Attacks on NGO workers and offices in western Burma occurred last week after an international aid worker in the town of Sittwe removed a Buddhist flag that had been placed in front of the office. Tensions there are evidently at boiling point.
On Tuesday I spoke with a senior staff member with an international aid group there to get an update on the situation, and he explained on condition of anonymity that the total evacuation of foreign workers (and non-Rakhine nationals) from Sittwe was only the tip of the iceberg.
It is now effectively impossible for the international community to deliver any aid in Rakhine state, said the source, adding that the aid delivery infrastructure had been systematically made inoperable through intimidation and the destruction of the vehicles and boats used to deliver supplies in remote areas.
International groups had provided the vast majority of aid to camps in Rakhine state, which in total hold close to 200,000 displaced Rohingya Muslims, as well as Rakhine Buddhists. These attacks appear a major step towards isolating displaced Rohingya, who are largely dependent on aid.
Although foreign aid workers play a key role in the delivery of aid in the region, much of the day-to-day coordination and delivery is carried out by local Burmese workers. These Rakhine employees have been warned by their own communities not to participate in aid work and are denied basic services and even face threats of violence if they do not comply. Communities are reportedly cirulating lists containing the names of ‘betrayers’ who work with aid organizations.
The attacks on NGO offices have been far more extensive than reported, with suggestions that the violence was carefully planned. More than 30 different properties were attacked in last week’s incidents; a World Food Programme warehouse containing food for both communities was among seven warehouses destroyed.
Those behind the shutdown of aid operations in western Burma are not only targeting workers and properties, but also destroying the means by which the aid is delivered. Boats, in particular, are being targeted in the knowledge that they are the only way to access many of the refugee camps once rainy season begins.
The small handful of UN workers still in the town are being kept under heavy guard. The response of the Burmese government has been to send the army in and militarise Sittwe, a move that does nothing to restore aid delivery.
There has also been clarification on the incident that sparked last week’s violence. The female aid worker removed the Buddhist flag from outside an office for just 5 minutes, before replacing it. Reports that she danced with the flag or placed it on her waist are untrue. Nevertheless, an angry crowd gathered so quickly after the removal of the flag that it appears this was an orchestrated incident designed to bring a halt to humanitarian efforts in Rakhine state.
When MSF was expelled from Rakhine state in early March, UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana said the decision by the government could be “part of a strategy toward consolidating not only the segregation of Rohingyas, but also the oppression against them, including complete limitation to access to health.” This appears to have now been achieved. Rainy season is approaching and the boats are the only way to deliver aid to some of the camps. It’s hard to read their destruction as anything other than a deliberate attempt to completely cut off the supply of outside assistance.