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INGOs return to Sittwe, with new strings attached

By Wa Lone
May 19, 2014

The United Nations says aid groups in Rakhine State are running at less than 50 percent of normal capacity, despite most having been allowed to return to the state following violence in late March.

Protesters hold placards during a protest against Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland in the Rakhine State capital Sittwe on February 22. Photo: AFP

The UN and INGOs are also being forced to receive approval for their operations from a new body, the Emergency Coordination Committee (ECC), which comprises representatives from the humanitarian community, Rakhine civil society, and the regional and national governments.

So far, 23 international groups have returned to the state with approval from the committee, with the first returning on April 24.

But the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that despite resuming operations less than one-third of the humanitarian staff relocated from Sittwe when rioters targeted their offices and residences on March 26 and 27 have been able to return.

INGOs and UN agencies are running at less than 50pc of normal capacity because of “continuous difficulties in finding accommodation for staff and other logistical constraints”, with some foreign staff forced to live in hotels.

As a result, some communities in Rakhine – both Muslim and Buddhist – are missing out on vital health assistance, as well as access to water and sanitation. “The impending rainy season will likely aggravate the impact on vulnerable people, since the risks of an outbreak of infectious diseases will increase,” said Pierre Peron, a spokesperson for UNOCHA. “Operations need to be scaled up as soon as possible.”

U Win Myaing, a spokesperson for the Rakhine State government, said all groups except Malteser International and Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland (MSF) would be allowed to return.

The government forced MSF to leave the state at the end of February under fierce protests from the Rakhine community, which alleged the group was biased toward the state’s Muslims. The clashes in March were sparked by allegations that the head of Malteser had mishandled a Buddhist flag, a charge that was later dismissed by a government investigation team.

U Than Tun, a member of the ECC, said international aid groups would have to accept greater scrutiny of their activities. He said the ECC has already rejected two projects because the organisations that proposed them were “not transparent”.

The state government has also ordered the groups to relocate their residences and offices to the southern part of Sittwe township, near the Sittwe Prison, for “security reasons”, he said.

“We don’t allow them to do whatever they want like before, when the Rakhine people were not told what they were doing in our own region,” he said. “They interfered in political affairs and they broke their memorandums of understanding – they were meant to be doing health projects but they built mosques instead.”

But Mr Peron said all international humanitarian organisations in Rakhine State have been operating within the terms of their letters of agreement and memorandums of understanding issued by the Union Government and relevant line ministries.

“We look forward to engaging further with the government and communities through the ECC, while continuing to provide information on ongoing operations in the spirit of transparency,” he said.

But not all agree with the restrictions on humanitarian groups. Ko Tun Lin from the Sittwe Rakhine Social Network said the ECC members were not real representatives of Rakhine civil society.

“I don’t think they have rights to restrain the NGOs from doing their projects,” he said.

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