3 April 2014
Burma Times: Recent mob attacks on United Nations and NGO premises in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe are likely to have far-reaching implications, with a UN agency saying “hundreds of thousands of people” have been severely affected by the subsequent downscaling of operations.
Remote communities that were being supported by NGOs are likely to face crippling and potentially life-threatening shortages of potable water, food and health services in the coming weeks and months, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement released on April 2.
More than 170 humanitarian and development staff were pulled from the region when a mob attacked the office of aid group Malteser.
While the looting was reportedly sparked by an incident in which a foreign aid worker removed a Buddhist flag from the front of the organisation’s office, anti-NGO sentiment had been simmering for months due to the perception that foreign organisations are biased toward the state’s Muslim population. Tensions have only been heightened by the national census, which began on March 30.
“The violence on the 26 and 27 March, during which UN and NGO offices, living quarters, and warehouses were seriously damaged or looted, was the culmination of months of increasing intimidation and harassment of humanitarian staff and local suppliers by a vocal minority of the Rakhine community,” read the latest release from UNOCHA.
UNOCHA says organisations will not be able to continue with providing potable water, food supplies and health services to displaced people and remote villages, both Buddhist and Muslim.
Rakhine State is in the throes of dry season, and UNOCHA said water scarcity could hit critical levels in some IDP camps, particularly those in Pauktaw township. Reuters reported on April 2 that 20,000 people in camps near Sittwe will run out of drinking water “within 10 days”, while food supplies are likely to be depleted within the next two weeks.
While apparently a temporary measure, the government’s controversial decision to expel Médecins Sans Frontières from Rakhine State is affecting access to life-saving medical treatment, including the provision of anti-retroviral medicine for HIV-positive people.
The severe cutbacks to NGO and UN agency operations and distribution channels in Rakhine State means there will be “enormous” challenges distributing the 1300 metric tonnes of food needed by communities over the next two weeks.
Rakhine State health official U Aung Thurein told The Myanmar Times on February 27 he was confident the state government could “fill in the gaps” following MSF’s departure “with the help of the [Union] Ministry of Health and other NGOs”.
The New York Times reported on March 13 that 150 preventable deaths had occurred as a direct consequence of the MSF shutdown.
UNOCHA said the reduction in support as a result of the recent violence means 15,000 children in IDP camps no longer have access to psycho-social support and treatment for some 300 children with severe malnutrition has been suspended.
“The health system in Rakhine had already been severely impacted by the suspension of MSF-Holland in February, and now health services for most of the 140,000 displaced people in Rakhine and over 700,000 vulnerable people outside camps is severely hampered, particularly in terms of life-saving emergency medical referrals,” Liviu Vedrasco, the health cluster coordinator for the World Health Organization in Myanmar, was quoted as saying in the UNOCHA statement.
UN agencies, NGOs and MSF are negotiating with union and state governments so that humanitarian activities can restart.
A UN delegation led by resident and humanitarian coordinator Renata Dessallien and national heads of UN agencies returned from Sittwe on April 4 after visiting IDP camps and meeting government officials.
“What happened in Sittwe last week was not just an attack on international organisations, but an attack on the entire humanitarian response in Rakhine State,” Ms Dessallien said in the UNOCHA statement.
“We have had constructive discussions with the Myanmar authorities, who have assured us that their international obligations to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian staff will be met. Our main priority now is to work with the government to put the necessary conditions in place to allow more than 1000 humanitarian staff to get back to work to assist vulnerable people from all communities.”
A report in the state-run New Light of Myanmar on April 4 said the Japanese government had pledged some US$16 million to support UNICEF, UNHCR and World Food Programme operations in conflict-afflicted ethnic areas, including Kachin and Rakhine states.
The Japanese government reportedly pledged more than $2.5 million to UNICEF in order to “help children affected by conflict in Rakhine and Kachin States to access life-saving services such as clean water, sanitation, life-saving medicines to treat diarrhoea, pneumonia and other diseases”.
The funding boost will reportedly see both lactating women and children suffering from severe acute malnutrition receive “multi-nutrient sprinkles and tablets”.
The state newspaper also reported that Japan – the largest single donor to WFP operations in the country – will provide support to the Myanmar government in addressing “issues related to citizenship”.