NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar – As Myanmar wins praise for ending decades of dictatorship, the lives of hundreds of thousands Rohingya Muslim children are growing hopeless. Take the example of 10-year-old Anwar Sardad, struggling and toiling away working for a government construction agency. Every inch of his body aches, he says, and he feels sick and dizzy from carrying buckets filled with rocks. He wants to help his family, so he tries to keep a brave face. But he’s only a child and the tears can’t help but gloss his eyes.
“I wouldn’t have to live this life if I wasn’t a Muslim,” he tells the Associated Press.
Anwar is part of a Muslim ethnic group that suffers some of the worst kind of discrimination in the world. Children find it difficult to get adequate food, medical care or education. They have few options beyond hard labor and work for as little as a dollar a day.
The northern Rakhine state that Anwar lives in is home to 80 percent of Myanmar’s 1 million Rohingya. This is the region where Muslim mobs killed Buddhists in a country torn by ethnic violence. Although only 10 of the 240 deaths occurred here, the Washington Post reports that this is the only region where an entire population has been punished through travel restrictions and other exclusionary policies.
Since the shut down of Muslim schools, otherwise known as madrasas, the Rohingya have crowded government schools. However, they are taught by Buddhists teachers in languages that they often don’t understand.
“Our teachers write a lot of things on the board, but don’t teach us how to read them,” says 8-year-old Anwar Sjak, “It’s very difficult to learn anything in this school.”
A small public school in Ba Gone Nar faced an almost unmanageable rise in enrollments. There are only 11 government-teachers for every 114 students and their attendance is not guaranteed. Few kids have chairs or desks and flip through empty notebooks.
Because of recent sectarian violence, 250,000 people, mostly Rohingya, were driven from their homes. Rights workers anticipate that one of the biggest exoduses ever will begin as soon as the monsoon season ends this month and thousands of Rohingya flee in hopes of finding refuge in other countries.
Rohingya have been barred from becoming citizens or working civil-service jobs. Their children are “blacklisted” if their parents have reached the two-child limit imposed only their ethnic group. Because they are denied citizenship, Rohingya haven’t been issued birth certificates since the mid-1990s and are stateless.
To make matters worse, there are no universities in northern Rakhine. Rohingya are explicitly banned from studying medicine and government officials insist that there’s no reason the Rohingya should be educated since “they are not even citizens.”
“If I could be anything, I’d be a doctor when I grow up,” Anwar says. “Because whenever someone in my family gets sick and we go to the hospital, the staff never takes care of us. I feel so bad about that.”
“But I know that will never happen,” he adds. “The government wouldn’t allow it.”
A lack of vaccination coverage in the area means that children are exposed to almost every preventable disease. When they become critically ill, they are rarely able to make it to hospitals because of Sittwe travel bans or bribes demanded at checkpoints. Even if they do reach medical services, they are denied treatment.
According to the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department, the region has some of the country’s highest chronic malnutrition rates.
Myanmar has been largely criticized for its treatment of the Rohingya minority, including accusations of ethnic cleanings. In March, Buddhist mobs set whole Muslim neighborhoods ablaze. Humans Rights Watch has spoken out, but Reformist Thein Sein denied the accusations and claimed they are part of a “smear campaign” against his government.
The United Nations has urged the Myanmar government to hold talks with Rohingya Muslims to avoid further violence in the West of the country.
“We believe this is the key to avoiding further violence,” said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards.
However, violence has only escalated and the future seems bleak. Genocide Watch is keeping Myanmar in sight and humans rights organizations hope for a better outcome.
– Janki Kaswala
Sources: Al Jazeera, ABC, Washington Post