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Myanmar: Humanitarian lifeline cut following violence against aid agencies in Rakhine

October 2013, Rakhine, Myanmar: Aung Muang Sein lives in an IDP camp in rural Sittwe. He runs a small shop, but like many people is dependent on aid agencies for basic support. (Photo: OCHA/Pierre Peron)

April 17, 2014

Hundreds of thousands of people are finding it difficult to access basic services such as health care following the emergency relocation of up to 300 aid workers from Myanmar’s Rakhine State. More than 1,000 humanitarian staff have been forced to stop working following an outbreak of violence in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, on 26 and 27 March.

Security services were unable to stop angry mobs from severely damaging 33 offices, living quarters and warehouses of NGOs and UN agencies. The Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar, Renata Dessallien, called the violence “an attack on the entire humanitarian response in Rakhine State.”

Aid workers are unable to access isolated villages and camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), but they are maintaining daily contact with these communities. “We are being told that the situation is becoming increasingly desperate,” said Pierre Peron from OCHA’s Myanmar office.

This is the peak of the dry season and water levels are running critically low in some places. With limited services available, people with life-threatening medical conditions face the risk of not being taken to hospital. The Government has increased efforts to fill the gap through the Ministry of Health and local authorities, but these efforts still fall short of covering all essential needs.

No freedom to move

The immediate and dramatic humanitarian impact of this aid disruption has highlighted the dependence of hundreds of thousands of people in Rakhine on humanitarian assistance. This longstanding reliance deepened almost two years ago, when intercommunal violence killed 167 people and displaced more than 140,000 in Rakhine.

The main reason for this dependence is easy to pinpoint. Most humanitarian-aid recipients in Rakhine do not benefit from one of the most basic human rights: freedom of movement.

There are an estimated 800,000 Muslim people in Rakhine who identify themselves as “Rohingya”. The Government refers to these people as “Bengalis”. They face movement restrictions because they are seen by the ethnic Rakhine people as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though most have lived in Myanmar for generations.

Many who live in isolated communities in northern parts of Rakhine cannot travel freely from village to village. Those who live in the IDP camps around Sittwe can only leave in exceptional cases, such as medical emergencies.

“Leave right now or die”

The lack of freedom of movement has an enormous impact on the ability of people affected by violence to rebuild their lives. Many fishermen cannot access the sea, many farmers cannot access their fields and many traders no longer have normal access to the markets. Without control of their livelihoods, hundreds of thousands of people in Rakhine simply cannot break free from their dependence on humanitarian aid.

A case in point is 55-year-old Aung Maung Sein. He used to live near the beach in Sittwe. But in 2012, he was given a stark choice by a mob armed with machetes: “Leave right now without your belongings, or die.”

Aung now lives in an IDP camp and runs a small corner shop. Despite living only a few kilometres from the local market, he cannot leave the camp to buy and sell goods. Instead, he is forced to sell a proportion of the food his family receives each month from aid agencies in order to pay for other basic necessities, such as medicine and firewood. He is getting poorer every month.

Finding the right balance in aid

The ethnic Rakhine people also have significant needs, and they argue that international aid is biased in favour of Muslims. Rakhine is one of the least developed states in Myanmar and poverty prevails in all communities. Rakhine community leaders point out that the number of longer-term development projects for Rakhine people is woefully inadequate. Following last month’s attacks, most of these projects have stopped.

In the short term, humanitarian and development activities urgently need to restart. In the long term, the Myanmar Government and the international aid community need to look closer at the issues of freedom of movement, citizenship, livelihoods and development for the benefit of all communities.

Ms. Dessallien proposes that the events in Sittwe could be an opportunity to reframe the work of NGOs and the UN. “As international humanitarian and development organizations return to Rakhine, we need to take the opportunity to build back better,” she said.

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