* Rohingya in west Myanmar face growing health crisis
* Malnutrition major problem at camps in Rakhine State
* Government denies crisis, says Rohingya refuse care
* Aid groups expelled, or leave due to violence
By Aubrey Belford
KYEIN NI PYIN CAMP, Myanmar, April 28 As
three-month-old Asoma Khatu approached her final, laboured
breaths, her neighbour Elia, a 50-year-old former farmer, dug
through the strongbox holding some of the last medicines in this
camp for Myanmar's displaced Rohingya.
First, some paracetamol for the severely malnourished girl's
fever and a wet towel for her forehead. Then some rehydration
salts for her diarrhoea. There was nothing else left.
The death of Asoma in a dusty, stifling hot camp a two-hour
boat ride from Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State in west Myanmar,
is part of a growing health crisis for stateless Muslim Rohingya
that has been exacerbated by restrictions on international aid.
"I think my child would have made it if someone was here to
help," Asoma's mother, Gorima, told Reuters, as she cradled the
girl's shrouded, almost weightless body in her arms.
In February, Myanmar's government expelled the main aid
group providing health to more than half a million Rohingya in
Rakhine State - Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF-H) - after
the group said it had treated people believed to have been
victims of violence in southern Maungdaw township, near the
Bangladesh border, in January.
The United Nations says at least 40 Rohingya were killed
there by Buddhist Rakhine villagers. The government denies any
Attacks on March 26 and 27 on NGO and U.N. offices by a
Rakhine mob angered by rumours a foreign staffer for another
group, Malteser International, had desecrated a Buddhist flag
led to the withdrawal of aid groups providing healthcare and
other essential help to another 140,000 Rohingya living in camps
after being displaced by Buddhist-Muslim violence since 2012.
The government had pledged to allow most NGOs to return to
full operation after the end of Buddhist New Year celebrations
But so far only food distribution by the World Food
Programme has returned to normal, and Rakhine community leaders
in the state government's Emergency Coordination Centre have
imposed conditions on others wanting to go back.
NGOs will only be allowed to operate if they show "complete
transparency" in disclosing their travel plans and projects and
are not seen to favour Rohingya, said Than Tun, a Rakhine elder
who is part of the centre. Neither MSF-H nor Malteser are being
allowed back in, he said.
With foreign aid largely absent, every day of delay is
measured in preventable deaths.
No one is there to count them accurately, but the average of
10 daily emergency medical referrals before aid groups left are
no longer happening, said Liviu Vedrasco, a coordinator with the
World Health Organisation.
Extrapolating from that how many people could be saved is
impossible, Vedrasco said. "It was not ideal before March 27.
NGOs were not providing five-star medical care. But they were
filling a gap."
Government medical teams have been making limited visits to
Rohingya areas, but foreign aid groups say they are inadequate.
Most of the slack has fallen to under-qualified Rohingya using
whatever is at their disposal.
In Kyein Ni Pyin, nearly 4,600 Rohingya live under police
guard and their movements are restricted. They are classified by
the government as illegal Bengali immigrants. One foreign aid
worker described the area to Reuters as "a concentration camp".
Elia is one of eight people given seven days' training to
assist in an MSF-H clinic, which now sits empty. The only
medicines he has are those he used on little Asoma and some
iodine. Government doctors have made three visits of about two
to three hours each, he said.
Eight people, including six infants, have died since the aid
group left, he said. The night before a recent Reuters visit,
one woman lost her baby during delivery.
"THEY REFUSE TREATMENT"
Win Myaing, a spokesman for the Rakhine State government,
dismissed the notion that there is a health crisis in the camps.
"There is a group of people in one of these camps that shows
the same sick children to anyone who visits. Even when the
government arranges for treatment they refuse it," he said.
The United States, Britain and other countries have called
on the government to allow aid groups to return to Rakhine
State, to little effect so far.
Appeals by the international community for Myanmar to do
more to end persecution of the Rohingya have similarly made
little impression on a government that sees them as illegal
immigrants and denies them citizenship.
U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking during a visit to
Malaysia, said on Sunday that Myanmar would not succeed if its
minority Muslim population was oppressed.
He may visit Myanmar towards the end of this year, when it
is due to host a regional summit, and he could come under
pressure from lobby groups to restore sanctions that have been
softened since the end of military rule in 2011.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the fight for
democracy while the military ran the country and now sits in
parliament, has faced rare criticism abroad for her failure to
defend the Rohingya.
Visits by Reuters to the remote Kyein Ni Pyin camp, as well
as several camps near Sittwe, reveal a widespread struggle with
illness. In low-slung huts, dozens of mothers showed their
emaciated children. There is no data to compare malnutrition
rates to when NGOs were forced to leave.
Along the bustling main street of the Thae Chaung camp
outside Sittwe town, thatched bamboo stalls that sell a limited
selection of drugs have become makeshift clinics.
Mohammad Elyas, a 30-year-old who sold medicine in Sittwe's
market before he was driven out by marauding mobs in 2012,
displays his laminated qualifications near the front, including
a degree in geology and a certificate in traditional medicine.
Medicine is sporadically supplied by sympathetic Rakhine
Buddhists in Sittwe, but they run the risk of retribution from
their own community for doing so.
At least 20 to 30 people come each day seeking treatment,
Elyas said. "Week by week it's getting worse."
"I'm just trying to save as many lives as possible. Even
though I don't have the proper qualifications, if I don't do
this work, people will die," he said.
(Additional Reporting by Min Zayar Oo and Aye Win Myint;
Editing by Mike Collett-White)