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Published: February 7, 2014

Myanmar: humanitarian assistance hampered by insecurity in Rakhine state

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Raquel Vazquez Llorente is a Researcher at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF). Raquel is responsible for producing original research papers that help share and promote best-practices amongst the humanitarian sector, with the aim of building the capacity of security and risk managers. Raquel also collaborates with other bodies undertaking research projects in the sector.


2014 security incidents

On February 2nd, protests broke out in Rakhine state, an area of constant instability in Myanmar. Some 3,000 people gathered in Sittwe to demand more weaponry and powers for local police. According to different sources, protesters were also “calling for INGOs to leave the locality within a week.” Referencing the longstanding clashes between Muslims and Buddhists, which were particularly violent in 2012 and 2013, protesters carried banners stating “do not accept the countries who bias toward Bengali”, and “don’t want UN organisations that bias toward Bengali”.

In mid-January, 40 Rohingyas were killed by a group of Buddhists and law enforcement officers in a massacre that has been denied by the government. Ethnic clashes in Rakhine—a state named after the dominant ethnic group, the Rakhine Buddhists­—has displaced 140,000 people and triggered violence against other Muslim communities across the country. Rohingyas remain the country’s ethnic group worst affected by communal tensions, and 800,000 people are believed to be without citizenship in northern Rakhine alone.


Previous attacks

Western-organisations’ bias towards the Muslim Rohingya community has been a constant accusation in Rakhine state, and this is not the first time that sectarian violence threatens aid agencies operating in the country. In 2013, several international NGOs reported that staff members were being intimidated by the local Buddhist community in Rakhine, and that national aid workers were also being targeted for their collaboration in assisting internally displaced people—predominantly, ethnic Rohingya who profess Islam. In December 2013, UNOCHA reported a rise in incidents affecting humanitarian operations across Rakhine State, with a particular difficult situation in Sittwe, Kyauktaw and Myebon, and incidents also occurring in Minbya, Mrauk-U and Maungdaw.

Humanitarian access in disaster-prone Myanmar has long been hampered by challenges, including local community resistance and a government that despite the recent reforms is still suspicious of NGOs and foreigners. The convoy of the UN human rights envoy was attacked by an angry mob last August in Meiktila, Mandalay, where 43 people lost their lives in the course of communal riots in March 2013. In October of the same year, several bombings struck different regions of the country—Rangoon, Saigang, Namkhan, Mandalay and Tuangoo. Although terrorism has been hovering over Myanmar for the last twenty tears, these were the first terrorist attacks since Thein Sein’s reformist government took power. It is worth mentioning that one of these attacks targeted a luxury hotel in Rangoon used by foreigners.


Humanitarian needs and funding

In April 2012, the EU suspended the most restrictive sanctions against the country and committed €100 million in development and cooperation assistance. The EU has also developed a 2014-2020 plan to support rural development, education, governance and peace building programmes with funding to be increased up to €90 million annually. For Rakhine alone, the UN response plan will require an estimated US$109.3 million—of which 81.4% has been funded. This illustrates the evolution of foreign aid in the country; in mid-2003, international aid was less than US$70 million, or less than US$1.50 per capita.

Primarily rural, Rakhine is a highly populated area with acute malnutrition exceeding WHO’s emergency threshold of 15%. The situation for the Rohingya community seems to be far from improving; in early 2011, the WFP reported 45% of surveyed households in Northern Rakhine State—where there is a large Muslim presence—as “severely food insecure”, compared to 38% in 2009. Despite senior government officials explaining to local communities on several occasions that harassment of aid workers will not be tolerated, access of aid agencies to Rakhine state remains difficult. This week’s protests are only an example of the growing number of incidents that have directly or indirectly targeted humanitarian workers since violence erupted in June 2012.



Recent developments:

MSF, OCHA hit back at ‘anti-aid worker’ sentiment in Arakan State, dvb, 5 February 2014, http://www.dvb.no/news/msf-ocha-hit-back-at-anti-aid-worker-sentiment-in-arakan-state-burma-myanmar/36809

Rakhine protestors converge in Sittwe, Myanmar Times, 5 February 2014, http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/9458-rakhine-locals-protest-for-increased-police-powers-and-an-end-to-rohingya-bias.html

Myanmar-CrisisWatch Database, ICG, 1 February 2014, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/crisiswatch/crisiswatch-database.aspx?CountryIDs=%7b7E12FB4D-6C23-449D-AF08-550AD5FD2F2E%7d#results


Previous violent clashes and humanitarian security:

Sectarian tension in Myanmar threatens aid workers, IRIN News, 16 April 2013, http://www.irinnews.org/report/97852/sectarian-tension-in-myanmar-threatens-aid-workers

Bombings in Burma: The long view, The Lowy Institute, 11 November 2013, http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2013/11/11/Bombings-in-Burma-The-long-view.aspx

NGO means Non Grata Organization in one Myanmar state, Monitor, 7 November 2013, http://monitorfrontiermarkets.com/news-story/ngo-is-non-grata-organization-in-burmas-rakhine-state/

MSF denies allegations of aid discrimination, 6 November 2013, Mizzima News, http://www.mizzima.com/mizzima-news/myanmar/item/10512-msf-denies-allegations-of-aid-discrimination

Myanmar rejects UN envoy’s claims of convoy attack, Asia New Network, 23 August 2013, http://www.asianewsnet.net/Myanmar-rejects-UN-envoys-claims-of-convoy-attack-50685.html

Access to health a worry in Rakhine State, IRIN, 16 July 2012, http://www.irinnews.org/report/95873/myanmar-access-to-health-a-worry-in-rakhine-state


Humanitarian assistance and funding:

Untitled, Europe Aid, 8 January 2014, http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/where/asia/country-cooperation/myanmar/myanmar_en.htm

UNHCR 2014-2015 appeal, UNHCR, undated, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e4877d6.html

Humanitarian Bulletin, UNOCHA, December 2013, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Bulletin_Myanmar_Humanitarian_Dec2013.pdf

Humanitarian Implementation Plan, ECHO, 15 November 2013, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/HIP%20Myanmar-Thailand.pdf


Background information:

Counter-terrorist trends and analysis, International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Nanyang Technological University, Jan/Feb. 2014, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/CTTA-January14.pdf

Understanding Myanmar, Council on Foreign Relations, 21 June 2013, http://www.cfr.org/human-rights/understanding-myanmar/p14385

Too Much, Too Soon? The Dilemma of Foreign Aid to Myanmar/Burma, Brookings, March 2013, http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2013/03/03-foreign-aid-myanmar-burma-rieffel

What next for Myanmar, IRIN, March 2012, http://www.irinnews.org/pdf/irinnews_indepth_what_next_for_myanmar.pdf

Case studies in sanctions and terrorism, Peterson Institute for International Economics, undated, http://www.iie.com/research/topics/sanctions/myanmar.cfm


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