By Libby Hogan
Human rights and humanitarian aid groups are urging Burma’s government to allow access to displaced populations in northern Arakan State amid tightened security following a series of attacks on border police nearly two weeks ago.
In a statement released on Friday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the country’s government and army to “urgently ensure humanitarian aid can reach ethnic Rohingya and other vulnerable populations in northern Rakhine [Arakan] State”, as fears grow about the impact of the continuing lockdown.
Recent violence in the region “has led the army to deny access to aid agencies that provide essential health care and food to people at grave risk,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said in the statement.
“The Rohingya and others have been especially vulnerable since the ethnic cleansing campaign in 2012, and many rely on humanitarian aid to survive,” he added.
The statement also calls on the United Nations and donor governments to use their leverage to help aid agencies regain access to the region.
“There is a partnership between the Burmese government and international agencies on addressing humanitarian concerns in Rakhine State, and it is absolutely not right for the Burmese government to just slam the door on that,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, told DVB on Friday.
In a statement released on Thursday, Amnesty International also joined calls for a lifting of restrictions.
“The Myanmar [Burmese] authorities must immediately lift restrictions that are preventing the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies from reaching people in need,” said Amnesty’s regional director Rafendi Djamin.
The World Food Programme (WFP), one of several United Nations agencies active in northern Arakan, told DVB that it hoped to see a partial resumption of aid flows within a few days.
“After several days with no access to these areas, WFP hopes to be able to resume its regular support for some 37,000 people by next week,” said regional communications officer Silke Buhr in an email.
“WFP is on standby to resume its regular distributions to a further 50,000 food insecure people in Maungdaw Township once the area becomes accessible,” she added.
According to a spokesperson for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the latest violence to hit Arakan State has affected people not only in Maungdaw, where the attacks of 9 October took place, but also in other townships, including the state capital Sittwe.
“At least 3,000 displaced people are now confirmed to be sheltering in monasteries in the town centres of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Sittwe,” said OCHA information officer Pierre Peron in an email.
While most of these newly displaced people are ethnic Arakanese Buddhists, many others, mostly Rohingya Muslims, are also believed to have fled the security sweep in their villages in the wake of the attacks, which were blamed on Rohingya militants.
Meanwhile, Rohingyas who have been living in camps in Sittwe since earlier outbreaks of communal violence also face renewed hardships, according to the European Commission, which said on Tuesday that “food could rapidly become an issue” as trade between the camps and the Arakanese community is being blocked by hard-line nationalists opposed to the presence of the Rohingya.
But it is in more isolated areas now under army control that the fears of abuses are greatest.
“I think that the problem is that the Burma Army wants a free hand to do whatever it wants in northern Rakhine state as it searches for the perpetrators of the attack against the border guard camps, and it doesn’t want any prying eyes from international agencies to see what it’s doing,” said HRW’s Robertson.
“That’s what I fear is the real reason that the Burmese government is not letting the donors in.”