Senior officials from the World Food Programme in Myanmar have said they are “very, very concerned” about the government’s continued refusal to let them deliver food rations to thousands of people in trouble-hit northern Rakhine State.
The organisation yesterday reinstated ration entitlements for over 6000 former IDPs across the state who were removed from the ration list in July. Representatives said the ration resumption aims to prevent an escalation in community tensions amid fears that recent violence in northern Rakhine State could spread across the state.
But Arsen Sahakyan, WFP partnerships officer, said that despite repeated requests to government officials, their staff were being denied access to villages across northern Rakhine State, where around 70,000 are considered entitled to rations.
“We have asked from township level to Union level. The official explanation [for access being denied] is that security operations are ongoing,” he said.
Rakhine is one of Myanmar’s poorest states and malnourishment is endemic across both ethnic Rakhine and Muslim minority communities. Problems accessing food is exacerbated for around 1 million Rohingya Muslims. The mainly stateless group are a minority across the state – but account for the majority of people living in northern Rakhine – and are denied freedom of movement by authorities, restricting many from earning a livelihood.
Mr Sahakyan said about 1200 people of ethnic Rakhine origin were known to have relocated from Maungdaw to Buthidaung township following the outbreak of violence on October 9. He added that local groups have said they were providing food to those people.
However, he said he did not have information about displaced Rohingya people because his staff were not allowed to access affected areas.
Mr Sahakyan said that while he understood government concerns about being unable to guarantee the safety of UN workers, WFP staff are used to working under difficult circumstances and being able to deliver services to those in need was a “priority”. He added that staff are on standby to move the moment permission is granted. However, it remained unclear when that would be.
A statement issued by the President’s Office following a press conference on October 17 indicated that authorities believe they have already brought the threat of unexpected attack in the region under control.
The statement said, “Tatmadaw-police-force combined troops met head-on attacks with violent attackers occasionally during the area clearance operations, but any separate armed attacks did not occurred [sic] in main camps, towns and villages, thus it can be said that the area security is under the control.”
The October delivery of food aid to northern Rakhine had just gotten under way when a series of deadly attacks were launched on police stations by people the government has described as Islamist terrorists, prompting a manhunt by the Tatmadaw that has left at least 30 alleged assailants dead.
Ration deliveries to Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships were halted as the violence unfolded and WFP staff on the ground are now trying to ascertain how many people received their entitlement. Mr Sahakyan said “a lot of people” had not got the vital supplies.
U Aung Kyaw Zan, state minister for electricity, industry and transportation, said he was not aware of the WFP entreaties.
“WFP has not come and negotiated with us about providing food. The state government is providing food to people displaced in Buthidaung and who remain in Maungdaw, sending supplies from Sittwe to Buthidaung via waterway then onward to Maungdaw by car,” he said.
On October 17, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said they also were unable to give assistance to those believed to have been displaced in the violence in northern Rakhine.
“The total number of displaced people and their needs have not been assessed yet due to a lack of access. Humanitarian response interventions are being coordinated but are hampered by movement restrictions,” the organisation noted in its weekly update.
Access to medical services has also been severely curtailed, according to sources on the ground.
The northern part of the state has been placed under military control and an information blackout has effectively been imposed, with international observers and foreign journalists denied permission to enter the region and even local journalists restricted from accessing areas where Muslim villages are alleged to have been razed during the military’s “clearance” operations.
Rights groups have also alleged that extra-judicial killings are being carried out against Muslim civilians following the lethal attacks on the border guard outposts. But the Tatmadaw, which admitted security personnel have killed 30 alleged attackers, has insisted the use of lethal force was necessary.
The reinstatement of the rations to former IDPs across the state is expected to last until next month, when the advent of harvest time should reduce the need for seasonal rations.
The controversial initiative to cut supplies to displaced people who had since been resettled or returned to their home villages was said by WFP at the time to be aimed at easing community tension between former IDPs who were still receiving rations and their neighbours who had never been displaced and had therefore never been entitled to rations. However, a number of major aid bodies condemned the move for placing people at risk of falling into food insecurity.
Additional reporting by Yee Ywal Myint