SITTWE: A humanitarian crisis in Myanmar has worsened in recent days amid heightened security after a militant attack and has focused international attention on the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar troops launched a wide-ranging manhunt in a troubled area of Rakhine State after an Oct 9 attack killed nine police officers and left scorched homes and displaced residents in their wake.
Representatives of the United Nations and diplomats visited the area this week, with US Ambassador Scot Marciel calling for a “thorough investigation” into alleged abuse and the restoration of humanitarian access, the State Department said.
Residents described a landscape of fear in which members of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group have allegedly been barred from going to mosques or to work.
The Human Rights Watch has reported that satellite data shows villages that have been burned, and Reuters and the Myanmar Times have chronicled the alleged rape of Muslim women by soldiers.
“We can’t go anywhere as we’re not allowed to,” Min Hlaing, a Muslim businessman in a restricted area near Maungdaw, said this week by telephone.
He said food prices had risen as a result of roadblocks and claimed that four community leaders had not been seen in days after being picked up by security forces.
The crisis marks the first major test of Suu Kyi’s new democratically elected administration, which took over March 31 after decades of military rule.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been accused of not doing enough to address the Rohingya crisis despite her lifelong commitment to freedom in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
In an interview with The Washington Post in New Delhi on Oct 18, Suu Kyi said border security posts must be strengthened, rule of law followed and a development plan created for the area.
“So many things have to be done simultaneously. It’s not an easy job,” she said. “But we are, of course, determined to contain the situation and to make sure that we restore peace and harmony as soon as possible.”
Suu Kyi’s government has said that the men who attacked police posts on Oct 9 were Rohingya Muslims from a little-known group called the Movement of Faith, who appeared on a video demanding that rights be returned to their community.
There are about one million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar who are essentially stateless, and many in the Buddhist-majority country consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. More than 120,000 Rohingya remain confined to dirty camps in the area after violent clashes with their Buddhist neighbours in 2012. About 1,500 Buddhists are confined in other camps.
Rohingyas said they did not believe that there was a militant group operating in the state.
“This is a rumour. This is not true. This is the deliberate assassination from the government,” said Mohamed Amin, 21, a Rohingya who lives in the heavily guarded Muslim neighbourhood in Sittwe.
More than 16,000 people from both faiths have been displaced by the search that followed the Oct 9 assault on police posts, and 100,000 are without their regular food assistance, according to Pierre Peron, of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Health services have been suspended and weeks have passed without access to mobile health clinics and emergency referrals.
“You have a very vulnerable population that is even more vulnerable now,” Peron said.
Asked when full access to aid would be restored, state government spokesman Tin Maung Shwe said the matter was “an internal affair, not an international affair”.
Residents in the crowded camps said that in the days after the attacks, doctors who normally visit a few times a week didn’t show, although some visits have resumed.
Suu Kyi blamed the health care deficit on the security situation.
“It’s even difficult for us to provide enough security to give them the health care that they need,” Suu Kyi said. “It is another big problem. Because doctors and nurses who go to [displaced persons] camps are not treated well by the communities when they go back.”
She added, “The whole thing is rigmarole.”
At a community health clinic in the Muslim neighbourhood in Sittwe last week, there were no doctors, just a weary looking pharmacist and several patients waiting in a dimly lit room.
“We are doing as much as we can,” said Maung Htun, 54, the pharmacist. “But now we are only capable of healing small things.”
He said that after the attacks, the doctors and emergency workers who would normally visit the area didn’t come.
In addition to the delegation that visited this week, a special commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has been set up to address the plight of the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi said that the government must create a resettlement programme. A controversial citizenship-verification process that has been criticised by rights groups has been stymied because, Suu Kyi said, many Rohingya refused to participate.
“We can’t fix a time frame because it depends on how much everybody is prepared to cooperate,” she said. “We started off this movement for citizenship verification in order that we might move forward, but then, if there is no cooperation, it has been very difficult for us.”
On the ground, the latest flare-up has frayed hope and frayed an already low level of confidence in Suu Kyi’s government.
Maung Aye Shwe, 18, a volunteer teacher in one of the camps, said nothing had changed since Suu Kyi’s historic election a year ago.
“There is no improvement within this year. We are having just oppression. No changes or improvement,” he said.
There are fears that more violence could occur, after a police commander now in charge of operations in Rakhine said he would create a volunteer force to help security.
“We just want a gun to defend our homeland,” said one Buddhist, who did not give her name.
Maung Kyaw Win, 42, a Buddhist displaced by the violence, said he once worked as a goldsmith in his village. He said last week that he has been living in a makeshift camp in a football stadium in the tense north of the state.
He doesn’t know when he and his family will be able to return home, but he does know that relations with his Muslim neighbours will not be the same.
“No one will trust each other until the end of the universe.”
—By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2016