Rohingya kids in Myanmar: hard labor, bleak lives

Associated Press + More

By ROBIN McDOWELL, Associated Press

MAUNGDAW, Myanmar (AP) — The 10-year-old struggles up the hill, carrying buckets filled with rocks. Though he tries to keep a brave face in front of his friends, his eyes brim with tears. Every inch of his body aches, he says, and he feels sick and dizzy from the weight.

"I hate it," whispers Anwar Sardad. He has to help support his family, but he wishes there was a way other than working for the government construction agency.

He adds, "I wouldn't have to live this life if I wasn't a Muslim."

The lives of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children like Anwar are growing more hopeless in Myanmar, even as the predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million wins praise for ending decades of dictatorship.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — This story is part of "Portraits of Change," a yearlong series by The Associated Press examining how the opening of Myanmar after decades of military rule is — and is not — changing life in the long-isolated Southeast Asian country.

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The Muslim ethnic group has long suffered from discrimination that rights groups call among the worst in the world. But here in northern Rakhine state, home to 80 percent of the country's 1 million Rohingya, it is more difficult now for children to get adequate education, food or medical care than it had been in the days of the junta. They have few options beyond hard labor, for a dollar a day.

The Associated Press' visit to the area was a first for foreign reporters. Local officials responded with deep suspicion, bristling when Rohingya were interviewed. Police meetings were called, journalists were followed and people were intimidated after being interviewed, including children.

In a country torn by ethnic violence over the last 15 months, this is the one region where Muslim mobs killed Buddhists, rather than the other way around. And although only 10 of the 240 deaths occurred here, this is the only region where an entire population has been punished, through travel restrictions and other exclusionary policies.

Muslim schools known as madrassas have been shut down, leading to crowding in government schools, where Rohingya, who make up 90 percent of the population in this corner of the country, are taught by Buddhist teachers in a language many don't understand.

In the village of Ba Gone Nar, where a monk was killed in last year's violence, enrollment at a small public school has soared to 1,250. Kids ranging from preschoolers to eighth-graders are crammed so tightly on the floor it's nearly impossible to walk between them.

"Our teachers write a lot of things on the blackboard, 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."

There are only 11 government-appointed teachers — one for every 114 students. On a day reporters visit, they fail to show up — a common occurrence.

Rohingya volunteers try to maintain order. One man circles the room with a rattan cane, silencing the chatter by whacking the trash-strewn concrete floor.

Few kids have chairs or desks. Many are coughing. Others talk among themselves, flipping through empty notebooks. They look up at newcomers with dazed stares.

"If I could be anything, I'd be 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," the third-grader adds. "The government wouldn't allow it."

Rohingya are not allowed to study medicine in Myanmar. There are no universities in northern Rakhine, and Rohingya there have been barred from leaving the area for more than a decade. An exception that allowed a few Rohingya to study in Sittwe, the state capital, ended after last year's bloodshed.

"They don't want to teach us," says Soyed Alum, a 25-year-old from the coastal village of Myinn Hlut who holds private classes in his home for Rohingya kids.

"They call us 'kalar' (a derogatory word for Muslim). They say, 'You're not even citizens. . Why do you need an education?'"

Every year, thousands of Rohingya flee northern Rakhine and take perilous sea journeys in hopes of finding refuge in other countries. Because of the recent sectarian violence, in which 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 seas in the region calm.

Some historians say Rohingyas have been in northern Rakhine for centuries, though some living there now migrated from neighboring Bangladesh more recently. All are denied citizenship, rendering them stateless.

"They are all illegal," state advocate general Hla Thein says flatly.

They remain barred from becoming citizens, or from working in civil-service jobs. No Rohingya birth certificates have been handed out since the mid-1990s. Rohingya children are "blacklisted" — denied even basic services — if their parents are not officially married or previously reached a two-child limit that is imposed only on their ethnic group.

The official neglect commonly stretches into hatred.

A government minder assigned by the central government to facilitate the AP's trip asks why they are so eager to interview "dogs."

When young Rohingya girls peer into the open windows of the crew's vehicle, the minder bitterly mumbles crude sexual insults at them.

One thing the government does offer Rohingya kids is work, even if they are as young as 10. The Ministry of Construction, one of the bigger employers, offers them 1,000 kyat — a dollar — for eight hours of collecting and carrying rocks under the tropical sun.

Early in the morning, giant pickup trucks swing by villages to pick up dozens of sleepy-eyed boys — all of them Rohingya — and deliver them to riverbeds.

"See? They want to work," says U Hla Moe, the administrator of Lay Maing.

Later that day, he will summon children who were interviewed by reporters into his office — for the AP's security, he says. The children say he frightens them as he demands to know the questions they were asked and their answers.

Among the kids called in is Anwar Sardad, the 10-year-old stone carrier.

From 8 a.m. until dusk, he works alongside his twin brother and five or six other boys from their village, scooping up river rocks and briskly carrying them up a hill. They look more like little men than boys: No smiles. Each step sturdy and determined. Not an ounce of energy wasted.

Anwar is exhausted but works fast. He even stops to help friends when they struggle with their buckets.

Though the work is grueling, it will help the children and their families eat. The region has some of the country's highest chronic malnutrition rates, according to a report released last year by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department. That deprivation severely affects mental and physical development.

The work of humanitarian organizations has been greatly limited in northern Rakhine. A lack of vaccination coverage in the neglected area means they are exposed to almost every preventable childhood disease, says Vickie Hawkins, the deputy head of mission in Myanmar for Doctors Without Borders, which has worked in the area for 15 years.

If Rohingya children get critically ill, they might never make it to a hospital, either because their families cannot afford bribes demanded at checkpoints or because of the Sittwe travel ban.

Mohamad Toyoob, a 10-year-old Rohingya, has received medical care, but not the surgery that doctors have recommended.

He lifts up his shirt, pressing on the right side of his stomach, where he has felt sharp pain for the past three years. "I don't know what's wrong," he says. "It feels like there is something inside."

One diagnosis among the stack he has saved says "abdominal mass," followed by a series of question marks.

The doctors Mohamad saw at a limited-capacity public hospital are unable to perform the potentially life-saving surgery they recommended. To get it, he would have to go to Sittwe, which is off-limits, or Bangladesh. The latter is possible, if his family pays hefty bribes, but he may not be able to get back home.

Money is another obstacle: His family can't even afford his medication, let alone surgery.

He digs into a pocket and pulls out two little plastic bags filled with red, pink, yellow and light blue pills. They cost 200 kyat (20 cents) per day.

To get the money, Mohamad works with other village kids at the riverbank, struggling to lift rocks. Sometimes it makes the pain worse.

"My father lost his job after the violence," he says. "When he was working, we could afford it. But now we have nothing.

"I have to take care of myself."

EDITOR'S NOTE _ This story is part of "Portraits of Change," a yearlong series by The Associated Press examining how the opening of Myanmar after decades of military rule is _ and is not _ changing life in the long-isolated Southeast Asian country.

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