Officials in Myanmar’s strife-ridden Rakhine state have ordered local humanitarian relief groups to stop building makeshift camps for people displaced by armed conflict in Rathedaung town as the annual monsoon season approaches, a local lawmaker said Friday.
More than 160,000 civilians have been displaced by the 16-month conflict between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in northern Rakhine state, according to a tally by the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local relief group.
The internally displaced persons (IDPs) must rely on humanitarian assistance from civil society organizations amid a dearth of relief supplies from the state government.
The order signed by Colonel Min Than, Rakhine state’s border affairs and security minister, requires organizations providing relief services to first obtain permission from the state government.
Khin Saw Wai, a lawmaker from Rathedaung township, told RFA that the state government issued the directive Wednesday because humanitarian groups are building shelters without getting official permission.
“We learned about the situation only when the directive came out,” she said. “We stopped all construction of temporary shelters. We have other vacant plots in town to relocate to if the groups are not allowed to build at their current locations.”
“We are negotiating to see if we can relocate these facilities,” she added. “We are now doing our best to get the construction work done to provide shelter for the IDPs before the monsoon hits.”
In January, the Rakhine state government issued a directive saying that humanitarian aid groups had to obtain state permission before erecting camps or shelters for IDPs in northern Rakhine state.
The more than 800 displaced civilians currently in Rathedaung town have sought shelter in Buddhist monastery compounds and in the homes of friends and relatives.
Local NGOs and lawmakers are trying to help them move into the temporary shelters before the onset of the rainy season around mid-May.
Construction halfway done
Khaing Kaung San from the Sittwe-based Wun Lark Foundation, which is assisting the IDPs, disagreed with the move to ban the construction of temporary shelter in Rathedaung town.
“The government should have announced designated areas for IDPs in the first place and made them known to local and township-level administrations and civil society groups instead of ordering them to stop construction that is halfway done,” he said.
Rakhine officials also should have met with local humanitarian groups working on IDP issues before issuing the directive to determine the best locations and building standards for the shelters, he said.
The state government has set up seven IDP camps in Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Minbya, and Buthidaung townships since June 2019 at a total cost of about 5 billion kyats (U.S. $3.5 million) allocated by the central government for the temporary accommodations.
The government-erected camps in Rathedaung town, however, remain unfinished, Khin Saw Wai said.
Tun Kyaw Zan, director of the Yay Phi Kan IDP camp, objected to the new directive, saying that those who live there are dependent upon food provided by NGOs.
“We are not fine with the government’s arrangements,” he said. “We hope there will be enough supplies for the IDPs because this shelter was built by the state government.”
“But in reality there are so many inadequacies here, and it’s not good enough for us, so we have to request donations from civil society organizations,” he said. “We are surviving on their charity.”
The government provided the camp with 62 bags of rice and payments of 500 kyats (U.S. $0.35) per person 20 days ago, but nothing more since then, he added.
Tun Kyaw Zan said camp officials must turn away many other IDPs, because the camp can accommodate only 1,000 people.
RFA could not reach Win Myint, Rakhine state’s municipal affairs minister, to comment on the effect of the new directive on the half-built IDP shelters.
President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay on Friday took issue with statements made by the outgoing United Nations human rights envoy on Myanmar two days earlier.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar called for an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by the government army against Rakhine civilians.
Zaw Htay partially acknowledged that some civilians may have been killed as collateral damage when government soldiers conducted on-the-ground counter-insurgency operations against AA.
But he blamed the AA for a shooting incident in late April that killed a local World Health Organization employee who was transporting coronavirus test samples from Rakhine to Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon for processing.
“First of all, the WHO employee was killed by the AA. It is obvious,” he said at a news conference. “But we are investigating further because an international organization staff was killed.”
President Win Myint has called for an investigative committee to probe the deadly shooting.
Zaw Htay also said that AA troops have ambushed vehicles transporting food for civilians and shooting at residents while government military troops respond to AA attacks.
“AA soldiers attack the military using civilians as cover,” he said. “They also impersonate civilians and launch attacks. AA troops are intentionally provoking us to harm local civilians. When the military troops try to suppress their activities, they unintentionally harm civilians.”
AA’s spokesman Khine Thukha said Zaw Htay’s comments were incorrect.
“He is completely wrong,” he said.
“The Myanmar military is using U.N. employees and local civilians to distort stories about AA as part of its propaganda,” he said.
“It is horrible that they are doing this at the expense of U.N. staff to make up false reports about AA,” he added. “This is an outright instance of war crimes.”
Reported by RFA Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.