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Aid workers negotiate terms in Arakan

A Rohingya woman carrying her belongings as she moves to a safe place before Cyclone Mahasen was expected to land at an IDP camp near Sittwe, May 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

By Alex Bookbinder
May 2, 2014

Representatives from UN agencies and NGOs met with the Arakan State Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC) in Sittwe today, marking the second formal discussion between the government-led body and aid agencies since the suspension of most humanitarian operations in the state in late March.

After the previous meeting, which occurred on 23 April, ECC member Than Tun, a leader in the local Arakanese Buddhist community, told the media that humanitarian agencies would require explicit permission from the ECC to operate in the state, and that they would have to inform the centre of their planned activities seven days in advance.

Most humanitarian agencies with operations in Arakan have existing memoranda of understanding with “line ministries” in Naypyidaw, which provide a legal basis for their activities. Subjecting them to an additional layer of scrutiny through the mechanism of the ECC has raised fears that agencies will be forced to compromise on principles of humanitarian impartiality in order to be allowed to operate.

If the ECC, in its current incarnation, is allowed to have final say over how aid is distributed, it may force agencies to divert aid away from the neediest communities. While many Arakanese Buddhists live in abject poverty and insecurity, most Rohingya Muslims are far more vulnerable, as they are subject to mobility restrictions and confined to camps lacking in basic supplies.

At the previous meeting, ECC representatives said that two NGOs that previously operated in the state, MSF-Holland and Malteser International, would not be allowed to resume their activities in the state.

The requirement that humanitarian operations receive prior authorisation from the ECC was not originally intended to be part of its mandate. Establishing a humanitarian coordination centre for Arakan was originally proposed by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in 2012 as a way to improve communication between state and union governments and humanitarian practitioners in the wake of anti-Rohingya violence. The formal mechanism was merely intended to keep all stakeholders informed of humanitarian activities permitted under existing memoranda of understanding, not establish new hurdles for humanitarian agencies to clear.

Aid agencies operating Arakan State have drawn widespread derision from its Arakanese Buddhist majority, many of whom feel that their provision of aid is unduly biased towards Rohingya Muslims. Two days before Friday’s meeting, UNICEF Myanmar organised a press conference in Rangoon outlining its activities in Rakhine, where Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF’s top official in Burma, made an effort to clear up perceptions of biased aid delivery.

“UNICEF [follows] the same principles as the United Nations, which are principles of neutrality, impartiality, and dignity. We are providing our support based on needs, not based on ethnicity [or] religion,” he said.

“Needs are not the same across all communities. Needs are different. If you’ve been part of a family who’s been displaced, who’s living in a camp, of course your environment is much more fragile, and you become much more vulnerable.”

Bainvel emphasised the need for “long-term” development in Arakan, the second-poorest state in Burma, to move past recurring violence. The timing of his comments may have been intended to set a tone for today’s talks with the ECC, sending a clear message that UNICEF is unwilling to compromise on the principles of humanitarian neutrality that inform its activities.

The perpetually worsening humanitarian situation in Arakan, affecting hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, has drawn increased attention from the international community. On an official visit to Malaysia last week, US President Barack Obama said that “Myanmar [Burma] won’t succeed” if it continues to oppress its Muslim population, and on Friday, Vijay Nambiar, the UN Secretary-General’s special advisor on Myanmar, urged Myanmar to redress the Rohingya’s lack of citizenship, claiming that a failure to do so would “affect the international reputation of the country.”

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