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Myanmar can keep Rohingya from starving. But will it?

By Sarnata Reynolds, Special to CNN 

Editor’s note: Sarnata Reynolds is the Statelessness Program Manager at Refugees International. Her most recent report is entitled ‘Rohingya in Burma: Spotlight on Current Crisis Offers Opportunity for Progress.’ The views expressed are her own.

Last week, CNN’s Dan Rivers reported that he “wasn’t prepared to see children starving to death” when he went to camps for internally-displaced Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Though no one can (or should) ever get used to such horrors, the prevalence of starvation in this region should not come as a surprise.

In early July, a United Nations “joint rapid nutrition assessment” found that 2,000 children in these camps were at a high risk of mortality. A further 9,000 children needed supplementary feeding of some kind, and 2,500 were at risk of acute malnourishment if their nutrition needs were not met. Three months later, 2,900 children were estimated to be at a high risk of death, and 14,000 children aged 6 months to 59 months needed supplementary feeding.

In his heartbreaking piece, Rivers said that perhaps he was “naïve or idealistic” to think that this tragedy could have been easily avoided. But there is nothing naïve about assuming that the Rohingya communities along the Bay of Bengal should have enough food to eat. This region is not experiencing a famine: there are fish aplenty in the seas off Myanmar’s western shore, and there are rice paddies and coconut plantations. The problem is that the Myanmar government is not allowing the Rohingya to access any of those resources. Since the outbreak of violence in Rakhine State in June, the government has not permitted the Rohingya to move freely at all. Confined to their camps, tens of thousands of Rohingya – among them thousands of children – are going hungry.


In most other food crises, humanitarian aid workers would be able to move in quickly with lifesaving interventions. But not in Myanmar. Extreme restrictions have been placed on humanitarian agencies – either directly by the government, or indirectly by members of the Rakhine community, who threaten anyone seen to be working with the Rohingya. As a result, thousands of Rohingya children are going hungry. The central government’s refusal to intervene on behalf of the Rohingya community is a disgrace and, whether intentionally or not, it is resulting in the starvation of children.

I traveled to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, in September as part of a team from Refugees International. During that time, I visited almost every nearby Rohingya IDP camp. In these squalid settlements, there were babies and toddlers so weakened by hunger that they sat limply on their parents’ arms. In one camp, a crowd of people formed around us, and a man in the back raised his baby in the air so that I would see how emaciated and malnourished he was. I can’t imagine the pain and desperation that father must have felt as he raised his child above the crowd, showing us the devastation this crisis has wrought.

The sad fact is that once a child reaches a certain level of malnutrition, he may die even if he is fed. Right now, roughly 2,900 babies and toddlers in the Rohingya camps may be beyond help. But there is no reason that even one more child should be added to that awful tally. If experienced medical staff were given immediate access, nearly all of the 14,000 Rohingya children in need of supplementary feeding could be brought back from the brink. Skilled practitioners could be called in at a moment’s notice, but that would require a change in the government’s position. Unless the Burmese authorities commit to broad access and assistance to the Rohingya in these camps, more children will wither away. And right now, there is not the political will in Naypyidaw for such a commitment.

At the same time that President Thein Sein and the rest of the Myanmar government are being applauded for their movement toward democracy, marginalized and stateless Rohingya children are starving. No doubt this crisis muddies the narrative of positive change in Myanmar, but that is no reason to dismiss it. If anything, this human tragedy clarifies that all is not well in Myanmar, and it demands that the international community call Myanmar’s authorities to account for continuing atrocities. 
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