14 May 2014

A Rohingya woman and child in a camp in Bangladesh (UNHCR).

The latest round of talks to restore humanitarian access in Arakan State – held on 8 May in Sittwe between Burma’s Ministry of Health, the state-level Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC), UN agencies and implementing partner NGOs – came and went with no real progress, sources familiar with the negotiations have told DVB.

Than Tun, a local Arakanese Buddhist community leader and member of the ECC, said that he was against further assistance to bolster the capacity of the existing hospital in the Dar Paing camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Sittwe, one of the largest around the city.

“We see that the IDP camps are only here temporarily, and so their hospital should also be temporary and it doesn’t need to be permanent,” he said. “We are worried that giving the [IDPs] a permanent hospital will imply that they have a permanent status to stay here.”

Than Tun’s assertion is deeply worrying, as it indicates that the ECC has become a platform for Arakanese nationalists to demonstrate their aversion to both international NGOs and the union government – a far cry from its original mandate as an apolitical forum for humanitarian coordination.

The ECC currently has no power to reject offers of aid in its own right, as the activities of humanitarian organisations in Burma are defined through memoranda of understanding between themselves and union-level ministries.

At the Arakan National Conference held in late April, Arakanese nationalist groups called on international NGOs to deliver aid in a “balanced” manner between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, but also made demands of Naypyidaw that included equitable distribution of natural gas revenues. Unwilling to further inflame nationalist passions in the run-up to the 2015 elections, the union government appears to have buckled to their demands and undermined international relief efforts in the name of political expediency.

The most prominent example of this dynamic at play was the expulsion of Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland (MSF) from Arakan in early March. The organisation was the primary healthcare provider for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, primarily Rohingya Muslims, across the state, and the Ministry of Health quickly pledged to fill the healthcare void left by their departure. But its response has so far been inadequate, with basic medicines and nutritional assistance in short supply, and with few healthcare professionals to deliver care.

Subject to severe mobility restrictions and rendered stateless by decree, the residents of Dar Paing and other IDP camps have nowhere else to go. Thousands are in need of basic healthcare, food and sanitation. Numerous offers of assistance from UN agencies and NGOs have been rejected by both union- and state-level authorities, and assistance to displaced people in northern Arakan has been minimal to nonexistent.

The incipient monsoon season, set to unleash its full wrath on Arakan soon, is another major point of concern. “The main priority now is to restart the humanitarian aid mechanism before the monsoon hits; as soon as possible,” UN spokesman Aye Win told DVB. “We learned the health conditions in displacement camps – for both communities – are extremely dire in some areas, and we are working to resume aid work amid these issues.”

Despite the political machinations going on behind the scenes, Dr. Liviu Vedrasco, the Health Cluster coordinator for the World Health Organisation in Burma, told DVB that the Ministry of Health has been amenable to cooperation. “The situation is not ideal, but offers of assistance have been accepted. There are nearly 100 medical personnel that are forming joint teams and going to IDP camps, but maybe not as often as they used to in the past,” he said.

Cooperation between NGOs and the government’s mobile health teams sent to replace MSF has increased markedly from just a few weeks ago, with 75 percent of the health professionals involved in their operations coming from health cluster partner organisations. Vedrasco said that the partners are currently “happy” with their level of participation in the aid delivery process, and that “we want to increase … the total number of healthcare providers and ultimately improve the access for the beneficiaries.”

Denying life-saving aid as a “push factor” to force the Rohingya to flee may constitute a crime against humanity, observers have warned in recent months. In his final report to the UN Human Rights Council, published in March, the outgoing special rapporteur on Burma, Tómas Ojea Quintana accused the government of “failing to address the systematic discrimination and marginalisation of the Rohingya community”, and at a conference in London last month, he claimed “there are elements of genocide in Rakhine [Arakan] with respect to Rohingya.”

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