A Burma in thrall to extremists risks becoming a death sentence for the Rohingya minority

This year looks set to be the most fraught in a long time for the already highly imperilled ethnic group

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At the time of writing, Burma’s first census in over 30 years is drawing to a close. It was meant to have been the latest in a series of milestones affirming the nation’s steady progress toward democracy and away from its bitterly troubled past. Instead, it has become a high-profile fiasco; one that has underlined the burning issues that still trouble the country and threaten to drag it backwards.

Chief among those issues is the plight of a persecuted Muslim ethnic minority in the country's western Rakhine state. Just prior to the start of the nation-wide population survey, a spokesman for the Burmese government announced that the ethnic group, who are stateless and regarded as illegal immigrants by both Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh, could not identify themselves by the name they have used for centuries: "Rohingya."

It was a move seemingly calculated to appease protesting members of the locally dominant Rakhine ethnicity, whose long-standing hostility to the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities has expressed itself in several deadly outbreaks of mob violence- including two horrendous pogroms- over the past two years. Extremist elements within the Rakhine community did not want the minority to refer to themselves as anything but "Bengalis"- a term for the group also used by the government, intended to imply that they are foreign interlopers, despite mountains of evidence that suggests they have been present in Burma for generations.

This decision followed a series of moves by the government, who operate from the bunker city of Naypyidaw, that appear to have been designed to placate extremist elements within the Rakhine community who, like their radical Buddhist counterparts in the notoriously anti-Muslim 969 movement, regard the Rohingya as little more than dangerous terrorists.

In February, Medicins Sans Frontires were expelled from Rakhine state, on heavily contested grounds, a move that was precipitated by mass protests against the medical aid charity by Rakhines. Prior to this, in January, an alleged massacre of Rohingya by Rakhine mobs prompted international outcry- only to be instantly denied by the government. Serious questions remain as to how they could have possibly known that nothing had occurred so soon- especially as such a stance stands at sharp variance with findings and statements issued by the United Nations, respected rights groups and MSF- immediately prior to their removal from the state.

As a direct consequence of such dog-whistle moves by Naypyidaw, anti-Rohingya forces within Rakhine state have become emboldened. Late last month, systematic attacks on the aid stores, offices and homes belonging to NGO workers in Sittwe, the state capital, were prompted by a perceived insult to Buddhism enacted by an aid worker (she moved a politically-symbolic flag from outside her organisation's premises in order to adhere to their strict policy of neutrality). As a result, almost all NGO staff fled the state; they are now seeking to return, but their efforts appear to be hampered by Burmese authorities.

The human consequences of the shortfall in humanitarian and medical aid have already been intolerable. According to medical estimates 150 people died in the weeks immediately after the expulsion of MSF, 20 of them pregnant women.

One of them was a little boy whose case I had been following. Initially referred to Sittwe hospital with the aid of a charity, he starved for weeks due to complications following an operation. Reduced to the image of a child inmate of Dachau, his emaciated body finally gave way roughly a week ago due to the lack of any agency that could get him emergency care- a prime role that MSF had filled, among many others.

UNICEF estimates that thousands of children are now without life-saving treatment; other sources indicate that tens of thousands of people are at imminent risk of running out of food and water.

A very reliable source within the camps told me four days ago that some communities are having to eat every other day and that IDPs in one part of the state had ran out of drinking water completely. "People will die of hunger if it goes on like this for two more weeks", he observed.

The latest news is that, while some NGOs have returned to Rakhine state to do limited work, the majority will be kept out until the end of the month for reasons that do not seem clear. That's a little over two weeks.

As the plight of the Rohingya continues to worsen, this year looks set to be the most fraught in a long time for the already highly imperilled minority. Britain and others have registered their concerns with the government of Burma - who have reacted angrily- but this is not enough.

Much, much more should be done by the international community as a whole to prevent the "New Burma" from becoming a breeding ground of state-tolerated Buddhist chauvinists who urge the extinction of one of the world's most vulnerable people.

To date, however, the global response to the situation has been weak. Inside the country, even Aung San Suu Kyi remains silent. While more continue to die.

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