International aid organisations working in Maungdaw Township have not been granted the “flowing” access to the restive region that they were promised, despite a 19 December announcement by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi that her government would welcome assistance from international and local relief groups.
Humanitarian aid and media access to the area was swiftly clamped shut following deadly 9 October attacks on police border posts — a move human rights workers predicted would have disastrous implications for the largely stateless Rohingya Muslim community.
Suu Kyi, who also serves as Burma’s foreign affairs minister, appeared to bow to mounting pressure at the conclusion of a specially convened ASEAN foreign ministers meeting on 19 December, where the ongoing plight of the Rohingya was on the agenda. Accusations of ethnic cleansing had been levelled at Suu Kyi’s administration in the weeks prior, prompting the invitation to her fellow foreign ministers. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had controversially called the situation in Arakan State “genocide” at a Rohingya solidarity rally in Kuala Lumpur on 4 December, infuriating nationalists in Burma.
Speaking after the meeting on 19 December, Suu Kyi announced that aid was now welcome, offering a glimmer of hope to the tens of thousands that rely on international assistance for life-saving food and medical care. A week later, a press release from the President’s Office stated aid was “flowing” into 12 villages in northern Arakan State, with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement itself distributing “250 rice bags.”
But some of the aid organisations named in that release tell a different story, saying areas in northern Maungdaw remain completely off limits, interrupting existing malnutrition treatment plans for children. On average, clinics had been seeing more than 1,000 new malnutrition cases per month.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told DVB that although much-needed access to the southern part of Maungdaw township has been partially restored, the story is starkly different from the government narrative.
“In past weeks, some ongoing humanitarian programmes have been able to re-start in some areas in Buthidaung, Rathedaung and the southern part of Maungdaw [townships]. This has allowed for about 28,000 people to be reached with cash, food and nutrition support since 19 December. Agencies have also been able to re-open some health clinics and nutrition centres. However, the most-affected areas and communities in the northern part of Maungdaw remain largely off-limits to humanitarian organisations, beyond a small number of one-off distributions,” said Pierre Peron, the public information officer for UNOCHA in Burma, adding that his organisation is unable to help some of the neediest in Arakan State.
“Full and sustained access to all areas in northern Rakhine [Arakan] is urgently needed to resume critically important humanitarian programmes that were already assisting vulnerable communities before 9 October. After almost three months, access to northern Maungdaw remains restricted and we still haven’t fully been able to undertake the humanitarian assessments that are required to evaluate and respond to the needs of people in the hardest-hit communities,” he said.
Rights advocates and medical workers have echoed UNOCHA’s concerns privately to DVB, but say they fear making their frustrations public would see their existing access curtailed further or revoked entirely.
But the Union-level Investigation Commission on Maungdaw, which was tasked with probing both the causes of the October assault and subsequent November attacks, as well as any wrongdoing by security forces, did not appear to share the concerns of the aid community.
It released an interim report on Tuesday, denying accusations of religious or genocidal persecution against the “Bengali population,” citing “the increasing population of Mawlawi [Islamic scholars], mosques and religious edifices.” The threat of malnutrition was also dismissed “due to the area’s favourable fishing and farming condition.”
Zaw Myint Pay, a spokesperson for a separate state-level commission formed by the Arakan State legislature in October, told DVB there are “no restrictions” to aid in Maungdaw, for either local or international workers.
“There aren’t restrictions on aid organisations… we are accepting aid for the Bengali’s and the local population,” he said on 3 January, referring to self-identifying Rohingya Muslims.
Suu Kyi’s perceived inaction with regard to the ongoing suffering of the Rohingya has been fiercely criticised by human rights advocates. The Nobel Prize laureate was widely expected to do more to address the rift between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Arakan State, one of the country’s poorest.
“There’s a wide gap between the humanitarian access that Aung San Suu Kyi and the government have promised and what is actually happening on the ground in Maungdaw and Buthidaung, and in that gap lives are being lost daily,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“Taking her pledges at face value, the most charitable thing one can say is Suu Kyi apparently lacks the ability to persuade the military and local officials to follow her orders. The ASEAN foreign ministers now need to demand that she fulfil her pledges by travelling herself to these affected areas to find out why the aid is not getting through,” he added.
Speaking to DVB after the Investigation Commission on Maungdaw interim report’s release, Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights called parts of the commission’s account “patently untrue.”
“Among its many failings, the report essentially denies that the authorities restricted access to key areas, claiming journalists and aid groups were free to operate. The idea that journalists and aid groups aren’t restricted from areas of Maungdaw Township is patently untrue. Access is still tightly restricted.
“The report flatly denies the existence of malnutrition based on evidence of ‘the area’s favourable fishing and farming conditions.’ Malnutrition is endemic in Rohingya areas, on par with some of worst situations globally,” he added. “It’s embarrassing that the government’s test for malnutrition consisted of observing the existence of rice paddies. Empirical data measuring malnutrition is available. And they seemed to have missed that the army burned rice stores in several villages. We documented this.”
A Malaysian NGO’s aid flotilla is also facing delays, citing diplomatic difficulties between the two nations. The shipment organised by the Malaysian Consultative Council for Islamic Organisations (Mapim), originally scheduled for a 10 January departure, will reportedly now set sail on 31 January. The Burmese government had been caught off guard by the original plans, and warned the coalition of NGO’s to respect national sovereignty and ensure both Muslims and Arakanese communities received assistance.