Rohingya controversy muddies the waters of flood relief efforts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state

Flood victims ride a bamboo raft through a flooded road to receive relief items from private donors in Thabaung township, Ayeyarwaddy delta, Myanmar. File Aug. 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

Relentless floods have been sweeping through Asia since June, displacing hundreds of millions of people from their homes in countries including China, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Across the region, aid groups are scrambling to coordinate disaster relief with local governments.

But in Myanmar, where nearly 360,000 people have been displaced by flooding, relief efforts are peppered not only with logistical challenges, but also political. As one anonymous aid worker noted, it’s always complicated in Myanmar.

On the western border of the country, next to Bangladesh, sits Rakhine state. Infamous for religious massacres led by Buddhist Rakhine monks on the minority Muslim Rohingya people, the state was hit early in this flood season from late June into July.

But as reports emerged of 10,000 people displaced by flood waters in Rakhine, so did accusations of neglect and obstruction of aid to the Rohingya.

“The flooding has caused massive destruction to the Rohingya IDP [internally displaced persons]camps. … Social groups and aid organizations are not allowed to give any assistance to the Rohingya,” reads a press release by Rohingya rights group, Burma Task Force USA.

Likewise, the European Rohingya Council released a statement in early July, stating: “The Rakhines are evacuated…while the Rohingya were left helpless. …The Rohingya, who are already displaced and living in squalid IDP camps, are not getting helps (sic) from the state government.”

Mainstream media has been reporting on the plight of the Rohingya for several years. Described as being “among the world’s least wanted and most persecuted people,” the Rohingya are considered migrants from Bangladesh by the government of Myanmar and, therefore, denied citizenship and free movement out of closely guarded villages and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. The horrific conditions of these camps have been compared to concentration camps, with little access to health care, food, education or economic opportunity.

Considering Myanmar’s track record with the Rohingya, these allegations of neglect amid devastating flood conditions are not surprising.

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That’s exactly what aid groups working in Rakhine said when asked by Humanosphere for comment. What is surprising, however, is what they said next: The IDP camps are not flooded, and there is no evidence of major gaps in assistance.

“Plan International is [a]non-religious organization and is currently working with both Rakhine and Muslim communities in Rakhine State,” said Jessica Lawson, communications manager for Plan International Myanmar, to Humanosphere in an email.

When Humanosphere asked the Rohingya rights groups for proof of their allegations, their representatives spoke vaguely of sources in Myanmar and of the government’s history of offenses against the Rohingya. The European Rohingya Council did provide a video, but Humanosphere was unable to verify whether the footage was indeed of a flooded Rohingya village. Both groups promised updates from their sources, but they never delivered.

On the other hand, the aid groups that spoke with Humanosphere were willing to answer a few more questions on the condition of anonymity, due to the sensitive political climate and fear of being expelled.

For example, why didn’t the IDP camps experience flooding when the surrounding areas all did? Apparently, Rohingya communities are not built near rivers, since riverbanks are the most fertile – but also the most flood-prone – lands, says one aid worker.

Since relief efforts are being coordinated by the local government – as they should, said an aid group spokesperson to Humanosphere – are there concerns that the government may be withholding information from aid workers on Rohingya communities in need of assistance?

The rights groups say, yes. But the aid workers, who are on the ground, maintain that they’ve received all the information they need to work in their assigned areas.

“We worked together with the Township Administrator to determine where the worst-affected areas are, and we have distributed accordingly,” said Lawson of Plan International. Another group is taking instructions from the Ministry of Health on where to provide services.

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Amid all the “he said, she said,” the aid groups want to make one important distinction: Immediate recovery assistance is a separate effort from daily access to basic human rights. In those matters, there is no denying that the 1 million stateless Rohingya are suffering. That is why aid groups and rights groups alike repeatedly said to Humanosphere that they “wouldn’t be surprised,” by an imbalance in aid on the part of the government.

But when it comes to immediate flood recovery assistance, the aid workers who spoke with Humanosphere insist there is no discrimination based on class, race or religion. Humanitarian assistance, one aid worker said, is based on needs and vulnerability, and Rakhine, being one of the poorest states, is particularly vulnerable.

Still, the best “evidence” of equal aid distribution they could provide was “no evidence of major gaps.”

Of course, some of this alleged neglect may also be logistical. Many roads have been reported to be completely blocked off, and certain areas are difficult to access even by boat. This is a challenge the rights groups acknowledge.

“Most of the [international nongovernmental organizations]are crowded in Sittwe, [the capital of Rakhine]. The IDPs in [the]rest of Rakhine state are rarely getting aids (sic) … probably due to travel restrictions,” said Hla Kyaw, researcher at the European Rohingya Council.

For now, flood waters may be receding in Rakhine, but it doesn’t look like the political controversy is going anywhere soon. Human rights leaders were hopeful when Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi assumed power earlier this year. But so far, she’s made it clear that her government will not even use the controversial term “Rohingya.”

Aid workers say the severity of this year’s floods can be expected annually. Without significant change in the political climate toward the Rohingya, continued accusations should be expected as well.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.