More than half of a million Rohingya refugees had fled across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh since 25 August 2017. Not all Rohingya fled, those remaining are residing at Rakhine State. This exodus received worldwide attention, but Burmese authorities only permit two emergency assistance organizations – the World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide care. Given the scale of the crisis, these two nonprofits alone are unable to serve the entire population in the crisis area. Through my internship programme, I was lucky enough to witness the crisis first hand, and also visit these villages to provide medical care.
As a student pursuing Master in Public Policy at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School) and a citizen of Myanmar, I have strong desires to be on the ground to find out real facts and information. Last December, I received an offer from the Center for Social Integrity (CSI)
to visit over 10 villages in Northern Rakhine State to provide medical care to the Rakhine, Rohingya and other ethnic minority groups. These villages have been in a state of conflict for over decades.
Conflict Areas (Burnt Villages)
A Rohingya in Bangladesh – Myanmar Border (Cutting woods for daily income)
With the support of Center for Social Integrity (CSI), I brought medicine and drugs and treated patients in every village. I saw around 70-100 patients per day in each village who have limited access to healthcare and hence have to rely on quacks. The truth is basic necessities such as food, water and shelter are lacking for the villagers as their homes were burnt. There is no food because they can’t work in farms and they could only rely on food distribution and clean water is inaccessible. It does not help where there is mobility restriction in the areas that they live in.
One of the Rohingya Refugees’ Camps
During my trip, I had the chance to visit a functioning Rural Health Center near Sittwe, City of Rakhine State where I met healthcare staffs who shared their fears and challenges. They are Rakhine and Burmese staffs and after conflict arose, no healthcare staffs dared to work in clinics at Rohingya villages out of fear of being killed. During their immunization visits, they had to request for the accompaniment of police officers. However, when I met Rohingya villagers, they told a differing view that no one will inflict harm upon teachers and healthcare staffs. Given the misunderstanding between these communities, trust need to be rebuilt to revive universal healthcare coverage in the region.
Visiting a mobile clinic
Treating one of the patients in the mobile clinic
One day, around 5:30pm, I received a phone call from one of my patients in Maungdaw about her mother being unresponsive. When I arrived at their home, the mother was suffering from severe hypoglycemia (very low blood sugar level), and was close to going into an irreversible coma. Luckily, I brought glucose injections with me and successfully executed emergency treatment on the spot. It was not possible for the mother to receive care at a hospital due to reasons such as discrimination, long travel times, etc. Rohingya are also afraid to violate the strict 6 p.m. curfew. There isn’t any emergency hotline number which Rohingya can call, and if they visit the hospital after curfew, they would be investigated. Some villagers shared that there were cases of pregnant women who died on the spot due to childbirth complications. They live in villages which are far away from cities and a visit to hospital is out of question due to the previous stated reasons. Everyone lives in fear. As a policy student, I think that government should have measures in place for emergency situations. Though there are rules and regulations, they should be observed at ground level.
Overall, my internship experience was beyond what I could have asked for. I was exposed to the viewpoints of both Rohingya and Rakhine communities. During my first semester of MPP course, I learnt how policies are made and effective public management. From the lessons of theories, policy challenges and policy evaluation strategies, I could cross-check policy recommendations to the current situation by applying these theories.
If you go on a similar trip for the first time in future, please read the below advice. There are lots of challenges which you will encounter in conflict areas. Try to understand the context and be neutral when you meet both communities. It would be better to listen to their feelings and their real-life stories as opposed to sharing your suggestions and opinion. In my trip, I did focus group discussions with both communities and prepared neutral questions.
Secondly, it is good to keep a low profile and keep your documents with you wherever you go. When you visit these places, there is a high probability of strangers being inspected. Act like a local to avoid unnecessary investigation by authorities. During my trip, I visited a remote village which could only be accessed via boat and motor cycle. The whole journey took three hours. The village was the center of conflict where two thirds of the villagers fled to Bangladesh. While I was treating patients, authorities came in and asked me to leave the village. Although I showed my documents, I was still forced to leave.
Thirdly, be prepared to survive in refugees’ camps where it is difficult to access clean water and food. If your trip is short, you could be self-sufficient and bring your own supplies. However for longer stays, (about a month), you will have to try to adapt.
Last but not least, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to LKY School and CSI for guiding me on my internship and career development. The most important people I need to extend special thanks to are the villagers whom I crossed path with (Rohingya, Rakhine and local ethnics). They helped, protected and treated me very well during my visit when no Myanmar citizen is brave enough to step foot on the conflict zones, especially the Rohingya villages.
Nay Lin Tun is currently a Master in Public Policy Candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.