Humanitarian Crisis Looms in Western Burma as Foreign Aid Workers Leave

Myanmar, Burma, Rakhine, Arakan, The Irrawaddy, Rohingya, Malteser International, United Nations, humanitarian aid, census

Rohingya children collect water at a Rohingya IDP camp outside Sittwe on March 30, 2014. At least 20,000 people in displacement camps around Sittwe will run out of drinking water within 10 days. (Photo: Reuters)

DHAECHAUNG VILLAGE, Burma —With food stocks dwindling and prices rising by the hour in his camp for displaced Rohingya in Burma’s Arakan State, Hla Maung decided to ask a friend in the neighboring village for food.

A bag of rice that cost 15,000 kyats (about US$15) in the camp on Saturday morning went for 25,000 kyats later that day, he said on his way to the home of his friend, a Rohingya fortunate enough not to have lost his house or fishing boats during outbursts of sectarian violence that periodically rock this western state on the Bay of Bengal.

The situation is about to get dramatically worse for Hla Maung and tens of thousands of others dependent on food and water rations, said humanitarian workers evacuated after recent riots in the state capital, Sittwe. At least 20,000 people in displacement camps around Sittwe will run out of drinking water within 10 days, while food stocks will run out within two weeks, imperiling thousands more.

The overall numbers of people facing shortages are likely much higher, because the aid workers were referring only to communities in the Sittwe area. Communities in other parts of the state will be affected also, because aid agencies used Sittwe as a staging point to bring supplies to 140,000 people in camps as well as about 40,000 more in isolated villages.

While most recipients are ethnic Rohingya Muslims who make up a minority of the state’s population, some majority ethnic Arakanese Buddhists also depend on humanitarian aid.

Aid agencies were forced to halt operations last Wednesday when about 400 ethnic Arakanese Buddhists destroyed their homes, offices, warehouses and boats used to transport supplies. Police fired warning shots to quell the rioters and rescue aid workers from the mob, and none were killed or injured.

Riots broke out again the following day and an 11-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet when police fired warning shots, while a 39-year-old woman received a minor gunshot wound, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported.

In the absence of nongovernment organizations (NGOs), the United Nations is working with the government to bring emergency supplies to camps, but that is only a short-term solution, said Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“In the medium to long term, we really need safety and secure premises for NGOs,” he said. “The government needs to ensure the safety and security of both international and national staff.”

Aid groups have long drawn the ire of some in the ethnic Arakanese Buddhist community who accuse them of favoring the Rohingya, who make up the vast majority of victims of violence that has displaced more than 140,000 since June 2012.

NGO representatives have strongly denied allegations of bias, pointing out that they provide services to Arakanese Buddhist communities too. But aid workers have been threatened and harassed, according to the United Nations.

Arakanese Buddhists have also held demonstrations demanding the government remove international NGOs from the state, and the recent riots prompted agencies to evacuate most of their staff from Sittwe.

“They’re making a list of anyone left working with NGOs and trying to finish the job,” said an aid worker speaking on condition of anonymity.

Resuming humanitarian work would be difficult, he said, because locals including subcontractors who transported food had been warned not to work with international agencies.

“No one will rent us an office, car, lorry, tractor and no one will sell us anything,” he said.

Census Controversy

The evacuations came as Burma prepared to launch its first census since 1983, which sparked controversy because it included questions on religion and ethnicity. Those are sensitive subjects in a country riven by sectarian tensions and especially in Arakan State, which is home to a million mostly stateless Rohingya whom the government refers to as Bengali, implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

While “Rohingya” is not listed on the census form, people have the option to check “other” and ask enumerators to fill in their ethnicity. Some Arakanese Buddhists threatened to boycott the census out of concern that it could lead to official recognition for the Rohingya.

As a symbol of their opposition to the census, Arakanese Buddhists in Sittwe hung prayer flags outside their homes. One flag hung outside the offices of the aid group Malteser International was taken down last Wednesday as it violated the organization’s rule against displaying religious or political symbols.

After rumors spread through the city that a female international aid worker had desecrated the flag, about 400 rioters massed outside Malteser International’s office at about 8 pm and began throwing stones before attacking other NGO and UN premises, according to an internal UN report.

The UN Population Fund, which helped organize the census, said in a statement on Friday that it was concerned about the violence and noted that Burma’s government had committed to allowing respondents to identify their ethnicity themselves.

“This commitment cannot be honored selectively in the face of intimidation or threats of violence,” it said.

