In troubled Rakhine state, access slowly begins opening up again

Riverside village in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photo by: © UNHCR / Roger Arnold

MANILA — A small, but growing number of humanitarian staff have managed to secure travel permits to access more areas in the central part of Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state where basic food assistance and primary health care services for 120,000 long-term internally displaced people have been severely disrupted since late August by a violent military counteroffensive.  

According to data from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar seen by Devex and interviews conducted with the foreign aid community who have operated in Rakhine, as of Nov. 13, almost 465 national staff and 50 foreign workers based in the state’s capital, Sittwe, have received permission to go to the field, representing roughly 75 percent and 65 percent of the total number of national and international staff, respectively. By comparison, only 42 percent of national staff and 15 percent of international staff were granted access to Central Rakhine a month before. The bulk of the recently approved national staff work for INGOs and the duration of all new approvals are short term — varying between one week and two months, according to sources.

But the foreign aid community in Myanmar warns that the overall approvals process remains cumbersome and is subject to increasingly bureaucratic administrative procedures, resulting in vulnerable populations missing out on critical support. For instance, up until recently, travel authorizations could be secured through either the State Coordination Committee or via a separate process through the State Secretary's Office. Now, the latter avenue has been closed and the former is requesting detailed daily work plans in advance.

"Humanitarian organizations are liaising closely with the Myanmar authorities to ensure that humanitarian staff and private contractors are allowed to continue their efforts to assist vulnerable people and communities who depend on humanitarian aid," said Pierre Péron, a spokesman for the U.N. OCHA in Myanmar. "We will continue to spare no effort to secure safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all vulnerable people in Rakhine State."

Most of the INGOs that operate in Rakhine have offices in the central part of the state where the need is dire. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that failure to address "systemic violence" against the Rohingya in the northern part of the state could result in a spillover to central Rakhine where an additional 250,000 Muslims could potentially face displacement.

Some foreign aid groups that have been able to access central Rakhine in the past week say that the situation, particularly around the state’s capital, Sittwe, and Maungdaw, one of the districts worst hit by violence, remains tense.

“Families and communities continue to struggle with the consequences of inter-communal violence stemming from 2012,” said Katia Sorin, the head of sub-delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sittwe. “Many are uncertain about their physical safety, they face economic insecurity, and they have difficulties accessing basic services. All of this is combined with decades of underdevelopment and poverty. It is a very worrying situation that will certainly affect people for years to come.”

Already, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh amid a brutal military operation. In late August, the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched a series of coordinated attacks on army and police posts, killing 12 security forces. The counteroffensive has since spiraled into what the U.N. has described as "the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.” Witnesses, doctor reports, and satellite images have detailed mass murders, gang rapes, and the razing of villages.

As the crisis has unfolded, diplomats, U.N. officials, and EU organizations have subsequently visited northern Rakhine by helicopter to see the destruction for themselves. One of the most notable of these government organized trips has been for U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, whose presence, some sources say, helped result in improved yet fragile access to central Rakhine.

Amid outcry over the slaughter of Rohingya, the Myanmar government invited Feltman to visit Myanmar, and in mid-October he met with the country’s de facto ruler Aung San Suu Kyi, military Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and several others. In talks, Feltman "reiterated Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call that humanitarian actors be given full and unhindered access to northern Rakhine State and that refugees be allowed voluntary, safe and dignified return to their place of origin," according to a statement from the U.N. Entry to the northern areas of the state — where fighting has been concentrated and where the military overwhelmingly maintains control. The area continues to be completely blocked off, with the exception of Red Cross organizations.

Meanwhile, humanitarian staff who are still operating in central Rakhine are busy trying to secure regular, uninterrupted access and working to address heightened tensions. Having government travel permits, however, hardly guarantees access. In late October, Reuters reported that ethnic Rakhine Buddhists blocked Relief International staff from visiting a camp for Muslims displaced in earlier violence. In September, a mob in Sittwe attacked Red Cross workers who were loading a boat with supplies that locals believed would be provided only to the Rohingya.

Such animosity toward aid workers has long existed in the state where many Buddhists maintain that foreign donors often overlook them in favor of aiding the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Maintaining "neutrality" on critical matters while delivering aid in a divided landscape, especially when there are differences between government and local community interests, is one that international aid agencies always have to be aware of and try to deal with, said Tom Kramer, a Myanmar-based researcher at the Transnational Institute, a nonprofit consultancy in the Netherlands that has studied ethnic conflict and reconciliation in Myanmar. "Sadly, the deeper the divisions become, the more difficult it is for aid organizations to operate effectively, and this is what has happened in Rakhine state," he added.

A regional crisis

One thing that is certain is that the toll of the Rohingya crisis on everyone involved is increasing and its fallout will reverberate across the region. The last time there was a mass displacement of Rohingya people, in 2015, tens of thousands of them got on boats and left for Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. Some are still in detention in Australia’s offshore processing centers on Manus Island and Nauru.

"There is a real chance of this happening again, but on an even grander scale," said John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies at Australian National University and director of its Southeast Asia Institute.

Outraged by the Myanmar army’s brutal counteroffensive, which the U.N. has denounced as a campaign of "ethnic cleansing," Western donors have pressed for punishment. Earlier this month, some U.S. lawmakers proposed targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on Myanmar military authorities over the conflict. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the Southeast Asian nation last week and said that sanctions were “not advisable” at this time, but also noted that the U.S. was “distressed” by the plight of the Rohingya forced to flee to Bangladesh, and he called for an independent investigation into the matter. “The humanitarian scandal of this crisis is staggering,” Tillerson said during a press conference before announcing that the U.S. will provide an additional $47 million in humanitarian assistance for refugees from Myanmar, bringing its total funding for the crisis to over $87 million since late August.

