RANGOON — A high-level UN mission has flown to Arakan State to discuss with Burmese government officials a plan for responding to the withdrawal of international aid workers as well as a looming shortage of food and water for tens of thousands of vulnerable people.
Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said a mission of the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator and the heads of several UN agencies in the country traveled on Tuesday to the state capital of Sittwe, where aid agencies are based, and continued meetings on Wednesday with state-level authorities as well as the deputy minister of border affairs, usually based in Naypyidaw.
A team led by Burma’s vice president and the minister of immigration and population has also been sent to the state, which is simultaneously in the middle of a controversial census.
Peron said the UN mission and government officials would discuss a strategy for creating conditions for the safe return of international aid workers, who have largely left Sittwe after their offices and homes were attacked by local Arakanese Buddhists who accused them of favoring Rohingya Muslims. He said both sides would consider a response to the supply shortages at camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), which rely on assistance from the aid groups.
“The government has the duty to ensure that people living there, whether in camps or other parts of the state, have assistance that they need,” he told The Irrawaddy. “If NGOs can’t provide it, the government has a responsibility to.”
He said about 120 aid workers had left Sittwe, including mostly foreign staff members or Burmese staff from other parts of the country. The bulk of Arakanese staff members have stayed in the city but are remaining at home and not working.
“As of now, no aid services are functioning in the region,” Ingo Radtke, secretary general of aid group Malteser International, said in a statement on Tuesday. The humanitarian group, which provides critical health care services for Rohingya Muslims as well as Arakanese Buddhists, said an estimated 90 percent of all premises of international relief organizations and of the United Nations in Sittwe had been attacked by unidentified groups. It added, however, that it was continuing its health care activities outside of Sittwe in the northern part of Arakan State.
Only a few NGOs have kept international staff in Sittwe, Peron said, adding that most UN staff members were still staying in the city. “But obviously the activities are very limited because the offices have been trashed,” he said.
The UN World Food Program (WFP), which provides food to IDP camps and other vulnerable populations, was targeted by protesters, but its stockpiles of food were not stolen or destroyed. However, Myint Myint, a spokeswoman for the WFP, told The Irrawaddy that food distributions had been temporarily suspended. “We are determined to continue providing life-saving humanitarian assistance to those in need,” he added.
The WFP typically works with NGOs to distribute food and water to IDP camps. Distributions had taken place normally over the past month, according to Peron, who said IDPs had enough food only for the next two weeks. If the NGO workers do not return to the state within that time, he said UN agencies would attempt to make the deliveries on their own. “That will be a challenge,” he added.
Water shortages are also a serious concern, especially as Burma approaches the height of the dry season. At two camps in Pauktaw Township that are only accessible by boat, the water supply will reach “critical levels” within eight to 10 days, Peron said. He added that boats were damaged during the attacks, but that the government was providing new boats to reach the camps with UN funding for fuel. “That’s a short-term measure, but in the medium to long term we really need the NGOs to come back,” he said.
He said the biggest concern in Arakan State was a lack of health services. In the past, international NGOs were responsible for offering medical care and making referrals for patients at IDP camps and in isolated communities. “People aren’t getting to hospitals when they need to,” he said.
The situation in Sittwe has reportedly calmed since last Wednesday and Thursday, when the offices and residences of at least nine UN agencies and international NGOs were destroyed by hundreds of Arakanese people. Aid workers were not injured in the attacks, but an 11-year-old Arakanese girl was killed by a stray bullet after police fired warning shots to disperse a mob.
The riots were sparked by allegations that a staff member of Malteser International improperly handled a Buddhist flag—a claim which the aid group denies. Humanitarian workers say the attacks were not an isolated incident, but rather the culmination of months of community resistance against international NGOs and UN agencies, which have angered Arakanese Buddhists by providing support to the Rohingya, a stateless and impoverished Muslim minority.
Many Arakanese are opposed to the Rohingya, which they accuse of coming to Burma illegally from Bangladesh. Communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the state since 2012 has left scores dead and displaced more than 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya.
Over the weekend, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon personally called Burmese President Thein Sein and urged protection for UN and international aid workers. He also asked the Burma government to ensure a peaceful and credible census in the state, as enumerators have refused to record information for anyone identifying as Rohingya, following government orders.
Thein Sein has set up a five-member investigation team led by the deputy minister of border affairs to question international organizations as well as the Arakan State government about the violence of last week. The findings will be sent to the president by next Monday.
The Burmese Muslim Association (BMA) noted that the attacks on aid organizations were preceded by the visit of nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu to Arakan State last month. Wirathu has led an anti-Muslim campaign known as the 969 movement over the past year.
In a statement on Monday, the UK-based BMA said the riots in Sittwe were the latest evidence of a systematic targeting of international agencies that assist the Rohingya, and it accused authorities of being unwilling to provide protection. “With humanitarian space in Arakan State clearly under threat, the international community must rethink its strategy of engagement with Burmese authorities and consider the deployment of … international security observers to ensure the safety of aid agencies as well as the security of Rohingya people in Arakan State,” it said.