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Rohingya kids in Myanmar: hard labor, bleak lives

Wednesday - 10/16/2013, 6:24am  ET

AP: 8018eb82-ecdc-4342-9a73-ee4080bdfc80
In this Sept. 11, 2013 photo, Inamo Arsong, a 12-year old Muslim boy, repairs bicycles at a sidewalk outside a state government office in Maungdaw, Rakhine state, Myanmar. In this corner of Myanmar tens of thousands of Rohingya children born out of wedlock are "blacklisted" and do not exist in the government's eyes. They cannot go to public schools or get treatment in the state-run hospital without paying exorbitant bribes. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

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.

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