Impact of anti-NGO sentiment on international aid in Rakhine state
Recent attacks targeting the offices and personnel of international aid organisations highlight an increasingly difficult working environment for humanitarian staff in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Following two days of targeted attacks against foreign NGO offices by Buddhist mobs in late March, organisations in the state capital of Sittwe, including OXFAM, Save the Children, World Food Programme (WFP) and others, were forced to suspend operations and withdraw up to 700 non-essential foreign and local staff. This is the biggest disruption to aid in two years; to these organisations, the impact is critical for people currently living in relief camps, which rely solely on aid distribution.
Who are the Rohingya?
Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist nation of approximately 60 million people, and has only recently emerged from several decades of military rule. While burgeoning democratic reforms have fostered an environment receptive to foreign investment, an inveterate strain of religious extremism is threatening this progress. Myanmar has experienced periodic bouts of religious and communal violence between its minority Muslim and majority Buddhist communities since June 2012. The violence (the vast majority of which has taken place in Rakhine) has resulted in over 240 casualties and displaced over 150,000 Muslims, many of whom remain displaced. The most persecuted group during these attacks has been the minority Rohingya Muslims, who now live in overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) on the outskirts of Sittwe.
Rakhine is the second-poorest state in the country and is also home to approximately 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims. The origin of the Rohingya people has long been disputed in Myanmar, as they are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Several government policies reflect this prejudice, as the Rohingya have effectively been denied citizenship and their freedom of movement has been severely restricted. In addition, although this group has been disproportionally discriminated against during episodes of violent communal unrest, Buddhist groups have repeatedly accused aid organisations of unfairly favouring the Rohingya community at the expense of Rakhine Buddhists. As a result, humanitarian agencies are increasingly caught in the crossfire of these tensions and subjected to the growing politicisation of aid distribution.
Rising tide of anti-NGO sentiment
In the period since foreign staff departed Rakhine state, there has been a significant increase in the intensity of threats and acts of intimidation made against local staff still operating in the region. In addition, the day-to-day coordination of aid distribution is now being conducted under heavy guard. Should foreign staff resume aid operations in Rakhine, there is a credible threat that they will be exposed to targeted attacks.
Anti-NGO sentiment has embittered the region for some time. In February, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)-Holland was forced to suspend all activities in the state. More recently, tensions have been elevated due to a UN-assisted national census that began on 30 March. The UN and other international organisations have been accused of not consulting with the local populations over the nature of the census. In addition, their insistence on including Rohingya as an ethnic category has been criticised, in essence, as an affront to Buddhist culture. To this extent, the growing hostility towards foreign aid workers could be considered the unintentional consequence of the erosion of the perception of neutrality and independence of humanitarian operations. Furthermore, the impact of these tensions is likely to further strain the capacity for aid organisations to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable communities.
The recent media spotlight on the issue has not only raised awareness over the decades-long and systematic discrimination of the Rohingya, but it has also opened the country to international criticism over the emergent Buddhist nationalism-cum-extremism. Moving forward, international aid agencies need to determine the extent of Myanmar’s political willingness to assist and protect their aid operations in Rakhine. Where this willingness is absent, they will be wholly responsible for their own security. It is from this departure point that humanitarian organisations will be able to manage their risk-mitigation strategies for future operations in Rakhine.