Humanitarian Crisis Looms in Western Burma as Foreign Aid Workers Leave

By Reuters 1 April 2014

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.