With US Presidential Election results dominating the headlines and information of displaced and suffering from Hurricane Sandy in mainstream US media, it was refreshing to see that another internally displaced group, Myanmar’s Rohingya, was featured in today’s New York Times article, “Charity Says Threats Foil Medical Aid in Myanmar.”

This past week has been a difficult one for many of us in New York and New Jersey as we battle out from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. Personally, I know friends from both Staten Island and New Jersey who have lost their homes and all their possessions. I cannot imagine the displaced in another world where their fellow countrymen and government officials find distaste in the color of their skin.

Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, is an impoverished area of Myanmar, that is home to the ethnic Muslim Rohingya minority who are reviled by many in Myanmar and by the majority in Rakine State.  In June, a Buddhist girl was raped and murdered, resulting in now over 100,000 Muslims fleeing their homes to refugee camps. Another ethnic group, the Kaman Muslims, have also been forced from their homes. There is severe malnutrition in these camps, and malaria is widespread. Other groups not displaced are still cut off from healthcare, and there is fear violence could escalate to other areas of Myanmar.

Unfortunately, today’s news for the Rohingya worsens. Doctors Without Borders has been thwarted from delivering relief assistance to the Muslim Rohingya by radical Buddhist groups. Intense sectarian violence is pervading Rakhine State, and people are in urgent need of medical assistance from wounds sustained in the violence. Doctors Without Borders personnel fear for their own personal safety and have received direct threats for treating the Muslims.

“I’ve never experienced this degree of intolerance,” Joe Belliveau, the operations manager for Doctors Without Borders, said by telephone. “What we really need is for people to understand that giving medical aid is not a political act.”

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there has been widespread deployment of Myanmar security forces to Rakhine State. The displaced fear the vacuum when troops leave the unstable area.

In yesterday’s news from UN News Centre, the United Nations food relief agency World Food Programme (WFP)  distributed food to more than 27,000 in Rakhine State. Said its spokesperson, Elisabeth Byrs, food will be delivered directly to refugee camp communities, dispatched primarily by boat for logistics practicality.

At least 89 people have been killed and 35,000 displaced since the upsurge of inter-communal violence a fortnight ago. More than 5,300 houses and religious buildings have been destroyed, according to UN estimates.

At the news briefing, Ms. Byrs also noted that WFP urgently requires $11 million to cover the food needs of 100,000 displaced people for the next six months, as well as to ensure food can be purchased now and delivered in time.

Without a strong, immediate donor response, WFP would be forced to start cutting rations to the displaced by December, she stressed, adding that the agency will continue to work closely with the Myanmar authorities and local governments to ensure access to the most vulnerable populations.

President Thein Sein faces many challenges, leading a country out of military dictatorship and a repressive grip on its minorities, including both Muslim and Christian ethnic groups.  Several years ago, Myanmar’s Ambassador to Singapore was quoted as describing the Rohingya as “ugly as ogres,” that they didn’t look anything like Burmese, being darker.  I ask you to take a look at the picture of children in the Thea Chaung IDP Camp in Rakhine State provided by OCHA. All I see are incredibly beautiful children that should capture the world’s attention, respect, and love.

Susan Sacirbey

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