YANGON — About 300 Arakanese residents of northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township staged a protest on Monday afternoon against the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s distribution of aid to Rohingya people camped between fences marking the Bangladesh/Myanmar border.
Several days ago, township authorities granted Arakanese nationalist U Sein Hla Phyu permission to stage Monday’s rally. A copy of the permit letter widely regarded as authentic that went viral on Facebook states that the rally organizers strongly oppose the ICRC and Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS)’s project to deliver aid, saying the rations were being supplied to Bengali terrorists. “Bengali” is a contentious term that Myanmar’s Buddhist majority commonly uses to refer to the Rohingya, implying that they are interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh who arrived during British rule.
Arakan National Party (ANP) union lawmaker U Kyaw Kyaw Win confirmed the event via phone on Monday. According to him, the protesters were dissatisfied with the relief program of the ICRC and MRCS. Some Maungdaw residents say the ICRC is biased in favor of the Rohingya and does not provide equivalent humanitarian assistance to non-Muslim minorities in the area.
In fact, for the past several months humanitarian assistance to the several thousand Rohingya near the border fence has been provided by Bangladesh-based UN agencies, but the Myanmar government asked the Bangladeshi foreign affairs minister during his recent visit to halt the aid program from the Bangladesh side so that delivery of rations could begin from the Myanmar side.
Last Friday, Myanmar President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay told reporters in Napyitaw that the Bangladesh government had informed Myanmar that it would start repatriating some 3,000 refugees in the near future.
Responding to the Maungdaw protest, ICRC issued a statement this afteroon stating it was aware of the rally. It explained that the ICRC was asked to assist people living near the border in Maungdaw’s Taung Pyo sub-town with life-saving humanitarian aid from the Myanmar side.
It said the Red Cross movement is in discussion with community leaders and authorities and is still investigating the pratical implications of the request.
“The Red Cross Movement’s partners work at all times to provide emergency support to people in need in a neutral and impartial manner. The organization is working to fulfill its mandate by assisting all those affected by the recent violence in Rakhine,” the statement reads.
Hindu community leader U Ni Mal told The Irrawaddy over the phone that rally participants marched from downtown to the ICRC’s Maungdaw branch office located next to the Maungdaw District Administrative Office. He explained that several hundred Hindu refugees had suffered food shortages for months, but the government had merely distributed two cans of condensed milk per person per day, and that they had not received any international aid for months, including from the ICRC.
“The refugee camp for Hindus is situated right behind the ICRC’s Maungdaw office, but we were not given rations until today. We have already appealed to ICRC officials, but nothing has happened so far. I don’t know why they don’t want to help us. But what can we do?” U Ni Mal said.
He said that in December 2017—after nearly 1,000 Hindus were displaced by the same August 2017 violence that displaced the Rohingya—the ICRC gave Hindu IDPs about 45,000 kyats each as travel expenses. A few months ago, the Ministry of Social Welfare promised the Hindu IDPs weekly food distribution, but according to U Ni Mal, since last month, they had been given one week’s worth of rations to last for an entire month.
The Rohingya and the Hindus were displaced by military clearance operations that followed the August 2017 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 government border outposts and an Army base in Maungdaw. The clearance operations caused nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh within a few months.
The UN labels the military clearance operations ethnic cleansing and has said they had “genocidal intent”. It has called for Myanmar’s top Army generals to be investigated by the International Criminal Court. The court accepted the request for prosecution early this month.