The response from Myanmar’s regional neighbors has been mixed. Some countries, such as Indonesia and Singapore, are voicing concern through quiet diplomacy and offering humanitarian assistance through the Myanmar government, while countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia have remained silent.

Then there's Malaysia. The predominantly Muslim country stands out among its ASEAN peers not just for calling out Myanmar authorities over the Rohingya conflict, but also for displaying a rare moment of disagreement as a member of a group of nations known for building consensus. At the end of September, Alan Peter Cayetano, foreign affairs minister of the Philippines, which currently holds the ASEAN chairmanship, issued a weak statement on behalf of the 10-nation bloc that acknowledged the "situation" in Rakhine, but did not mention the Rohingya or any crimes committed by Myanmar authorities against the ethnic minority.

Shortly after, Malaysia "dissociated" itself from the statement, which it accused of being a "misrepresentation of the reality of the situation." Leaders once again skirted the Rohingya crisis at the recently concluded ASEAN summit in Manila. A draft of the final statement expected to be issued after the five-day event, which Devex has seen, only briefly mentions the importance of humanitarian relief for “affected communities” in northern Rakhine without naming the Rohingya or rights violations against them.

Just how much influence ASEAN wields over Myanmar remains to be seen. At the foreign ministers meeting conducted on the sidelines of September's U.N. General Assembly, Myanmar agreed to let ASEAN nations deliver humanitarian aid to the Myanmar government for Rakhine. But it has not agreed to let neighboring countries play a role in opening up the much needed humanitarian access within Rakhine state like authorities did when Cyclone Nargis devastated parts of the country in 2008. 

"ASEAN really needs to push harder on insisting for immediate humanitarian access and for a road map on ending the violence and preventing the crisis from getting worse, both because the implications of the crisis are regional and because ASEAN's own credibility is at stake," said Lilianne Fan, international director of the Geutanyoe Foundation and deputy chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.

China and India, meanwhile, have remained relatively quiet, stressing the need to respect Myanmar’s sovereignty while trying not to isolate Bangladesh. "The current situation is creating a geopolitical setting where Myanmar is finding itself needing to look toward the veto-wielding China to fend off growing international pressure and Beijing is willing to provide that support as it suits its strategic interests," said K Yhome, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based independent think tank, Observer Research Foundation, where he focuses on Myanmar.

Those interests include the recently completed multi-billion dollar oil and gas pipelines that go through Myanmar, including its tumultuous Rakhine and Shan states, but which China ultimately built to safeguard its fuel supplies. Admittedly, China has been somewhat critical of its ally lately. As part of the U.N. Security Council, it issued a statement earlier this month expressing “grave concern” over reports of human rights violations in Rakhine by Myanmar’s security forces against the Rohingya and called upon the government “to ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine state.” But, the statement — the strongest council pronouncement on Myanmar in almost a decade — fell short of a stronger resolution that the other council members wanted because of China’s opposition.

"China is balancing its support for Myanmar with its ties with Bangladesh, where its interests and presence have been growing,” said Yhome. “By allowing the UNSC [to] issue the statement, it sent that message to Bangladesh on the one hand, but by opposing a resolution it reassured Myanmar its protection again, on the other."

Meanwhile, India views Myanmar and Bangladesh as critical in pushing forward its Act East policy at a time when strategic competition between the two Asian giants is increasing. In September, India committed a total of 7,000 tonnes of relief materials for the Rohingya in Bangladesh, a considerably larger sum than China’s commitment of 150 tonnes of aid thus far. There is also the issue of refugees, with tens of thousands of Rohingya seeking asylum in India, even before the most recent clashes. Over the past couple of months the country’s Supreme Court has been debating whether or not to deport the persecuted minority. Hearings have been temporarily deferred, but local observers don’t expect the Indian government to enforce deportations in the near future. "Surely, New Delhi is treading cautiously not to push Myanmar towards China," said Yhome.

And then there is Australia. Over the past few months, Australia has committed a total of 30 million Australian dollars to address the humanitarian crisis. But it has simultaneously received criticism for not taking stronger action against Myanmar authorities who are perpetuating violence against the ethnic minority. For instance, whereas the United States and the United Kingdom have suspended defense cooperation with Myanmar over the conflict, Australia has refused to follow suit. The country has long drawn fire for its own controversial refugee policies — which have seen hundreds of asylum seekers, including children, imprisoned indefinitely in brutal third-country processing centers. And even at the height of the crisis, the Guardian reported that Australian authorities were offering thousands of dollars to Rohingya to return to Myanmar.

With so much uncertainty in Asia, however, some observers are still hoping Australia could be a leading middle power in resolving the Rohingya crisis. Australia has played this role in the past, particularly during the lead up to and conduct of the U.N.-led mission to install a democratic government in Cambodia in 1993, and then again in 1999 with the Australian-led and U.N.-mandated intervention in East Timor. Australia also has good relations with countries across the ASEAN region and is well placed with the resources and capabilities to act as a catalyst for an international intervention.

"Indeed, Australia is in a unique position to contribute beyond what has already happened," said Australian National University's Blaxland. "Occasionally, it rises to the occasion and acts as a catalyst for collective action. That time is here once more."

Read more Devex coverage on the Rohingya crisis.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Fatima Arkin

    Fatima Arkin is a Devex contributor specializing in climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. She has reported across Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America for Foreign Policy,, Maclean's, and many others. She holds a B.A. in international development and history from McGill University and a graduate diploma in journalism from Concordia University, both located in Montreal, Canada.