The number of civilians displaced during the past year amid an uptick in armed conflict in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state has reached more than 100,000, a regional relief organization said Monday, as authorities continue to limit area access to groups providing aid.
The new figure based on on-the-ground surveys of internally displaced persons (IDPs) by the Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC) is an increase from the relief group’s November tally of 92,500 villagers who had fled their homes due to fighting between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA).
Hostilities between the two militaries intensified in late 2018, as the AA stepped up its efforts to achieve greater autonomy in Rakhine and establish a headquarters there. After AA fighters conducted a deadly attack on police outposts on Jan. 4, 2019 — Myanmar’s Independence Day — country leader Aung San Suu Kyi ordered the government army to crush the rebels.
As the fighting continues meanwhile, humanitarian aid groups are struggling to get food and supplies to the ever-growing number of IDPs.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it has provided food, medical supplies, and drinking water to roughly 50,000 civilians in over 100 displacement camps in the state.
“In December 2018, the ICRC and the Myanmar Red Cross Society visited over 100 IDP camps in Kyauktaw, Buthidaung, Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, Minbya, Mrauk-U, and Maungdaw townships and met with IDPs,” said Kyaw Khaing Min, an ICRC spokesman in Myanmar.
“We have been providing food supplies, medical aid, drinking water and other essential items to the IDPs,” he said. “So far, we have provided these supplies to over 50,000 IDPs.”
Besides the ICRC, the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) and Myanmar’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement have also been delivering food to IDPs in northern Rakhine state.
But the REC says that international relief groups must still coordinate their plans with the government and obtain permission from authorities who limit where they can go in the state and to which IDP camps they can deliver supplies.
Some are not counted
The group also cites the government’s official tally of IDPs, which stands at only 40,000, as a major obstacle to getting more humanitarian aid into conflict-affected areas.
Because the aid is based on government definitions and data, not all IDP who need supplies are getting them, said REC secretary Zaw Zaw Tun.
“Not all IDPs receive aid,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The government only count IDP camps that fits their definition and provide aids to them.”
The government only counts civilians living in IDPs camps as being displaced, and omits those who have fled to other villages or into the jungle or have sought shelter with relatives.
“The international organizations are also required to refer to the government’s data,” Zaw Zaw Tun added. “If they try to provide aid to IDP camps in other areas, they have to request permission. Even after they receive it, they are prohibited from going on account of security reasons.”
Civil society organizations helping the IDPs said they cannot provide supplies to the camps they wish to serve because of the permission requirement and because of authorities who prevent them from traveling by land and water in the region.
Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the Myanmar’s military’s Western Command which is responsible for Rakhine state, told RFA that authorities allow all humanitarian aid groups to travel if they have permission from the central or state government.
“If the Union government or the state government and local authorities gave them permission, then there is no reason we wouldn’t approve,” he said.
The government says that IDPs have been provided rice rations and 500 kyats (U.S. $0.33) each daily, Win Myint, Rakhine’s minister of municipal affairs and spokesman.
“When we get lists of IDPs from local administrations, we forward them to the central government in Naypyidaw,” he said. “All they need is to communicate with us.”
The more than 700 displaced civilians at the Kanhtaunggyi IDP camp in Myebon township, who require 10 bags of rice and 600,000 kyats (U.S. $400) daily to cover meals and other expenses, relay on aid from the ICRC and WFP because the government provide nothing, said Thein Win, the person in charge of the camp.
“We have received rice; it’s enough for two or three months, but we still have to spend money on meat and groceries such as cooking oil and salt,” he said. “We are scraping by.”
“We got some dried fish from private donations,” he added. “We are eating these rations bit by bit. We are now out of cooking oil. We also need cash to buy fish for meals.”
Woman injured in blast
While the IDPs struggle to get enough food in the camps, Myanmar and Arakan forces continue to battle it out in various parts of northern Rakhine.
Mortar shells landed in an ancient temple area in Kyauktaw township, injured a woman in her home nearby, a local aid group said Monday.
The Phyusin Myittar humanitarian group from Kyauktaw town said the injured woman — 20-year-old U Win Aye — was hit by a fragment from the mortar shell explosion around 5 p.m. Sunday in her home in Maha Myat Muni village.
“I heard there was a landmine explosion,” said Nyi Pu, the group’s chairman. “Afterward, I heard the military had fired a mortar in response. A woman was hit by the mortar shell blast while she was at home.”
U Win aye is being treated for chest and forehead wounds at the township hospital, he added.
Local residents said the earlier explosion came from an AA landmine attack on a military convoy.
“I heard there was a mine explosion near the Maha Myat Muni temple, so the soldiers near the temple must have fired back in response, and they hit a girl from Maha Muni village,” said Maung Hla Kyaw, a Rakhine state lawmaker from Kyauktaw township.
Neither the Myanmar military nor the AA confirmed the attack.
“There is no such thing. There was no battle,” said military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun.
“Yesterday, there were two armed clashes — one in Mrauk-U and another one near Yarmaung bridge,” he said. “Only these two.”
“There are no military troops stationed at the said location,” Zaw Min Tun added. “But there might be some troops mobilizing in the area.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said he hadn’t received a report about the incident in Maha Myat Muni village.
RFA could not independently confirm which army was responsible for blast.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint and Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.