UN Plans to Expand Arakan Aid to Thousands of Villagers

By Paul Vrieze 19 July 2013

RANGOON — The UN announced that it plans to expand aid operations in Arakan State to another 36,000 people in 113 isolated villages.

These communities, which are most Rohingya Muslim, have seen their livelihoods destroyed by inter-communal conflict, while government security measures have restricted their access to healthcare and other basic services.

The new UN aid plan, however, does not include support measures for Aung Mingalar, the isolated Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe town where authorities are confining some 6,500 people.

The proposed aid measures, which are yet to be formally endorsed by the Burma government, would raise the total number of UN aid recipients in Arakan to 176,000 people.

So far, the UN response in Arakan has focused on 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, who are living in crowded camps in the countryside. They were displaced by last year’s violence between Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists.

A report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) released on Thursday said a recent joint mapping exercise by aid organizations had identified 113 villages that also required support.

“A year after the violence, many people in villages are now isolated, with no or very limited access to basic services, including markets, education and health care. Many have suffered trauma and require support,” the report said. “This is due to continued restrictions on movement, ongoing tensions and no return options.”

The plan also seeks to address the needs of the approximately 20,000 children in Arakan who have missed one year of schooling. The UN plans to set up temporary learning facilities for 12,000 children living in camps.

UNOCHA said it would cost US $80 million to implement the revised 2012-2013 response plan, adding that a $10 million funding gap remains.

A UN official, who asked not be named, said UNOCHA had kept the government informed on its revised aid plan but authorities have yet to formally endorse the measures.

Asked if the isolated Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe town would receive aid under the new plan, the official said, “We could not find it in the list… We are trying to find out why this data has not come through.”

Security forces surround Aung Mingalar, a quarter in the town’s old center, and its approximately 6,500 inhabitants cannot leave. Authorities have restricted food and medical aid deliveries to the Muslim ghetto, even though it lacks health care facilities.

The government has also imposed travel restrictions on the isolated Rohingya villagers and the displaced living in camps. Authorities have so far limited UN aid deliveries to Muslim villages.

Burma’s government appears to have taken the measures with the aim of reinforcing the Rohingya’s statelessness. It has also been accused of supporting of the Buddhist majority in its attacks on Muslims.

The measures have been criticized by human rights groups and international aid organizations, such as Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). The groups say the restrictions violate basic human rights, such as freedom of movement and access to health care.

On Friday, MSF welcomed the new UN plan to expand aid coverage to isolated villages, saying it was a step in the right direction.

“It’s recognition that the affected population is wider than the [displaced] population. People in these locations have also lost access to services like health facilities, food markets, their fields and sometimes even clean water,” said Peter Paul de Groote,MSF Head of Mission in Burma.

MSF has repeatedly complained that government restrictions are constraining its medical aid work. Currently, its mobile health clinics are only allowed to visit Sittwe’s Muslim quarter twice a week.

De Groote urged the government to lift all “restrictions on freedom of movement for both humanitarian workers and communities.”

“What we have seen shows that current policies … are having a detrimental impact on people’s health. This includes TB patients unable to access the treatment they need to stay alive, and pregnant women dying unnecessarily because they have nowhere safe to deliver,” he wrote in an email.

Shwe Maung, a parliamentarian with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, welcomed the UN plan, saying that the isolated Muslim villages had long been in desperate need of support.

“In the isolated villages it’s worse than in the displaced people camps because they can’t even get regular food rations,” said Shwe Maung, who represents the Muslim-majority Maungdaw Township in northern Arakan State.

However, Arakanese nationalist politicians, who are influential in the state, said in a reaction that an increase in security forces — and not an increase in UN aid — would improve the livelihoods of those affected by the conflict.

“Security is more important than international aid,” claimed Khin Maung Gree, a central committee member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), which supports the Buddhist community. “If the villagers have good security they could easily go back to their work.”