YANGON, Myanmar — One day earlier this month, a businessman turned social worker was going about a familiar and urgent task: looking for blood donors in camps crowded with Rohingya Muslims driven from their homes.
This time, Nu Maung needed three pints — one of O-positive, two of B-positive. Among those in need was a woman who had suffered complications during childbirth.
The military-led purges and abuses carried out against Myanmar’s Muslim minority Rohingya over the past year continue to yield new hardships. The blood hunt, as described by aid groups and others, offers another look at the extreme segregation Rohingya Muslims face in their country.
Rohingya are effectively blocked from accessing the blood bank in the main medical facility in the western Rakhine state, where most Rohingya live in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, according to two internal reports by a consortium of six major international aid groups.
Buddhists insist that their blood go only to other Buddhists, and the hospitals oblige, the groups say.
So men such as 48-year-old Nu Maung have to persuade fellow Muslims in these squalid camps to offer their own blood for about $10 per donation. He said he has been a donor 44 times so far.
“After making their [blood] donation, sometimes they can’t work for the next few days,” Nu Maung told The Washington Post by telephone from Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital. “So we need to support them [financially].”
Since the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya in August 2017 in a crackdown led by the Myanmar military — labeled as genocidal by some U.S. lawmakers and a U.N. fact-finding mission — the Myanmar government has been under relentless international pressure to improve conditions for the Rohingya who remain.
But one of the two reports prepared by the aid group consortium operating in Rakhine concluded that little has been done by the Myanmar government despite its claims of “significant progress” on improving conditions. A copy of the 171-page document was seen by The Post. The six aid organizations allowed access to the report on the condition that the names of the agencies not be made public.
The report, prepared in late September, even questions whether international relief groups are indirectly complicit in “continued rights violations” by maintaining their work with authorities in Rakhine and with Myanmar’s leaders, including now-tarnished Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
These groups must “consider whether they should continue working with the government in Rakhine and . . . how to reduce the harm they themselves cause by remaining,” the report said.
“The dilemma is real,” said Charles Petrie, the top U.N. diplomat in Myanmar, also known as Burma, from 2003 to 2007, who is now a U.N. adviser on peace efforts. “However, it is too easy to walk away and hold the moral high ground. . . . There would be no one around to provide services for these extremely vulnerable people.”
Soe Aung, Myanmar’s deputy minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said he met with the U.N. and international aid groups recently to discuss improving conditions for the Rohingya.
“We didn’t receive any complaints [from the groups] about restrictions or segregations in the meeting,” he said. Rohingya Muslims, he said, are able to travel outside Myanmar for medical treatment and education “according to the law” and if they get necessary documentation.
He declined to comment on the issue of blood donations and said there was no specific government order to restrict them to those in the same ethnic group.
Since the August crackdown — which Myanmar authorities claim was a response to attacks by Rohingya militants — increased restrictions have been imposed on the estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar. This has complicated the minority’s already limited access to basic health care, education and their ability to continue their former livelihoods.
The aid group assessment notes that the government also has refused to address the matter of citizenship for Rohingya, who consider themselves native to the country but are seen by most in Myanmar as illegal interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh.
Aid groups say they have been left without a “comprehensive understanding” of the humanitarian needs, the assessment said, and find themselves working within a system that many Rohingya are resisting.
This conundrum is clear in Sittwe General Hospital, the main medical complex in Rakhine.
The Rohingya are treated in segregated wards, are denied access to their phones and often have to bribe hospital guards and doctors for better treatment, according to a separate report on health care by the six-group consortium. The report was first published in August 2017 and updated in April. The report was not made public but was viewed by The Post.
Last month, a Rohingya man who was outside the camp perimeters after dark was hacked in the face by a police officer after an altercation, a Rohingya witness in the camp told The Post. He had a bad gash near his eye, according to a camp resident, but refused to be transferred to Sittwe General Hospital. He sought care from a pharmacist in the camp, but his wound became infected.
“The doctors and nurses [at Sittwe General Hospital] are not only unkind to the patients, they neglect the patients,” said one Rohingya man in a phone interview from his camp, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of his safety. “We are scared to go there.”
The report, as well as aid workers, also detailed the heavy financial costs for Muslim patients treated at the hospital: payments to guards and drivers to safely transport them and additional bribes to nurses and doctors for better care. A Muslim patient, the report estimated, would pay 61 percent more than a Buddhist person admitted to the hospital for five days for the same condition.
The situation is “not ideal,” said Andrew Kirkwood, director of the U.N. Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Myanmar. The government, he said, agreed to provide equal care to all patients as a condition for a U.N.-directed project to upgrade and expand the Sittwe medical facility.
He said the United Nations would “continuously assess the government’s commitment.” But he added: “We may be forced to stop our support if it benefits only one community.”
In northern Rakhine state, where destruction is widespread, access by aid groups remains severely limited. The U.N. Development Program, the U.N. refugee agency and the government signed a pact in early June to help improve conditions there to allow those who fled to return.
Early statements from the United Nations touted the year-long agreement, which has not been made public, as granting the agencies “effective access.”
But after six months, they have been allowed to carry out assessments in only 50 villages, according to Haoliang Xu, director of the regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific at the U.N. Development Program. Approximately 392 towns and villages out of a total of 993 in northern Rakhine were destroyed or damaged, according to U.N. estimates. Xu defended the deal as an important “confidence-building” measure that could open more opportunities to expand the work of aid groups.
The United Nations will soon begin 35 “quick impact projects” such as building roads and repairing dikes used for agricultural irrigation, Xu said in an interview.
Petrie, the U.N. official, led an internal review in 2012 into the global body’s failings in Sri Lanka, where U.N. agencies were found to be reluctant “to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist.”
He said he sees the possibility of the United Nations making similar mistakes in Myanmar.
“The U.N. is not working as a whole,” Petrie said. “If what the U.N. is doing now is all it is, then they should be severely condemned.”
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Cape Diamond in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.