Draft government plan signals challenges ahead for aid work in Myanmar state

Rohingya women at a camp for internally displaced persons in Myanmar. The draft Rakhine State Action Plan has concerning implications for humanitarian organizations, which operate in a highly politicized context. Photo by: Mathias Eick / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

A leaked government action plan on the crisis in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state suggests future ethical dilemmas for aid groups on the ground.

If implemented, proposals outlined in the draft Rakhine State Action Plan could require humanitarian organizations to compromise on core principles — and even provide support for policies of entrenched segregation in the country.

Released in draft form last month for humanitarian actors to give feedback on, the three-year plan will serve as the government’s blueprint to tackle the sectarian violence between the majority Rakhine population and minority Muslim Rohingya that rocked Rakhine state in 2012, leaving more than 139,000 people homeless and dependent on emergency assistance. More than 100,000 people have since fled the region in boats, human rights group The Arakan Project reported last week.

Although the plan is still in draft form, concerns have been aired behind closed doors by agencies over the potential implications for humanitarian operations in Rakhine, where international nongovernmental organizations are already struggling to cope with a challenging and heavily politicized context.

“The international community is ready to support the Myanmar government in finding long-term solutions for displaced people that allow them to return or resettle in an informed, voluntary and dignified manner in line with international standards.” Pierre Péron, public information and advocacy officer at the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Devex.

But in a recent report, the International Crisis Group noted how “elements of the plan … have provoked major concerns, prompting the U.N. and donor governments to write a joint letter to the authorities.”

Controversial plan

The major difficulty lies in proposals that could push aid groups working in Rakhine to support policies or actions that are at odds with core humanitarian principles or international standards, and deny people’s basic human rights.

A short document with little actual narrative, the plan outlines six areas of focus: security, stability and rule of law; rehabilitation and reconstruction; permanent resettlement; citizenship assessment of “Bengalis”; socio-economic development and peaceful coexistence — with projected timeframes for each action.

One of the greatest concerns is the proposed citizenship verification exercise and the subsequent resettlement or detention of displaced Muslim communities. The Rohingya face abusive discrimination and are not recognized as a separate ethnic group, as the majority Buddhist state demands they register as “Bengali” to qualify for “naturalized” citizenship.

According to the draft plan, those who refuse to be registered as Bengali — out of principle or fear that this opens them to future classification as Bangladeshi immigrants — or who cannot provide sufficient documentation to prove their citizenship, would be held in “temporary camps” for “illegal aliens” with a view to resettle them in another country.

The document names the U.N. refugee agency as a partner to “resettle the illegal aliens elsewhere” — which UNCHR has flatly refused to do.

“Globally, resettlement is one of the durable solutions that UNHCR pursues for recognized refugees who have fled persecution and conflict across international borders,” Medea Savary, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, explained to Devex. But as the Rohingya do not fall into this category, “resettlement is not considered as an option for these people by UNHCR in this context.”

Conundrum for aid groups

International actors were unclear, however, about what long-term solutions would be supported.

Some aid workers privately aired the worry that existing camps for internally displaced people would simply be recategorized as containment camps, making agencies working in those camps de facto complicit in detention.

Several foreign aid groups have already come under fire from critics who argue that international NGOs are supporting government policies of segregation by delivering assistance in the camps, where IDPs are forbidden to leave, even to seek work.

But many agencies have said that the scale and severity of the emergency in Rakhine required a humanitarian response, with the goal of eventually finding longer-term solutions. Without assistance, tens of thousands of IDPs would be left without medical health care, food, water or other basic services.

“The current situation is not tenable,” Péron said. “You have up to a million people who are in effect stateless and 140,000 living in IDP camps two years after the main violence. There has got to be some sort of resolution to the issue. But that resolution has to be just and equitable, and follow international norms and standards.”

If residents of current IDP camps were declared illegal aliens, this resolution may end up as forcible resettlement elsewhere or lengthy detention in camps as stateless persons, with international organizations expected to sustain assistance to keep people alive. But it would require a powerfully coordinated aid effort by all donors and implementing agencies to draw a line in the sand, and refuse to provide aid on those terms.

The plan also raises questions about the role of longer-term development actors. For those individuals granted citizenship, the proposed solution is resettlement within Rakhine state.

Given the levels of fear and bitter tension between the two communities, it is unlikely that this would be resettlement or return to original home villages. Human Rights Watch have slammed the plan as a “blueprint for segregation,” citing previously high levels of coexistence.

Development assistance to newly resettled Muslim communities could be seen, then, as implicit acceptance of this segregation.

“Some aspects of the verification process and draft action plan will further marginalize Muslim communities, could entrench segregation and may exacerbate intercommunal tensions,” the ICG noted in its most recent report.

Further negotiations

Humanitarian actors have provided feedback on the draft plan, and the final version has yet to be released. The expected wait is not long — many of the activities outlined in the plan are slated to have started already in July, and the government is keen to be seen as finding solutions to the Rakhine crisis ahead of next year’s general election.

One positive development is that the government has expressed willingness to change some components of the action plan, particularly that involving camps. But the changes may likely be superficial and only involve revising terminology.

“In the old action plan we put all the people in the camps,” Maung Maung Ohn, chief minister for Rakhine state, told Channel NewsAsia yesterday, adding that the government will change the plan and build “villages,” following international law. “We will not use the word ‘camps.’ That will be changed in the action plan.”

More than 100,000 Rohingya people have now fled the desperate conditions in Rakhine state, a figure that is likely to sharply increase with the start of the sailing season this month. UNOCHA reported that 40 percent of those fleeing by boat were unaccompanied children.

At a review of the Myanmar reform process in August this year, Myanmar President Thein Sein urged government officials to “handle communal violence in Rakhine state with care, as the international community is regarding that as a major weakness of the government during the transition period.”

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About the author

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    Dani Patteran

    Dani Patteran is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Yangon, Myanmar. With a background in humanitarian aid, she covers humanitarian and development stories in Myanmar for a range of outlets. Prior to Myanmar, she lived and worked in the Palestinian territories and South Sudan.

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