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The Aid Groups and the Most Persecuted Rohingya

Nine-year-old Tin Aung Zin, who is in a coma, is held by his sister in their house near the Thet Kae Pyin camp for internally displaced people in Sittwe, Rakhine state, April 23, 2014. (Photo: Reuters/Minzayar)

Ro Mayyu Ali
RB Opinion
January 24, 2017

The facts and information mentioned in this piece of writing represent neither any national or international organization in Northern Rakhine State, nor the views of any official person in local or state authorities. Moreover, the author does not wish to cause any trouble between the authorities and aid groups, their employees and employers. 

Myanmar is one of the least-developed countries in South East Asia. Rakhine State, situated in the north-west of Myanmar, on the border with Bangladesh, is the second poorest state among the seven states in the country. An estimated 1.3 million people in Rakhine State are Rohingya, regarded as the world’s most persecuted ethnic group.

During 1990, some groups of international non-governmental organizations, such as Medicine Sans Frontiers (MSF-Holland), Action Contre la Faim (ACF-French), Malteser International and CARE, as well as some United Nations agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), World Food Program (WFP), International Committee for Red Cross (ICRC) and UNICEF have been providing humanitarian aid in two of the Northern Rakhine State’s three townships, specifically in Maungdaw and Buthidaung.

Maungdaw, the border trading town, is the home of more than half a million people. There are 105 village tracts and 50,233 households in the township. In Buthidaung, there are more than 300,000 people, 86 village tracts and 42,871 households. 

Since the Rohingya people are persecuted by the Union and State governments, the hundreds of educated Rohingya who work for international organizations are the main targets of their oppression. For decades, this specific group of Rohingya people have been facing the worst of the human rights and civil rights violations in Myanmar.

Northern Rakhine State's maternal mortality rate is double that of Myanmar's national average, which, at 200 deaths per 100,000 live births, is already one of Asia's worst. In Buthidaung and Maungdaw, malnutrition rates rival those of war-torn regions in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Rohingya are therefore counted as the most vulnerable community in Northern Rakhine State. Thousands of Rohingya people in the townships have been surviving only because of the aid and medical assistance provided by international organizations. For the educated Rohingya, a job with those international organizations is the only opportunity they have as a professional, since their recruitment by civil services in Myanmar has been denied since 1970.


There are many types of criticisms and propaganda amongst the Buddhist community in Northern Rakhine State directed towards these organisations. They think that the recruitment policy of INGOs and international agencies is unfair. However, it is coherent that these organisations recruit more Rohingya candidates than Buddhists because most of the vulnerable people that require assistance are to be found in the Rohingya community. In order to be effective and to make progress with their activities, language is important, as well as an understanding of beliefs, and a sensitivity to approach, which are some of the concerns of modern organizations. INGOs and agencies in Northern Rakhine State do, nonetheless, respect the gender balance as well as ethnic balance during their recruitment. Compare this approach to the local authorities in Northern Rakhine State, who always disrespect Rohingya translators assisting in INGOs’ meetings.

Following the violence in Northern Rakhine State in June 2012, dozens of Rohingya aid workers, including Mr. Soe Myint and Ms. Nandar who worked for UNHCR Maungdaw Office, were detained for months and then released following intervention from the United Nations advocacy. Omar Farukh (a nutrition animator), Akbaal (a guard from ACF Maungdaw), Rafique (a counsellor) and Zafor (a driver) from MSF Maungdaw Offices, were incarcerated for years on accusations of involvement in arson in Maungdaw downtown. However, the staff were on duty on that day when the fires were started. At that time, blockage of humanitarian aid was used against the Rohingya and the activities of aid groups in Northern Rakhine State were suspended for more than 4 months. 

In October 2013, the violence again resumed in Du Chee Yar Tan Village tract, situated in Southern Maungdaw. It was a ruthlessly barbaric operation that included arson, shootings, arbitrary arrest, and the siege of the villagers to prevent them fleeing to save their lives. As a result, dozens of Rohingya, including children, were killed and many more were injured. At that time, since the village tract was covered by MSF, many patients received treatment from them.

When Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF-Holland) said that it had treated people it believed were victims of the violence near Maungdaw, the government expelled the group for favouring the Rohingyas. Myanmar authorities denied the attack took place. As a result, MSF work in Northern Rakhine State was suspended in February 2014. MSF's departure has had “a major humanitarian impact”, said Pierre Peron, spokesman for the United Nations' coordination agency UNOCHA. “MSF had built up a program over 20 years and it was reaching places that were very difficult to reach, and that's not something that can be done overnight,” he added.

However, the 1999’s Noble Peace Prize winning MSF was granted permission to resume their activities again in Northern Rakhine State after 8 months. Without doubt, MSF is the main medical haven for the Rohingya community in Northern Rakhine State. It is not because the Buddhist staff in government hospitals do not treat the Rohingya patients well, but because there are several restrictions in order to get medical accesses for the Rohingya. But in the last quarter of 2013, MSF treated approximately 9,000 patients every month, and about 1,000 pregnant women in the six clinics ran across Norther Rakhine. Over the same period, it also referred 160-200 people monthly to hospitals for life-saving treatment.

