Rakhine crisis: Restricted humanitarian access and risk of radicalisation

The Myanmar government must do more to facilitate humanitarian access to all those affected by the violence.

File photo of an ethnic Rakhine man holding homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe
The violence raises fears that the crisis could threaten Buddhist-Muslim relations in the wider region [REUTERS]

The latest wave of violence between Rakhine and Rohingya communities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has raised fears of growing radicalisation and regional instability.

The violence has left 36,000 displaced, bringing the total number of displaced since June to 110,000. Scores are reported missing at sea and satellite images released by Human Rights Watch revealed the almost-near destruction [PDF] of part of a densely-populated Rakhine town.

Humanitarian conditions, already dire after the outbreak of violence in June, now stand to deteriorate further.

Camps for the internally displaced are unable to accommodate the influx and many of those affected by the violence are not receiving assistance as humanitarian agencies face threats, restrictions on access and severe funding shortages.

The renewed violence raises fears that the crisis initially originating in Rakhine state is not only spreading to other parts of the country, but also threatening Buddhist-Muslim relations in the wider region.

Whilst  the earlier unrest in June involved Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims (who are stateless and lack any citizenship rights), many of those targeted in last week’s attacks belonged to the Muslim Kaman minority, a recognised national group. As Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, states, “It’s not just anti-Rohingya violence anymore, it’s anti-Muslim.” 

The attacks occurred days after two grenade attacks on mosques in Karen state, while earlier that week a Karen-based Buddhist association called on Buddhists to sever all social and business ties with Muslims. 

These incidents are the latest expressions of rising anti-Muslim sentiment, as evidenced by the protests in mid-October of thousands of monks, youth and women, against the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) in Yangon, Mandalay and Sittwe.

These protests compelled President Thein Sein who had welcomed OIC delegation visits and offers of humanitarian assistance to block the opening of an OIC office in the country. Statements against the OIC included accusations that the 57-member inter-governmental organisation was “terrorist”.

Threats against aid workers

Angry sentiments have also been directed against humanitarian agencies more generally because they are perceived by Rakhine communities to be biased towards the Rohingya. The UN reported last week that humanitarian workers continue to face strong anti-UN and NGO sentiments with threats being issued to the entire humanitarian community.

In July, MSF was forced to withdraw senior officials in the face of rumours that weapons had been found near an MSF building and that the organisation was being financed by Islamic groups. These threats, which began soon after the June violence, have placed severe limitations on aid workers’ ability to access vulnerable populations.

The humanitarian implications of the continued hindrance of aid workers’ ability to access areas of need cannot be overstated. Assessments by aid agencies in July revealed high rates of acute malnutrition in camps for the internally displaced in Sittwe with further problems arising from inadequate water and sanitation.

Concerns have also been raised about the lack of humanitarian assistance to the resident population in the northern townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, which had the highest maternal mortality rates in the country even before the violence.

Donors already nervous about funding humanitarian interventions that support the government’s proposed segregation of displaced communities based on ethnic grounds will find it even more difficult to provide much-needed aid if there is a threat to the safety of those tasked with the duty of intervening.

The risk of radicalisation

Responding to the violence in June, ASEAN’s Secretary-General Dr Surin Pitsuwan issued a somber warning that failure to resolve the crisis quickly could lead to radicalisation in the region. In the wake of the recent attacks on other Muslim minorities in the country, it is indeed a warning that should be heeded.

The region has become indirectly drawn into the crisis as Rohingya have attempted to flee to countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia, both of which already have significant populations of Rohingya refugees.

Concern for the Rohingya has spread rapidly across the Muslim world, and a diverse range of Muslim groups have mobilised in solidarity with the Rohingya, including in Indonesia, Turkey, Qatar, Libya and the United Kingdom.

The risk of perceiving the conflict as an assault on Islam cannot be underestimated, especially in the minds of the general Muslim public, already sensitive to external threats.

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Some of these groups, such as Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief, are professional aid organisations operating on the basis of humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality and have emphasised that assistance will be provided to all affected communities, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

For others, however, the issue is highly charged and is being cast strictly in religious terms with the threat of making this a conflict between Islam and Buddhism.

Groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front and Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid in Indonesia have declared their readiness to fight jihad for the Rohingya.

In August, protests were organised in Sulawesi against the attacks and Buddhist temples were targeted. Several Buddhist temples have been targeted in Bangladesh as well.

Indeed, religious radicalisation around the Rohingya issue as a human rights cause is already taking place, and the latest violence could deepen this worrying trend, putting a strain on the efforts of countries attempting to address existing concerns.

Unprecedented political will

For its part, the government of Myanmar has made some important gestures, demonstrating an unprecedented political will to address the crisis, which is a serious test to President Thein Sein’s reform process.

Following the recent violence, the government has even acknowledged the statelessness of the Rohingya as a root cause of the crisis and is reported to be considering conferring citizenship options as well as whether the Rohingya should be included as a “national race”.

As a result of international engagement and dialogue, the President has realised that as Myanmar progresses with its democratic transition process it will have to meet its obligations to its minorities and develop an internal solution that is durable and in line with international norms. 

The President established an independent 27-member commission to identify the causes of the violence as well as to make recommendations for peaceful co-existence. The government has also reached out to the international community in the development of a roadmap to resolve the crisis, establish the rule of law, facilitate reconciliation and provide opportunities for equitable development.

In his historic speech to the UN General Assembly in late September, Thein Sein addressed the violence in Rakhine stating that “all people inhabiting our country regardless of religion have a right to live in peace and security”.

Notwithstanding the government’s new political will to address the Rohingya problem, it is clear that there is a serious gap in capacity as well as experience in handling complex crises in accordance with humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality. 

“In addressing the Rakhine crisis, Myanmar must not forget its regional responsibilities as a member-state of ASEAN and upcoming chair of ASEAN in 2014.” 

Government officials must do more to facilitate humanitarian access to all those affected by the violence and to guarantee the safety of aid workers. This would make it easier for donors to step up their funding for humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. 

Internal process

Another immediate priority must also be wider security sector reform in relation to the handling of conflict and humanitarian crises.

The human rights record of the Border Security Forces (Nasaka) and their long involvement in persecution of Rohingya does not make them a credible mechanism to restore peace and stability in Rakhine.

The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s Armed Forces) has abided by the doctrines of counter-insurgency since the mid-1960s and lacks codes of conduct and standard operating procedures in dealing with unrest in a way that ensures the protection of civilians. This is another area where support from the international community could be vital.

In addressing the Rakhine crisis, Myanmar must not forget its regional responsibilities as a member-state of ASEAN and upcoming chair of ASEAN in 2014.

It is critical that Myanmar demonstrate that it shares ASEAN’s commitment to peace, tolerance, the protection of human rights and inclusive development. Myanmar should respond positively to ASEAN’s offers of support, recognising that the Rakhine crisis has already affected neighbouring countries and that the threat of radicalisation is real.

Non-engagement will not solve these problems. With the UN and other multilateral organisations, ASEAN could support Myanmar through the development of peace-building initiatives and monitoring mechanisms, and member-states could share lessons and experiences of reconciliation and inclusive development.

ASEAN could also ensure that radical sentiments in their own countries are brought under control by disseminating accurate information on the situation and efforts within Myanmar to the outside world.

No government would be able to resolve a problem this complex alone. While the resolution of the Rakhine crisis must ultimately be an internal process, Myanmar should recognise that the implications are regional and engage regional and international capacities to bring the immediate situation under control and find long-term solutions. In the face of deteriorating humanitarian conditions and escalating radicalisation both within Myanmar and across the region, the costs of not doing so are too high.

Lilianne Fan is a Research Fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Before joining ODI, she worked in Myanmar with the ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force and in Aceh, Indonesia, with various organisations, including UNDP, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Oxfam.

Amjad Saleem is Head of Communications at the Cordoba Foundation (TCF), a think-tank exploring intercultural dialogue based in London.  Before joining TCF, he was Country Director for Muslim Aid in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and helped to coordinate Muslim Aid’s response to Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008.