Guest Column

What Have NGOs Done Wrong in Rakhine?

By Aung Myo Oo 13 September 2017

SITTWE, Rakhine — Over the last few years, a number of disgruntled ethnic Arakanese in Rakhine State have consistently demonstrated against NGOs operating in the state. They claimed projects run by aid organizations were only benefiting self-identifying Rohingya Muslims, not the ethnic Arakanese community.

Arakanese frustration burst into anger in March 2014 when a crowd attempted to raid an NGO premise in state capital Sittwe. In some parts of the state, NGO workers continue to be frowned upon by local Arakanese. The opposition to NGOs in Rakhine State represents a truly worrying trend in this sensitive, conflict-riven area.

But are NGOs really the bad guys? What have they done to make some ethnic Arakanese so annoyed?

It is generally accepted that NGOs—non-governmental organizations—play a vital role in providing social services to those who the state fails to reach, often giving crucial aid to marginalized people.

In Rakhine State, however, lack of communication strategy, lavish display of material wealth and failed attempts to include the Arakanese in development projects of the NGOs have often proved harmful to relations between communities in conflict with one another. Although they may have produced positive impacts on the lives of people, they have also fostered a negative reality in the minds of some Arakanese people.

Socially and politically-motivated Arakanese are frustrated with the perception of being “left out” at the expense of the “other” community—self-identifying Rohingya Muslims. This sense of animosity between the two communities needs to be reduced and then eliminated, but an imbalance of resource allocation sustains and nurtures these feelings. NGOs’ arguments that Arakanese communities are better-off than Muslim communities economically and receive more government social services fall on deaf ears. Arakanese are also suffering from deprivation in what is Myanmar’s second poorest state. NGOs have been operating in Rakhine State for more than 20 years, but they must consider including Arakanese in humanitarian aid and development initiatives in order to reduce sensitive feelings of animosity toward others.

One member of a local civil society organization told me that many poor Arakanese people rarely receive material or financial assistance from international NGOs compared to the Muslim population. She provided the example of an NGO-led project to build small water reservoirs in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships of northern Rakhine for Muslim farmers, which Arakanese farmers did not have access to. She also said NGOs provided learning materials for Muslim students in the same area—the bulk of which ended up on the black market, being sold to Arakanese students. It was incidents of imbalance like these, she said, that was fueling resentment among the Arakanese community.

The perception of imbalance—whether real or imagined—can, and will, contribute to ethnic and sectarian conflict in Rakhine.

Some people in Rakhine wish NGOs would better communicate with communities on the ground to prevent Arakanese people feeling suspicious of projects and wondering why they do not feel the direct benefits. There have been instances of aid being transported to camps for internally displaced Muslim persons passing through Arakanese communities, fueling resentment.

Other people I talked to mentioned that NGO workers displayed their material wealth with blunt disregard to the situation of locals by driving expensive cars, being transported in speed boats, and staying in expensive hotels. Some NGOs rent the best houses in Sittwe, locals have said, destabilizing the property market and pushing up rental fees.

In 2015, an overloaded passenger ferry sank between Sittwe and Kyaukphyu, claiming the lives of at least 72 people. One survivor criticized NGO workers for failing to help, and speculated that they would have done so if it were Muslim lives at risk. Ethnic Arakanese also feel the NGO community does not consider their community in development initiatives. One local CSO member told me there was no assistance from international organizations to help Arakanese CSOs counter foreign investment in Sittwe port, while organizations stepped in to support local community objections in projects in Myitsone, Letpadaung, Dawei, and Thilawa.

The perception most Arakanese have of NGOs may be misguided, but NGOs failure to properly communicate and consult ethnic Arakanese has led to dangerous misunderstandings and suspicion.

Aung Myo Oo is a native of Sittwe and a commentator on Rakhine politics. He received a Master of Human Rights and Democratization from the University of Sydney.