Over the weekend, according to Radio Free Asia and other news reports, nearly all international aid groups operating in western Myanmar’s Arakan, or Rakhine, State, fled the state capital or hid in police stations and other (supposedly) secure locations. They had to flee or hide as mobs of angry Arakanese Buddhists attacked several aid workers, and threatened many other offices of international aid agencies. This comes on the heels of several other attacks on international aid agencies operating in Arakan State and on the government’s decision to bar Doctors Without Borders, the leading health care provider to internally displaced people in Arakan State, from operating in the state. The Irrawaddy has a summary of the events here.
This time, the specific trigger for mob attacks on Rohingya and aid workers was Arakanese Buddhists’ anger at the upcoming Myanmar census. The census is a powder keg; for one thing, it might show that a myth propagated by many hardline Buddhists, that Myanmar’s Muslim community is growing very rapidly, is just that–a myth. But hardline Arakanese Buddhists simply want to silence anyone working with Rohingya in the state. As the Irrawaddy reported, “Arakanese Buddhists sought to chase out humanitarian organizations providing support for the Rohingya Muslim minority, officials and residents said.”
The situation in Arakan State, already one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, is only going to get worse in the next year. Already, internally displaced people (IDP)–mostly Rohingya, but not all–across the state are living in squalid camps that have been called open air prisons. When I have visited these camps, I have found them among the worst IDP facilities I have ever seen. The aid organizations that are still operating in the state are some of the hardiest in the world, the most effective at working in dangerous and difficult environments.
If these aid organizations are forced to shut down operations in the state and furlough local staff, who are always the ones at the front lines of such violence, the humanitarian crisis in Arakan will explode, since one cannot expect the Myanmar government and the state government to provide food, decent shelter, or medicine to the IDPs. After all, instead of addressing the crisis the government has blamed aid agencies for being too sensitive to the concerns of internally displaced people in Arakan State.