It’s been an abysmal year so far for Myanmar’s heavily-persecuted Rohingya ethnic minority. In mid-January, an alleged massacre of up to 40 people near the town of Maungdaw in the country’s western Rakhine state shook the community. Then the government of Myanmar — formerly Burma — officially denied the report, despite evidence to the contrary.
In February, one of the largest providers of essential medical support in the country, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), was expelled from Rakhine after stating that it had treated 22 victims of the massacre-that-wasn’t.
Consequently, there were 150 preventable deaths — 20 of those from women in labor — and almost 750,000 people “deprived of most medical services,” according to estimates cited by the New York Times in mid-March.
The government, which operates from Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city, attempted to justify the expulsion by charging that MSF had shown “bias” toward the minority, whose medical needs dwarf those of their ethnic Rakhine neighbors.
Approximately a month after this, the humanitarian situation for the minority deteriorated even further, after NGOs fled Rakhine en masse in the wake of targeted mob attacks in Sittwe, the state capital. The violence was prompted by what local Rakhines perceived as an “insult” to Buddhism, the removal of a politically-significant religious flag by an aid worker, who sought to maintain the neutrality of her employer’s physical space.
In what even government-backed assessments have described as an excuse for a riot, Rakhine mobs systematically attacked NGO aid stocks, offices, and residences of workers over a two-day period. A statement by a UN representative described the events as an “attack on the entire humanitarian response in Rakhine State.”
The effect of these incidents on the 140,000 or so Rohingya confined to internally displaced person (IDP) camps after being left homeless by mob violence in 2012, has been huge.
Outlining the urgency of the situation in the wake of the attacks, Pierre Peron of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told VICE News, “Water levels are running critically low in some places, and people with life-threatening medical conditions are not being taken to hospitals.” These developments compound the pre-existing humanitarian crisis in the camps.
Despite the dramatic shortfall in aid, the government has assured the international community that it will do its best to fill the enormous aid gap left by MSF and the recently evacuated organizations.
However, documents leaked to VICE News by a source close to events in Rakhine state, detailing discussions in several meetings between the government and the World Health Organization (WHO), directly contradict the government’s claims and imply that the government has in fact turned down or delayed responding to offers from foreign aid agencies to bolster the nation’s humanitarian capacity. The effect of such negligent responses, according to the contact who leaked the material, was all too obvious.
“People are dying,” the source said.
One of the documents reveals the extremely poor state of the government’s medical aid capabilities: only “five mobile teams” are available to cover the shortfall for the entire state, but with only two ambulance, but — as subsequent notes record — “in reality [there are only] two, as they only have two ambulances from the Myanmar Red Cross.”
Despite this state of affairs, the leaked papers also record that Myanmar’s Ministry of Health (MoH) refused WHO’s offer of additional funding. Making matters worse, Burmese authorities began rejecting travel authorizations for NGOs. Even pre-approved authorizations were being revoked, according to minutes from face-to-face meetings between WHO and government officials.
Dr. Soe Lwin Nyein, MoH’s deputy director general, told WHO and selected NGO representatives that the travel limitations were “for [their] security.”
At the same meeting, he was presented with a comprehensive offer of “[h]uman and logistical resources, and medical supplies” — encompassing dozens of doctors, nurses, drivers, hundreds of aid items, and two speedboats, sourced “from five different NGOs that are willing to integrate with the MoH” to improve the humanitarian response. He replied that he agreed to the offer “in principle,” but no decision was made at the time whether to accept the offer of assistance or not.
At the time of writing, there was no indication that the second of these offers had been accepted by the government. A well-placed international NGO source, who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity, said the deputy director “stalled and said he needed more details. When a meeting was requested for that week he said he was very busy…As far as I know they only took a vehicle and a couple of staff from [one foreign NGO] which was not part of this offer.”
Sources on the ground in the largest cluster of camps for IDP, near Sittwe, who likewise did not wish to be named for their own safety, said they had not seen any mobile clinics, doctors, or nurses — or indeed any noticeable increase in aid since the meeting, which was held April 8. They also said that only one doctor, a Rohingya, was available.
“The humanitarian situation was awful before aid groups were evicted, and now it's even worse,” Matthew Smith, of Bangkok-based Fortify Rights told VICE News. “The government has effectively denied food, water, lifesaving health aid, and other basic provisions for displaced Rohingya.”
“Preventable deaths are a reality in the camps, and that is a direct result of deplorable decisions made by Naypyidaw. The denial of aid is not an accident,” he observed, pointedly.
At the time of writing, indications are that full NGO assistance will not be resumed until the end of April at the earliest. While some travel authorizations have finally been approved for the coming week, an outstanding issue remains a concerted Rakhine campaign to completely undermine NGO operations throughout the state.
According to reports, the names and addresses of some aid workers have even been posted on social networking sites by hostile Rakhines. Hotels in the area still refuse to take in NGO staff, under pressure from Rakhine campaigners. One source told VICE News that members of MSF had been targeted for intimidation so frequently that its staff members were receiving psychological counseling every month to cope, prior to their expulsion.
With the upcoming rainy season set to hit the camps just as NGOs return, the likely spread of water-borne diseases and the threat of cyclones from the Bay of Bengal will further worsen the prospects for the Rohingya minority, especially as many IDP clusters are located on flood plains.
According to Smith though, the minority’s potentially disastrous fate is ultimately linked more to government policy than to Rakhine aggression or the threat of natural disasters.
“The government is not only failing to promote Rohingya human rights, it's actively abusing them. Abuses by state security forces, such as killings, have occurred with impunity, and aid is being systematically denied,” he observed.
“These are policies and practices that promote the destruction of the Rohingya, plain and simple,” he added.