At least three international non-government organisations working in Rakhine State have temporarily suspended their activities in Pauktaw township, including its IDP camps, after an outbreak of violence near the Sin Ta Maw camp prompted protests against international aid groups.
A protest on November 3 attracted some 300 people, who carried signs decrying the perceived bias of the United Nations and NGOs toward the Muslim community.
The decision to call staff back from Pauktaw was precautionary and “hopefully temporary”, the coordinator from one organisation said, asking not to be named.
Local authorities had strongly recommended the organisations leave the township to avoid potential unrest.
“Our prime concern will always be the safety of the staff,” said one project coordinator, adding that his organisation planned to resume normal activities as soon as possible. “We will continue to monitor the situation and see if we can operate.”
The shutdown will affect not just humanitarian services to IDP camps but also long-running development projects in the Rakhine community.
The protests against the international aid presence in the region followed an incident on November 2 in which Muslim IDPs clashed with security forces. Several Rohingya IDPs who had been shot in the clashes were transferred by international NGOs from Pauktaw to Sittwe for treatment. Two injured Rakhine people were reportedly transferred to hospital on a boat organised by Rakhine community, prompting some to claim that the Muslim IDP camp residents had been given preferential treatment.
The incident added further fuel to the perception in some segments of the Rakhine community that aid is distributed unfairly. The accusations of bias have been refuted by international NGOS, with a representative from the International Committee for the Red Cross emphasising that their organisation operates without discrimination.
MSF mission head Peter-Paul de Groote took the unusual step of penning an op-ed to explain the circumstances surrounding the incident, and the complex and often delicate situation INGOs and government departments must navigate to provide health care and other services in Rakhine State.
Pierre Péron, a public information and advocacy officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), described recent developments in Rakhine State as carrying an “aura of intimidation”.
Anti-NGO sentiment is being stoked by material disseminated both online and in pamphlet form. While it is not entirely clear who is distributing the material, Mr Péron said local authorities have a responsibility to clamp down on it.
The activities of international organisations are being affected in a number of ways. In Sittwe, landlords are being put under pressure not to rent property to foreigners, and NGOS face increasing difficulty hiring and retaining local staff.
A group calling itself the Organisation for the Protection of Nationalism and Religion in Pauktaw distributed pamphlets calling for an end to all NGO and INGO activities in the region. It also called for the enforcement of the 1982 citizenship law, increased protection for Rakhine communities, greater restrictions on the movements of “Bengalis”, and an investigation into a cattle-stealing row that caused rifts in the township last month.
Security in IDP camps across Rakhine State has been increased in response to the recent violence and protests. Director of the Rakhine State Ministry of Health Dr Aye Nyein told The Myanmar Times that as many as 50 extra police officers have been assigned to each camp around Sittwe to ensure peace and stability.
He also responded to reports that patients had been discharged from Sittwe General Hospital’s Muslim ward. He said some had been moved out for their own safety because of protests but these patients were either in good health or receiving treatment off-site.
“There is no problem with the Bengali patients,” he said.
Dr Aye Nyein called for understanding and said the authorities and community leaders would work together to improve understanding about the role of international aid groups.
“We cannot stop the problems without the help of the NGOs and the INGOs,” he said. “Some of the people misunderstood the INGOs, but we will make discussions with community leaders and senior officers to negotiate.”
Pierre Peron echoed the sentiment. “I think we need to improve communication to the community, make more efforts to open more dialogue.”