New Internationalist

Happy Thingyan Water Festival for Rohingyas? Like hell

Rohingya IDPs protest [Related Image]
Internally displaced Rohingya protest at their IDP camp in Rakhine. European Commission under a Creative Commons Licence

One Western aid worker is frustrated and sickened by what’s going on in Burma. 

So, the holidays have started. Aid workers are leaving Burma for a break. The government virtually shuts down for 10 days. The current peace talks only have a couple of sticking points, apparently, and mostly they are to do with wording. International officials are telling the Burmese government how they are concerned about the ‘Rohingya situation’ (but we usually use the word ‘Muslim’ so as not to upset them. Some internationals even use ‘Bengali’) while congratulating them on their progress (letting foreign business in). Locals are getting ready for a week of fun at the water festival.

In the meantime, the Rohingyas suffer and die – hospitals used to receive around 400 referrals a month of critical patients; now they receive none. At least 2,700 children are not getting food supplements or being monitored; there are also food shortages. The government lies about the healthcare, water and food coverage provided to Rohingya in the state of Rakhine. Ethnic cleansing – and now a humanitarian crisis –is taking place. That must really upset the government and/or those pulling the strings. So the national government can’t control Rakhine? They use it as a convenient distraction whenever they wish. Heard anything much about the Chinese pipeline recently? How about land grabs? The government dislikes the Rohingyas; it dislikes the Rakhine Buddhist population too (although the latter can be useful). One Burma joke I heard is that if you see a snake and a Rakhine in the road, kill the Rakhine first.

And in Kachin, Burma’s northernmost state, internally displaced people (IDPs) are on the move again, due to heavy shelling by government forces. This at the same time as peace talks are supposedly close to finalization. Either President Thein Sein has very little control over the army, or he is playing games. Perhaps previous president Tan Swe and friends still have control of parts of the military.

The 11 commitments made by Thein Sein to US President Barack Obama need to be addressed; deadlines and consequences for lack of compliance need to be in place. Perhaps this is being done behind closed doors, or perhaps I am dreaming. Sanctions and loss of reputation internationally may work. UN military observers are needed in Rakhine. Travel authorizations should be abolished and free movement of aid workers guaranteed. Aid workers should not be controlled and directed to suit government interests. Aid distribution should be based upon humanitarian needs.

After the Thingyan Water Festival, aid workers may be allowed slowly back in to Rakhine in a controlled way, but the government is likely to dictate more of what they do, where and how. The government has apparently stated that it wants aid to be split 50-50 between the Rohingya and Rakhine, which is contrary to the humanitarian imperative. Some Rohingya are likely to die as aid workers play politics with the government to ensure access – which will be denied if they don’t. Travel authorizations are not issued at all for Thingyan and existing ones are not respected. This is for the ‘safety and security’ of aid workers – how considerate. Normally issued by line ministries, they are now also sent to the Rakhine state government for approval for ‘safety and security’. This is an old excuse, used by authoritarian regimes everywhere to restrict and control movement. It also gives the central government the chance to excuse themselves: ‘We would love to, but it is these difficult Rakhines...’

Another great gift to Burma from the international community is the census. What a great success! And we have an extension, at least until the end of April, for it to spark even more suffering and violence. It sparked the escalation of violence and a humanitarian crisis in Rakhine; it caused fighting in Kachin; but the UNFPA tells us the census was very useful and a success, and never mind that they can extrapolate the figures for areas not covered, if the enumerators have not completed them from a few answered questions. The UNFPA did advise the government to take the ethnicity question off the form, but the government insisted, so what could they do? Refuse to validate it and withdraw funding for the census, is the obvious answer, but that may be too undiplomatic. Making waves does not help one’s career, of course, so let’s keep our heads down. We are only giving technical support anyway, so it is not our responsibility. That’s a relief.

I hope the aid workers have a good holiday; I hope locals have a good Thingyan; and I hope that not too many Rohingya die.

The writer of this blog has requested anonymity.

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