In Burma, Rohingya Face a New Threat: Flooding

By Refugees International

By Isabel Rutherfurd, Refugees International Intern

Speaking to Burmese in Yangon last December, I heard a lot of cautious optimism and relief about the reforms inspired by the government’s transition to democracy.

Many cited positive changes when it came to economic issues, like the cost of imported goods. Unlike their Thai and Indian neighbors, only moderately well-off Burmese have been able to afford cell phones, and cars have been out of reach for all but the very rich. For example, one taxi driver in Yangon told me that three years ago he paid more than $25,000 for a decade-old sedan – this at a time when the average Burmese citizen made just $380 a year.

But now, revised permit laws have reduced car prices by more than $10,000 on average, and halved the price of SIM cards to $250. Certainly, Burma’s economy has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of Southeast Asia, but things are improving dramatically. 

Social reforms, however, are lagging far behind. This is especially true with respect to the Rohingya, a Muslim minority which have been denied nationality rights for generations. The Burmese government actively discriminates against the Rohingya by treating them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, Minister of Immigration and Population Kyaw Kyaw Win went as far as to deny the existence of a Rohingya ethnic group during a parliamentary session last month.

The government’s discrimination against the Rohingya has legitimized anti-Rohingya sentiment in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live. There, thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in camps, having been forced from their homes by house burnings and attacks that erupted in June and October 2012 between the Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine community. The Rohingya suffered disproportionate numbers of deaths, physical attacks, and destruction of property, and they make up more than 95% of the displaced population in Rakhine State.

Violence has since subsided, but sustained discrimination, and the government’s failure to promote reconciliation and end its segregationist policies, have prevented thousands from returning to their villages.

Worryingly, many IDP camps are located in areas that will flood come mid-May, when Burma’s monsoon season begins. The Rohingya population will have to contend with flooding, landslides, the spread of disease, and increased food insecurity if they are unable to return to their villages before then. Already this month, one camp in Rakhine has seen an outbreak of diarrhea, which has killed three Rohingya children and could soon spread. Rakhine State is prone to some of the heaviest flooding in Burma, which wreaks havoc on the area every year. In 2010, flood waters displaced 20,000 people from their homes and killed 68 people. It took two weeks for aid organizations to traverse the washed-out roadways and reach affected areas.

Making the situation even more difficult this year is the fact that aid workers face continued hostility from the local population, as many Rakhine believe that the international community focuses on the needs of the Rohingya to the detriment of the Rakhine. (See RI’s October 2012 report.)

The government in Nay Pyi Taw recently assured the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar that IDPs will be returned to their villages before the monsoons begin, but there is little indication that the conflict in Rakhine State will be fully resolved by May or that shelters outside the camps will be available.

To prevent unnecessary deaths in the IDP camps, the government must immediately rebuild homes in Rakhine State, move the camps to higher ground ahead of the rainy season, and ensure that humanitarian organizations can safely and effectively assist the Rohingya.

Further, the government must engage both Rohingya and Rakhine in a reconciliation process, with a view toward ending the current segregation of the communities and enabling displaced persons to return to their villages. If this can happen before the monsoons begin, then that would be extremely welcome. If not, then the camps must be moved now to ensure that lives are not lost – whether from flooding, hunger, or infectious disease.