Myanmar government must protect aid staff in Rakhine - rights group

by Thomson Reuters Foundation | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 19 February 2013 12:49 GMT
The government must stop extremists intimidating aid workers in western Myanmar, and the aid agencies helping displaced Rohingya must communicate better with the Rakhines, Human Rights Watch says

BANGKOK (AlertNet) – The Myanmar government’s failure to protect aid workers from threats and intimidation by extremists in Rakhine State is “unconscionable,” Human Rights Watch told AlertNet following reports  that such action was impeding efforts to help tens of thousands of displaced people.

Sectarian clashes in 2012 between Buddhist Rakhines and stateless Rohingya Muslims displaced more than 110,000 people in western Myanmar, the vast majority of them Rohingya.

Humanitarian needs are high and concern is rising over living conditions in some camps as the rainy season approaches, but some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) cannot deliver aid because of an “intimidation campaign” aimed especially at local staff , in the form of pamphlets, phone calls and personal pressure, the rights group said.

“If you’re Rohingya, there’s the potential threat of being attacked. If you’re Arakanese, the concern is that you’re seen as collaborating with international humanitarians who only support the Rohingya,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW in Asia, said on Tuesday, using the former name of the Rakhine.

“The government’s failure to really stare down the Arakanese community and their intimidation tactics against the humanitarian community and against the Rohingya is unconscionable,” he said.

A “looming humanitarian crisis” faces some 20,000 people living in paddy fields that are flooded during the annual monsoon, he said. If they are not moved soon, they could be living in stagnant water and facing water-borne diseases within months, Robertson said.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) released a strongly worded statement on Feb. 7 saying that antagonism towards its staff was making it difficult to provide services.

“The hostility being expressed towards the delivery of assistance is the single biggest issue preventing a more appropriate level of response,” Vickie Hawkins, MSF’s deputy country manager in Myanmar, told AlertNet via e-mail.


Myanmar's Buddhist-majority government, which has vowed to forge unity in one of Asia's ethnically most diverse nations, regards the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in the country as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Bangladesh also does not recognise them. They are officially stateless and the United Nations has referred to them as "virtually friendless".

Thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar each year on rickety boats seeking refuge and jobs in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and nearly 6,000 have arrived in Thailand since last year’s clashes.

HRW’s Robertson said the Myanmar government should intervene and tell the hardline nationalists it would not permit intimidation. “People need to receive support and there needs to be non-discrimination in aid delivery,” he said.

The Rakhines have alleged aid agency bias in favour of the Rohingya, but the few remaining displaced Rakhines receive enough support, Robertson said.

“Their men and sons are able to go out and find jobs and they have freedom of movement. The Rohingya are locked down in these displacement camps, unable to leave and wholly dependent on international humanitarian assistance,” he said.


Kirsten Mildren, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), said aid agencies needed to communicate better with local communities in Rakhine State.

Until now, aid agencies have chosen to keep a low profile, but “that’s been unhelpful because we’ve done nothing to try to address the perceptions that are out there. We haven’t engaged the local media at all,” she told AlertNet.

UN OCHA commissioned an independent study in January and February on the perception of bias and how people get information, said Mildren. “Based on that, we are now able to understand what we’re up against and … (how) to engage the communities better,” she said.

The survey found local people wanted simply to know who the organisations were, how long they would be there and whether they were providing aid to both communities, she said.  “Everyone deserves to know that information,” and UN OCHA is encouraging aid agencies to change their approach, Mildren said.

“We’d still argue that there needs to be a scale-up of services, and in terms of community engagement the U.N. and NGOs really have to work to change perceptions in the community.” 

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