The government appears to have backtracked on that commitment.

On Saturday, government spokesman Ye Htut told reporters that census enumerators would not register households identifying themselves as “Rohingya,” but only as “Bengali.” Census workers in Arakan State told Reuters they were following the directive.

“All of them are saying themselves that they are Rohingya,” said Sein Win, a schoolteacher and volunteer enumerator in San Pya village.

“Then we need to do nothing, since the order from above is that we don’t need to write down a race that does not exist.”

Reporting by a Reuters journalist in Dhaechaung village and Reuters reporter Jared Ferrie in Yangon.

6 Responses to Humanitarian Crisis Looms in Western Burma as Foreign Aid Workers Leave

  1. This anti-Rohingya campaign is as evil as anything Hitler did. The Rohingya are not Bengalis, they are Myanmar citizens who have lived in Myanmar for decades, possibly centuries, and just happen to be Muslims. In any civilised country they would be regarded as citizens of that country, no ifs, no buts, no question. Those pretending otherwise are just stirring up hatred against fellow human beings – one of the worst sins anyone can commit. I don’t care whether they are monks or not – monks should know better.

    Myanmar people – when are you going to wake up and face reality? You all have a good, democratic, prosperous future after so many years of oppression. Why are you wasting your energies on persecution of innocent people who happen to be a bit different from you?

    • “Rohingya” (in fact Bengali refugees from Bangladesh) figure as pawns on the chessboard of Islamic strategists. Their tactics: Finding the right (western) allies, turning things upside down, creating heartbreaking stories, adding touching fotos – and those immigrants will capture everybody’s heart.
      You, Mr. Joe Butterworth, are a striking example how efficient that elaborate strategy works.
      And how about the real victims,the indigenous Arakan people ?
      They automatically would be in the minority, dominated in their own country by a fast-growing (partly fanatic) Islamic majority. How can Arakan Buddhists accept this ?

  2. Any thing goes against the will of peoples, that is undemocratic.
    Arakan is a place of ultra nationalist and terror. So UN should take action in Security Council.
    Why innocent peoples hasveto suffer for the sake of rich and RNDP?

  3. Sittwe & North Rakhine people will learn & change only when they feel the pain of their own actions by them self – was needed also in other transitions as Eastern Germany in the 90ties or after Suharto in
    Indonesia, always it came as a shock to the global world.–
    There is an error deep planted in Humans which creates just this the ” In Human “.
    The process must go as such, as bad, sad and painful it is you might stop it today outside but the inside will bring it up later again.
    Now the next 1 to 2 month the Sittwe and Northern Rakhine will feel in many ways from tourism to health and food by them self the effects and pain. This pain alone can make people stay away from them who always want to lit the fires , mainly for their own interests and their small group.
    Who they are Mr Ye Htut gave the answers:
    “…..But we have video footage and pictures of people involved. So the commission could find anyone involved,” he said Saturday.
    “We roughly know that the people involved were not from Sittwe but from villages nearby,” he added.
    — Mr Ye Htut, please how the Villagers knew all the 30 plus offices and housings of INGO staff ????and how they came in minutes from these villages to the Malteser office,— where did some one park park until the final commando was given to attack by — an whom ???
    Is not ( after the chemical weapon story ) the first time that Mr Ye Htut s words did not make any logical sense,…

    Hitler is reality in some Rakhine
    Oo Maung Gyi and Joe you are both right but worse is to come as just yesterday a usually respected person from society in Rakhine highlighted the achievements of Hitler in the question of the Jews and ( I prayed that he would not say it ) than asked for the same management in Rakhine state…..we were all speechless.
    Good to know so, that it is a very small minority in Rakhine as a UN survey in North Rakhine in December 2013, the very much majority of Rakhine people is against such and not like this at all, so this sponsored group is very small but full of old ties and use the old time psychological power to villagers and even Sittwe people.
    The only one which can solve this are the Rakhine people them self, it starts soon through self inflicted pain after all INGO s left.

  4. The UN Security Council must take action before things get worse. Otherwise we will have a situation similar to Serbia/Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka or even worse (like the holocaust).

  5. As soon as the aid workers left ‘crisis started to loom all on a sudden’ – but why? Is it because the rohingya crisis was started by these aid workers in ‘sheep’s clothes?’ Or was it because only the aid workers could guarantee the safety and security to the lives of the rohingya Bengalis? Just out of curiosity as I’m a newcomer here.

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