RANGOON — Twenty Arakanese Buddhist civil society groups from 17 townships in Arakan State announced on Sunday that they have set up a “UN, INGO Watch Team” that will monitor international aid operations for the Rohingya Muslim minority in the state.
The move is a further sign that Arakanese nationalist groups are trying to exert a degree of control over operations by the United Nations and international aid groups, which have resumed in Arakan State in the past month.
“Our team will investigate what those INGOs are doing. We will approach them if we found that our local people did not like what they are doing, and we will inform [the aid groups] about it,” said Nyo Aye, an Arakanese women’s rights activist.
“There was a bad understanding between our local people and aid NGOs in the past. Our network will negotiate between the two sides. They will suggest what [aid groups] should do in order to have a better understanding with the locals,” she said.
Nyo Aye added that about 100 Arakanese civil society representatives met in Sittwe on Sunday to discuss the initiative.
The Arakanese Buddhist community is virulently anti-Rohingya and opposes any international humanitarian aid support for the group, a stateless Muslim minority that suffers from malnutrition and a range of other health problems because of a lack access to government services.
Northern Arakan State saw waves of violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012 that left scores dead and more than 140,000 people displaced.
In late March, controversy over the inclusion of the term ‘Rohingya’ in a UN-backed nationwide census sparked riots by Arakanese mobs, which ransacked offices, apartments, storage facilities and transport vehicles of the UN and international NGOs. Most aid workers were forced to flee Sittwe, bringing operations that provided vital support to the Rohingya to an end.
Since April 24, international aid organizations have returned and the Burmese government has pledged to help them resume operations, but there have been reports that aid groups are facing increased restrictions during their work.
One factor limiting the resumption of full-scale operations is a lack of available accommodation, perhaps indicating unwillingness on the part of the Arakanese residents to rent out property to the returning aid organizations.
“[W]hile access to communities in need of humanitarian assistance has resumed, most international NGOs in [Arakan] report that they are still operating at less than 50 percent of their normal capacity as a result of the continued difficulties in finding accommodation for staff and other logistical constraints,” said Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
He said 16 UN agencies and 10 aid organizations are currently active in Arakan, adding that 188 out of 363 foreign and local aid staff stationed in Sittwe before the riots have now returned.
“However, given the urgent humanitarian needs in [Arakan], operations need to be scaled up as soon as possible. At the moment, the greatest gaps and needs are in health, as well as water and sanitation. The rainy season will likely aggravate the impact on vulnerable people, since the risks of an outbreak of infectious diseases will increase,” Peron said.
Asked about the Arakanese plans for a “UN, INGO Watch Team,” Peron said the UN welcomed “any individual or group which seeks to improve the delivery of humanitarian and development assistance to all needy communities.”
Following the riots, Burmese government said the UN and international organizations should improve their cooperation with the local Arakanese community and it set up the Emergency Coordination Center (ECC). The government allowed Arakanese leaders to join the ECC, which comprises the Ministry of Health, state authorities, UN agencies and aid NGOs.
DVB reported that Arakanese leaders at the ECC recently sought to block the planned construction of an emergency hospital for displaced Rohingya Muslims in Dar Paing camp near Sittwe.
Aid groups are reportedly now also required to seek prior approval of local Arakan State authorities before they can carry out operations in an area.
Both the central government and Arakan State authorities have been accused of committing human rights abuses against the Rohingya and supporting the Buddhist community in the inter-communal conflict.
Rohingya activist Aung Win told The Irrawaddy that aid operations had only resumed on a limited scale so far. “There are only local staffers who work on the ground. I do not see any foreigners yet,” he said.
He said the government’s indefinite ban on operations by Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) Holland in Arakan State in February was having a particularly devastating impact on health conditions of the Rohingya population.
“There are many difficulties for our people after MSF left. I found more people died because of poor treatment,” Aung Win said. “Our people did not trust health treatment by the government. So they do not want to go to the hospital in Sittwe. I know four people died last week as they could not get good treatment at the camps.
“Some serious cases require specialist doctors for treatment, but there are no specialists after MSF left.”
Aung Win said he knew of one case of a 24-year-old Aids patient named Ba Sein who died on May 24 at Maw Son Nya camp near Sittwe, after MSF treatment with antiretroviral drugs had stopped.