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Lack of aid in Myanmar's Rakhine state reaches critical stage

IDP camp residents say they need food, medicine and water

<p>A resident of Te Chaung camp receives glucose through an IV drip on Friday (photo by John Zaw)</p>

A resident of Te Chaung camp receives glucose through an IV drip on Friday (photo by John Zaw)

  • John Zaw, Te Chaung, and AFP
  • Myanmar
  • April 6, 2014
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Thousands of Rohingya residents of a camp in western Myanmar face crippling shortages of food and healthcare services after aid workers pulled out of Rakhine state last week following mob attacks that targeted international NGOs.

An official at Te Chaung camp outside Sittwe – home to more than 15,000 displaced Rohingyas – said Friday that food rations have not been delivered since March 16 and residents have been forced to seek food from neighboring villagers.

A warehouse used to store rice and other essential food stocks for the camp’s IDPs stood empty near the entrance to the camp during a visit on Friday.

“We are suffering from a food and healthcare crisis,” said Maung Hla, a deputy at Te Chaung camp in charge of food distribution, adding that residents are facing a humanitarian disaster simply because of their Rohingya identity.

On March 26 a Buddhist mob attacked and looted western NGO offices, beginning with the German medical aid group Malteser, after a member of that group removed a Buddhist flag from the building.

The flags – placed throughout Sittwe – represented Rakhine Buddhists’ opposition to a controversial national census currently being conducted and expected to conclude on April 10.

Tensions have been heightened by Myanmar's first census in three decades, which has stoked anger among Buddhists that it might lead to official recognition for the Rohingya, a Muslim minority viewed by the authorities as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The wave of attacks against humanitarian workers in Rakhine state has choked off health, water and food supplies to isolated communities and camps for people displaced by deadly sectarian violence.

Their departure worsened an already dire medical situation for hundreds of thousands of people left without access to treatment after the government in February ordered aid group Doctors Without Borders to leave the region following protests against them.

International relief groups in Rakhine have come under mounting pressure from local Buddhists who accuse them of bias towards Muslims.

Sahi Da Begaung, 20, a resident of Te Chaung, said she feared for her survival. “If we continue to face this kind of situation for much longer, we will die. We have no other option at the moment.”

Six residents of Te Chaung camp have died in recent weeks from treatable diseases.

“My younger brother died of diarrhea two weeks ago. The [Doctors Without Borders] clinic was closed so he could not get proper medical attention,” said Sophia Hatu in front of her small hut where her sister now lies bedridden because of illness.

Maung Ba, a camp resident and former guard for a Doctors Without Borders warehouse, said five others with ages ranging from 12 to 70 also died in recent weeks for lack of access to healthcare.

“For the time being, a temporary clinic run by volunteers helps with normal illness. But patients with serious illnesses cannot go to a state hospital because there is no INGO-run clinic to refer them. They have no other option but to die,” Maung Ba said.

More than 170 aid workers were pulled out from the state as a result of last week’s attacks – the first time providers have been forced to leave en masse – and there are fears that the entire relief infrastructure has been severely damaged.

"What happened in Sittwe last week was not just an attack on international organisations, but an attack on the entire humanitarian response in Rakhine State," said UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Renata Dessallien.

The crisis has also had an impact on commodity prices, as merchants say they have been threatened with violence if they trade in or near the IDP camps. The price of a 50kg bag of rice has rissen to 22,000 kyats (about US$21) from 13,000 kyats on March 31 – well beyond the ability of most IDPs to afford.

In a statement issued on April 2, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) warned that water scarcity would soon hit critical levels in the IDP camps, particularly those in Pauktaw township.

“Some camps will surely start to face drinking water shortages, and if the situation can’t be resolved immediately and effectively, it may create a crisis for both Rohingya Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist communities,” U Zeyar, a local aid worker in Sittwe, told ucanews.com.

A UN delegation that arrived in Sittwe to assess the situation on April 2 said it was discussing with local officials and the Myanmar government how to respond to the shortages in Rakhine state.

“The government has the duty to ensure that people living there, whether in camps or other parts of the state, have assistance that they need,” Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Irrawaddy in a report on Wednesday.

“If NGOs can’t provide it, the government has a responsibility to.”

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