliberate suspension of health care for those in need. In late February 2014, the Burmese authorities issued an order suspending the operation of Médécins sans Frontières (MSF) across the entire country after the group reportedly provided care to Rohingya with injuries allegedly sustained during a violent attack. A few days later, the order was reversed for almost all areas of the country except for Rakhine State, where most of the Rohingya population lives. The suspension order remains in place in Rakhine, where the tens of thousands of people who relied solely on MSF's services now have no access to health care at all. To this day, MSF is unable to conduct its life-saving work in the state, and the Burmese government has publicly given little indication that it will change its course.
In an expression of serious concern for the public health ramifications of MSF's expulsion, 35 experts from the medical and public health fields called on the Government of Burma to reverse the suspension of MSF in Rakhine State, arguing that such a denial of basic health care would have devastating consequences. Those suffering from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis have been left without access to treatment, which could result in increased deaths and even more intractable, treatment-resistant diseases.
The Burmese government has offered to fill the gap left by the expulsion of MSF, but they are unlikely to be able or willing to do so. The local health ministry does not have the capacity to reach all those served by MSF, and stories abound of violence against the Rohingya within government health centers. Many Rohingya generally avoid accessing health care through government channels out of fear of attack.
If the Government of Burma wanted to stem the humanitarian disaster, they would - at a minimum - reverse the order suspending the operation of MSF. If the government wanted to address the root cause of the crisis, it would revise the citizenship law that has rendered the Rohingya stateless, revoke discriminatory orders that restrict the daily life of Rohingya people, and hold perpetrators of violence against Rohingya accountable for their actions.
In her latest book, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton lauded improvements in Burma as a hallmark of her successes at the helm of U.S. foreign policy, but any reforms are woefully insufficient if codified discrimination, deliberate denial of health care, and perpetual violence continue. Any country mired in ethnic violence, where perpetrators enjoy impunity, cannot be called a success story.