Arakan State Advisory Commission chair Kofi Annan’s statement this week that he had been assured humanitarian aid access would be restored to northern Arakan State in the near future has put a tentative, if ill-defined, time table on potentially life-saving assistance.
In the meantime, humanitarian aid organisations and rights groups say Rohingya Muslims in western Burma, whether they are living in camps for the displaced or in villages, are still struggling to access healthcare and desperately need the aid blockade lifted.
When asked about allowing humanitarian aid access to vulnerable communities in Arakan State at a press conference on Tuesday, the former UN secretary general Annan said he hoped it would be allowed “fairly soon.”
Since coordinated militant attacks on 9 October left nine border police officers dead, access to many parts of northern Arakan State has been blocked for humanitarian aid organisations. The restrictions have put more than 130,000 people who are dependent on food and health assistance at risk, according to the latest figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), provided to DVB on Wednesday.
An OCHA spokesperson confirmed, “The majority of humanitarian activities are still yet to re-start in the area of security operations in northern parts of Rakhine [Arakan] State.”
Annan said he had encouraged government leaders to open up Arakan State to both the press and aid organisations: “We had the opportunity to discuss at high levels and we were told that humanitarian access will be given for aid to reach the needy. The commander-in-chief did tell us there are areas which they are still clearing and would free [them] up for such operations as soon as a clearance is done.”
It’s unclear how much longer “clearance operations” in the region will take, as well as what actions fall under this terminology, which has been used repeatedly by security forces to describe the manhunt that has ensued in the wake of the border post attacks. Speaking to DVB on Wednesday, President’s Office spokesperson Zaw Htay estimated that clearance operations could still take another two to three months, because “we [security forces] are still taking operations to find the violent attackers in Maungdaw district and all of them must be arrested.”
State media has regularly reported arrests of suspected militants, but if initial reports of hundreds of “violent attackers” storming the police outposts on 9 October are to be believed, many of the perpetrators may still be at large.
Scores of suspected militants and “violent attackers” have also been killed by security forces in the crackdown. Human rights groups and accounts from Rohingya who fled across the border into Bangladesh allege that the operation has included extrajudicial killings and rapes by security forces, as well as the torching of several villages, charges the military and Zaw Htay have repeatedly denied.
The President’s Office spokesperson said security services are “already supporting and accommodating [humanitarian] assistance to those regions from international organisations” and added that there were no restrictions on aid — only restrictions on some foreign staff as travel authorisations into the region differ between local and foreign staff. However, humanitarian organisations say they are still being denied access to whole regions.
The World Food Programme (WFP) was allowed to supply four affected villages with assistance on 6 November, but other villages in the area have yet to receive any aid since the October attacks.
Human Rights Watch’s lead researcher in Burma, David Mathieson, called on the government to urgently lift all bans on humanitarian aid into the region.
“Aid access has been permitted to parts of Buthidaung and Southern Maungdaw [townships], but tellingly not in the area which has seen the most violence,” he told DVB.
The UN refugee agency has said at least 1,500 malnourished children may die without immediate aid.
Mathieson added, “If the government wants to avoid the potential mass deaths of children, it has to permit aid to resume immediately, not on some vague future date.”
Amnesty International spokesperson for the Burma research team Laura Haigh agreed, saying “the accompanying restrictions on humanitarian aid have exacerbated this situation.”
A report published this week by The Lancet medical journal analysed restrictions on Rohingya reproductive rights, and the high morbidity and mortality rates of the persecuted Muslim minority, and said the Rohingyas were facing “a grave health crisis.”
A group of Harvard researchers led by Dr Saad Mahmood compared health indicators between Rohingya-predominant regions in Burma and Bangladesh and other regions in the respective countries. They found higher rates of mortality in children younger than 5 years, acute malnutrition up 14 percent and diarrhoeal disease five times higher in children among Rohingya-predominant populations in Burma.
“The restrictions on movement that the government has imposed puts many local hospitals and clinics out of their reach, making it extremely hard for them to receive what can be life-saving medical treatment,” stressed Haigh.
A full month ago, on 8 November, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued a statement highlighting grave risks faced by children in northern Arakan State as a result of the restrictions on humanitarian assistance.