Five years on, what next for Rakhine State?

by Aitor Sanchez Lacomba | International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Friday, 9 June 2017 14:49 GMT

A Rohingya fisherman fixes a net in a refugee camp outside Kyaukpyu in Rakhine state, Myanmar May 18, 2017. Picture Taken May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Boost in immediate assistance and longer-term strategic aid is more urgent than ever

In June 2012, widespread rioting and clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims that captured global headlines left scores dead and displaced nearly 150,000 in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state, one of the nation’s poorest.

Five years on, as we mark this grim anniversary, nearly 100,000 people remain in IDP camps on the outskirts of Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital. Nearly all of those displaced were stateless Muslims who self-identify as Rohingya, a group whose rights and freedoms have been successively stripped away since the early 1980s. Their very existence as an ethnic category is refuted by the Myanmar authorities, who regularly assert that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. To date, tenable and dignified solutions for these thousands of displaced people remain a distant prospect – only further exacerbating the wider underdevelopment across Rakhine State and persistent humanitarian challenges that endanger the quest for an inclusive and peaceful democracy in Myanmar, and the conclusion of the world’s longest-running civil war.

In the aftermath of the violence that swept across Rakhine five years ago, internally-displaced Rohingya were housed in temporary structures in Sittwe’s camps with as many as ten families under the same roof. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these families continue to endure the same conditions – as well as longstanding and heavy restrictions on their freedom of movement. What’s more, a recent IRC analysis has revealed that the poor shelter conditions – which fall below international humanitarian standards – have and continue to increase the risk of domestic and sexual violence, child marriage, and the outbreak and likelihood of death from preventable diseases communicated where space and hygiene are constrained. The IRC’s assessment found specifically that the caseload for these diseases – like tuberculosis – is nearly ten times higher within Rakhine’s camps than outside. Far from respecting the dignity, safety and health of Rakhine’s internally-displaced persons, these humanitarian conditions only further weaken prospects of peace between the government and its constituents.

In response to the ongoing crisis in Rakhine, the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State proposed a series of measures to the Government of Myanmar towards the closure of the camps, including longer-term measures to support reintegration of Rakhine’s IDPs. While the IRC is in agreement with the report’s recommendation to close the camps, it is important to note that such a strategy should not detract from immediate efforts to improve these otherwise debilitating, and undignified, conditions, with any ongoing and future initiatives based on community needs and non-discriminatory in their approach.

Indeed, a boost in immediate assistance and longer-term strategic aid – as well as its full and unimpeded delivery – by the international community in key areas such as food security, disaster risk reduction and urgent support to public services is more urgent than ever in Myanmar to meet both growing and long-standing humanitarian need and to boost economic development in restive states. Development aid and private sector investment is also welcome and much needed, however it is essential that initiatives are conflict-sensitive to avoid exacerbating existing tensions.

As Myanmar’s multiple, decades-old ethnic conflicts – including in Northern Shan and Kachin States - continue to drag on despite renewed efforts to achieve peace, over half a  million people across the country are in dire humanitarian need and almost a quarter of a million remain displaced. Across Rakhine and other states, the IRC has been responding to ongoing needs of Myanmar’s most vulnerable people to help them survive, recover and gain control of their future reaching over 185,000 people during 2016 alone.

The ability of INGOs like the IRC to meet urgent need and help shepherd much-needed development is imperiled by consistent and worsening lack of resources. The United Nations’ appeal remains critically underfunded - reaching barely over a third of the overall ask - an all the more worrying state of affairs as the United States, heralded with bringing democracy to Myanmar and the world’s largest humanitarian donor, proposes drastic cuts to foreign assistance. 

Five years on, Rakhine remains the ultimate test case for Myanmar. Meeting urgent humanitarian need and taking concrete, and dignified, steps towards resolving protracted displacement - themselves indispensable towards fulfilling the rights of all the country’s constituents, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender - are pivotal to the success and stability of one of Asia’s newest democracies, and a beacon of hope for the region.

Aitor Sanchez Lacomba is Country Director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Myanmar