The international aid community must rethink its approach in Myanmar’s Rakhine state following attacks on international aid agencies by Buddhist-led mobs. The attacks have led to the ceasing of almost all humanitarian aid in Myanmar’s second poorest state. The evacuation of more than 170 aid personnel takes place just weeks after the expulsion of Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland (MSF-H) from Rakhine, leaving hundreds of thousands of people — mainly the Muslim Rohingya people — without access to clean water, health care, food and other vital assistance.
The state has been plagued with waves of violence, with hundreds killed and more than 140,000 displaced over the past two years. Aid agencies estimate that at least 20,000 people living in displacement camps will run out of drinking water soon, and that current food stocks will not last for long. Medical services, including life-saving referrals and anti-retroviral treatment, have all but shut down. Every day there are new reports of violence in Rakhine. Armed vigilantes have also been reported, raising the real possibility of further mass violence.
The United Nations (UN) has called the recent violence against aid agencies ''an attack on the entire humanitarian response in Rakhine state'', and has warned of a severe deterioration of humanitarian conditions if humanitarian services are not restored. The UN has underlined the government’s obligation to ensure that all people in the state have access to humanitarian assistance, facilitate unhindered humanitarian access and ensure the security of aid workers.
This incident reveals the depth of animosity in the state from some communities towards aid agencies. It also demonstrates the failure of the government to guarantee the security of aid workers and to end the culture of impunity towards its citizens responsible for mobilising anti-Rohingya, anti-Muslim and anti-foreign campaigns. The attacks also reveal the extent to which the international community has failed to invest systematically in preventing further violence in Rakhine, and the lack of conflict sensitivity in the design of development interventions. In the aftermath of the attacks, the international community is right to focus immediate efforts on restoring vital humanitarian services in Rakhine. Efforts to prevent further violence, protect local communities from harm and find ways of addressing the root causes of the problem should also be a priority.
The international community must be ready to take stronger measures to compel the government of Myanmar to meet its obligations towards the people of Rakhine, regardless of their identity. Security options must be considered, such as the rapid deployment of international or regional observers to work with Myanmar security forces to monitor and stabilise the situation and ensure the protection of communities and the security of aid workers. Preventing mass violence by supporting initiatives that improve security and the rule of law, reduce tensions and encourage dialogue towards political solutions must be undertaken.
Above all, the international community should make it clear to Myanmar that a failure to facilitate humanitarian access and prevent further violence in Rakhine state will have severe consequences not only in humanitarian terms, but for Myanmar’s legitimacy as a responsible member of the international community. No one wants to see Myanmar’s reform process fail, but should the situation in Rakhine deteriorate any further, convincing the world that the reform process is still on track will be a hard sell indeed.
Lilianne Fan is a Research Fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group at London think tank the Overseas Development Institute.