By MOE MYINT
YANGON—More than 5,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in four townships in northern Rakhine State are without adequate shelter, and the Army is blocking food shipments to them, according to local relief groups.
U Khaing Kaung San of the Wanlark Foundation based in the state capital Sittwe told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that displaced civilians have been living in temporary structures consisting of tarpaulin sheets in Kyauktaw Township for several weeks.
Ko Maung San Win, a displaced resident of Taung Min Mro village, said neighboring Taung Kalarmin village was currently serving as a temporary home to about 700 IDPs. Most of the villagers abandoned their homes to escape heavy artillery fire nearby.
On Tuesday, a new depression in the Bay of Bengal brought torrential downpours to delta regions and the Rakhine coastline. The Meteorology Department forecasts continued heavy rain in the coming days.
Ko Maung San Win said, “We don’t have enough tarpaulins; we were wet the whole night on Monday.”
U Khaing Kaung San intended to travel from the urban area in Kyauktaw urban to Thulu Chaung, about a five-hour boat ride up the Lay Myo River, with rice shipments and local commodities for distribution to displaced villagers in Kyauktaw Township but military officers refused to allow relief vessels to proceed. The vessels were carrying relief items intended for more than 10 villages whose residents are sheltering in Taung Kalarmin.
He said General Administration Department (GAD) officials in Kyauktaw Township had given verbal permission for rice bags to be distributed, but joint Army/police teams had strictly prohibited relief workers from operating. In fact, such restrictions have been widely reported; the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) was blocked from doing relief work in Kachin rebel-held areas last year.
U Khaing Kaung San said if military and civilian authorities want to block food shipments, they should at least evacuate displaced villagers from the upper Kyauktaw region to safer places close to urban areas. He said nearly the entire population of 20 villages had been displaced. Shipments of rice were being allowed in some areas, but not in Thalu Chaung and Nga Sarai Kai villages, where the majority of IDPs are currently sheltering.
“I would say their action is apparently violating human rights,” said U Khaing Kaung San.
The UN’s Acting Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar, Knut Ostby, tweeted on the morning of Jan. 9 that he was “deeply concerned” about the situation in northern Rakhine. He said skirmishes between the Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar security forces have resulted in 4,500 people becoming IDPs so far. Ostby said he was shocked about the loss of life during the AA’s coordinated attacks on police outposts on Jan. 4.
He urged both sides to find a peaceful solution to the situation and to ensure humanitarian access to all people affected by the violence. He mentioned that the UN has been in touch with Myanmar authorities in recent weeks and has offered to support ongoing efforts to assist people in need.
“The Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator urges all sides to ensure the protection of all civilians and uphold their responsibilities under International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law. Mr. Ostby further appeals to all sides to intensify efforts to find a peaceful solution to the situation and to ensure humanitarian access to all people affected by the violence,” the UN said in its daily briefing.
Despite the UN’s claim that it has already offered humanitarian assistance to Myanmar authorities, community-based relief groups told The Irrawaddy they have not seen any international organizations on the ground, apart from the ICRC. Most of the emergency food relief was being overseen by local organizations.
Ko Zar Nee Phyu, a leading committee member of the Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC) who recently returned from the Kyauktaw region to Sittwe, said about four or five civil society groups have been trying to help IDPs since the conflict broke out in late December. However, they are currently barred by authorities from transporting rice bags to IDPs camped upstream from the town on the Lay Myo River.
Ko Zar Nee Phyu, an ethnic Mro, one of the Arakanese sub-ethnic groups, said his community relied on bamboo from the forest in Kyauktaw for its livelihood. Since the conflict had flared up there, no one had been allowed to enter, causing financial hardship for local people. He echoed other villagers’ reports that shelling had forced them to flee their homes.
“We need a long-term plan, otherwise thousands of people here will be in trouble in the rainy season,” Ko Zar Nee Phyu said.
He said some foreigners had collected information on the IDP population and enquired about the humanitarian situation in active conflict zones. He urged international relief agencies to monitor the IDPs’ situation and provide humanitarian assistance.
Many Rakhine youth in various townships are now collecting donations on their own initiative to help IDPs by establishing temporary reception camps, and by parking trucks near towns seeking donations. Concerns are growing that fighting between the AA and government troops will very likely escalate soon, as the government Army has sent at least one extra brigade (3,000-5,000 troops) to northern Rakhine.