A recent study of poverty and health in Rakhine state by Mahmood Saad Mahmood for Harvard University shows vast disparities between the Rohingya and the Rakhine: There is only one physician per 140,000 Rohingya, but in the parts of Rakhine state dominated by the Rakhine, there is one doctor per 681 people. It is clear why most of the vulnerable Rohingya community prefer MSF treatment to that of state-run hospitals and clinics in Northern Rakhine. For the Myanmar government, MSF is seen as the great opposing medical organization that treats the Rohingya and saves Rohingya lives in one of Myanmar's poorest and most remote regions. However, lifesaving is MSF’s medical ethic for eligible people, regardless of their race, religion, color, gender or class. 

Some governmental orchestrated protests against MSF and other INGOs and agencies have been conducted throughout Rakhine State after the violence in June 2012. ‘Get out, MSF!’ and ‘Get out, INGOs!’ are the kinds of aggressive banners that were used during the protests. Some logos of international organizations were destroyed in Norther Rakhine State. The MSF and Malteser offices in Sittwe were attacked and demolished. Attempts to attack MSF foreigners and national staff in Sittwe airport were exposed. Rohingya staff were banned to attend any capacity building trainings in Yangon after June 2012. It seems that now it is the time of Myanmar authorities to annihilate both the targeted Rohingya people and those aid groups that try to save their lives in Rakhine State.

In this regard, aid groups have been facing several types of severe restrictions and tangible denials from local authorities in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships. Strategically, some Rohingya staff in UN agencies, who held the temporary the White Card, had to receive a National Verification Card (NVC) in order to attend capacity building trainings in Yangon in early of 2016. This has been perceived as an opportunity to trap the Rohingya aid workers.

Following the attack on 9th of October, again the flow of humanitarian aid was blocked and the activities in both Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships were suspended for a couple of months. 

On 14th of October, 2016, an educated Rohingya family in Aung Sit Pyin was targeted and detained in police custody. In the family, there are two aid workers who were arrested: Abul Foyas, who is a staff of MHDO, a local INGO that is the coordination partner of WFP (he also worked for WFP Maungdaw Office for years). Also, 56 year old Kareem Ullah, a former senior staff member, who has worked for WFP, FOA and UNHCR for years in the Maungdaw Office. On 16th of October, Kareem was tortured to death in Maungdaw police custody and his body was buried down in Kanyin Tan Myoma cemetery without even informing his family. (For more details, you can read However, Abul Foyas and his two relatives are still being held in custody, accused of involvement in attacks on Border Guard Police outposts. 

On the 18th December 2016, before the meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Myanmar, the Ministry of Security and Border Affairs approved the resumption of humanitarian activities in 117 village tracts in Maungdaw district. However, the flow of humanitarian aid to northern Maungdaw lasted for just 10 days. On 28th of December, the Ministry of Security and Border Affairs continued the area clearance operation in 45 village tracts, mostly in northern Maungdaw, again suspending the access of INGOs to those in the troubled part of the township. “We’re going to proceed the operations in 45 village tracts in northern Maungdaw. It is not good for security if they go to work in there,” said U Ye Htut, Maungdaw District Administrator. 

In addition, now the Rohingya aid workers must hold a Form 4 to pass from one village to another when they go to work. (Form 4 is an authorization letter that the Rohingya must hold to pass from one township to another). Firstly, they must apply to the Township Authorization and submit their activity plan to the District Administration Office. However, none of the team is allowed to stay overnight at the field level in Maungdaw, so have to return the same day. Sometimes this process is also delayed or denied. 

The Rohingya are already vulnerable, depending on humanitarian assistance. But when there is a conflict, firstly the Myanmar government stops the flow of humanitarian accesses to those most vulnerable of people. Blockage of humanitarian assistance to the conflict area is one of the main political weapons used by the Myanmar government. It is shocking that sometimes there is no direct access or distribution of humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable of the Rohingya people in Northern Rakhine State. 

Humanitarian assistance is essential and it is necessary to reach victims directly and on time. The free and direct assess of the aid to victims is the core value of all INGOs and UN organizations. They also respect the dignity and value of the people they help. However, international organizations in Myanmar seem somehow up for negotiation and bidding. They must be careful that they do not fall into the government’s traps. “Myanmar is perhaps one of the toughest nuts to crack in international diplomacy” says Azeem Ibrahim, a fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford.

Despite thousands of acutely malnourished children that are taken care of by UNICEF and ACF, as well as the hundreds of TB, HIV/AIDS and other chronic suffering patients taken care of by MSF and Malteser International in Northern Rakhine State, the Myanmar government has been denying access to humanitarian aid. “There is no malnutrition, at all. As 90% of harvesting is already finished, so it has no cause to lead the children to be malnourished in this area,” said Dr. U Myat Aye who visited with the Rakhine Commission in Maungdaw recently. As a children specialist, Dr. U Myat Aye should respect the medical ethics of the four mandates of Myanmar National Health Causes. 

Abul Foyas, a staff of MHDO, is still in detention in Maungdaw custody. It is illogical to accuse him of attacking the BGP outposts. He is clearly innocent as he was on duty that week. He should be released if it is not the case that Myanmar government targets the educated Rohingya who work for INGOs. International organizations must also work to protect their employees.

The Myanmar government is the perpetrator of ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingya. They never truly seek a sustainable resolution for the Rohingya minority. Why would they want to coordinate with any official advocate or international organisation to address the problem? It is no wonder that some of the culprits have premeditated their actions and know exactly what they are doing.

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