Two weeks after Cyclone Komen sent Myanmar into a state of emergency and international humanitarian organisations finally began delivering much needed emergency aid to Rohingya communities in the Eastern state of Rakhine.
With over 100 people confirmed killed and more than a million people displaced, this is the worst natural disaster to hit Myanmar since Cyclone Nargis killed 140,000 people in 2008.
Cyclone Komen made landfall at Rakhine state on 31st July 2015, causing deaths, destroying homes, submerging villages and causing extensive damage to essential infrastructure. The townships of Maungdaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Buthidaung, Ann and the Rohingya IDP camps where among the most worst affected areas.
Rohingya communities living in these regions are already living a borderline existence which makes them particular vulnerable and unprepared to cope with such natural disasters.
The Muslim minority Rohingya, often referred to as most persecuted refugees on earth, have been victims of systematic persecution by the military government in Myanmar. Their movements are restricted, they are denied citizenship, denied education and detained in conditions likened to open-air prisons. The plight of the Rohingya has more recently been highlighted by Pope Francis who stated the persecution of Rohingya communities constituted war against these people.
Attempts to escape the oppressive limitations of life in the displacement camps have made the Rohingya easy prey to human traffickers. They frequently end up being sold into slavery, a situation which recently made international headlines as authorities in Thailand cracked down on slavery in the fishing industry.
The flooding in Myanmar has hit Rohingya refugees living in IDP camps hard, damaging shelters and other infrastructure. According to a UN agency over 140,000 Rohingya-Muslim children, have been affected by heavy rains and floods as UNICEF official, Shalini Bahuguna, explained, “floods are hitting children and families who are already very vulnerable, including those living in camps in Rakhine state,”
In the initial days following the floods, Myanmar security forces and government officials were accused of abandoning the Rohingya flood victims, with reports that emergency aid and supplies from the government were only arriving at Buddhist shelter areas. The Burma Times reported that Rohingya children, had been refused treatment by local hospitals. There were further reports that Rohingyas were turned out of emergency shelters in Kyauktaw and Rohingyas in Akyab were threatened with ‘dire consequences’ unless they returned to the flooded neighbourhoods from which they had fled. Strict restrictions on movement still apply to Rohingyas despite the need for these people to escape flood waters and seek emergency aid.
In recent days international aid organisations have begun delivering aid in Rakhine to some Rohingya communities but it is believed that many remain without support. One of the first international organisations to arrive in Rakhine was Plan International who began providing clean drinking water, hygiene kits and tarpaulins to almost 17,500 displaced people.
Plan International highlighted one of the primary concerns – access to clean water after drinking water ponds at many townships in Rakhine have been contaminated. Communities are now heavily reliant on humanitarian organisations to supply them with clean drinking water. Another organization providing direct support to Rohingya communities in Rakhine State is the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, who began emergency relief work in the disaster stricken region with the support of Qatar RAF, Qatar AID and Al-Imdaad. The organization distributed tents and food aid at two refugee camps – Ohn Taw Gyi Camp, where 400 families received food packages, and Nget Chaung Campm, where 304 received food aid. However with the heavy damage to highways and bridges many areas still remain out of reach for these international agencies.
While physical challenges, such as damaged infrastructure, make the situation difficult, government policies that limit the Muslim community’s freedoms have made assisting the Rohingya more difficult still. Tun Khin, President of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, explained “The immediate need for today is that aid gets through to those who need it. This crisis has been made worse by existing restrictions on aid to Rohingya IDPs.” With over one million Rohingya in Myanmar, the majority of whom reside in Rakhine, it appears that significant numbers of these people are still without access to emergency aid, clean water and shelter.
The immediate response to the flooding remains a priority but there are serious issues that present a long term threat, including the possibility of future food shortages. These pressing concern were recently highlighted by Michelle Penna, ‘Aside from the immediate urgency, a major challenge remains the long-term consequences of the crisis. The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation was quoted today by the Global New Light of Myanmar as saying that the flooding has damaged more than 426,000 acres of farmland and destroyed 56,000 acres, which spells trouble for the agricultural sector as well as the livelihoods of farmers.’
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) farmers need seeds and equipment urgently to replace the vast crops that had been damaged and avoid serious food shortages. Pierre Peron, spokesman for OCHA in Myanmar explained the urgency of the situation, “If farmers aren’t able to get rice seeds and plant in the next two weeks the window for the next season is pretty much over”. Failure to meet this deadline will result in food shortages and rising prices for rice and other essential commodities. If this occurs, it will again be the vulnerable who suffer most.
International agencies, including UNICEF, have acknowledged that Myanmar’s government has been managing the relief effort with greater efficiency than during previous natural disasters (the government initial blocked foreign aid during the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, a move that delayed urgently needed relief). There is still a long way to go before Myanmar overcomes this latest disaster, and the decisions made during the coming weeks and months will determine how successfully the country recovers. With elections scheduled for later this year, these floods are a test for the country’s leaders who will be hoping their actions can sway the electorate, many of whom remain undecided ahead of the November poll. This situation again leaves the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and the right to vote, in a precarious situation with the country’s leaders focusing their relief efforts on those who can reelect them.
For now, it is essential cultural prejudices do not impede aid for the most needy, regardless of their legal status, religious beliefs or ethnicity. With numerous international agencies now on the ground it is hoped the Rohyinga will receive sufficient aid and support without prejudice. Hopefully, during their time in the region, these international aid agencies will be able to monitor the situation and keep the world informed of how relief efforts are reaching all communities, including the Rohingya.