Humanitarian Dilemmas in Myanmar

By Melanie Teff
A displaced Rohingya woman living in a camp in western Myanmar.

This piece first appeared in The Networker.

A recent humanitarian crisis that has created multiple dilemmas for humanitarian actors has been the unfolding situation affecting the Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

The Muslim minority Rohingya population has faced a humanitarian and human rights crisis for decades. Stripped of their Myanmar citizenship in 1982, they have been victims of extreme discrimination and persecution for years, living under constant threat of arbitrary arrest, detention, and extortion. The few humanitarian agencies that operated in Rakhine State were accused by the government and by the Rakhine community of not being neutral and impartial, as they were seen as providing most or all of their services to the Muslim Rohingyas, as opposed to the Buddhist Rakhines. The agencies argued that they were adhering to humanitarian principles by prioritising those in greatest need.

In June 2012, violence broke out between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities, followed by a wave of state-sponsored persecution of Rohingyas. Although both communities suffered during the violence, the majority of death and loss of property was sustained by Rohingyas. Tens of thousands of Rohingyas were forced into segregated internal displacement camps that continue to fall way below international standards.

The extremely poor conditions in the Rohingya camps have been affected by dilemmas over how to interpret the humanitarian principles. Many donor governments and humanitarian agencies refuse to support anything that could make the segregated camps more permanent. Other agencies decided that the humanitarian principles compelled them to improve the conditions in the camps in order to save lives. Based on the principle of humanity, aid agencies want to address the suffering in the camps by providing housing for resettlement. However when they decided to rebuild houses burned down during the violence, the government asked agencies to build more expensive, higher quality houses for Rakhine Buddhists than for Rohingya Muslims. To do so would violate the principles of impartiality and operational independence. 

Sadly, the aid currently being provided to Rakhine’s Rohingya population is totally insufficient. Bureaucratic impediments and threats by some Rakhine community leaders certainly hinder aid delivery. And many humanitarian and multi-mandate agencies have stayed away from Rakhine State entirely, deterred by the difficulties of working there, and/or fearing that their programmes in other parts of the country could be jeopardized by working in a sensitive area that inevitably results in having to challenge the authorities. Yet the humanitarian principle of impartiality requires that prioritisation should be given to those in the greatest need, in this case, the Rohingyas.

Multi-mandated aid agencies in Myanmar have to negotiate the delicate balance that comes when an organisation goes from working in a development capacity to a humanitarian one. An aid agency may spend time working to build a relationship with national authorities to promote longer-term development goals, but in a humanitarian crisis setting find itself having to confront those same authorities.

For example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) works with Myanmar’s Ministry of Health to improve access to health care. However, as leader of the health cluster in crisis settings, the WHO also has humanitarian responsibilities to fulfill. In Rakhine State, WHO has demonstrated a marked reluctance to confront the national authorities about the serious issues of lack of access to health care by the Rohingya community. This continued despite many unnecessary deaths caused by restrictions on the Rohingyas’ movement, a lack of sufficient health care providers able to access the community, as well as a refusal on the part of most township hospitals to receive Muslim patients.

Unfortunately, neither the UN nor donor governments have been effective in advocacy to address the situation. The UN Country Team is currently headed by a resident coordinator/humanitarian coordinator responsible for both development and humanitarian work. In the current battle of competing priorities, the development agenda continues to overshadow the humanitarian one.

The UN Country Team is prioritising the preservation of its tenuous relationship with the government, and it does not speak out forcefully about the segregation, discrimination, and statelessness affecting Rohingyas. Most donor governments are more intent on normalizing relations with Myanmar in the hope of encouraging the reforms that began in 2011. However, the reluctance to address the humanitarian and human rights concerns about Rakhine State will only serve to make an intolerable situation worse.