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Humanitarian Emergency Developing in Western Myanmar

by Joshua Kurlantzick
May 1, 2014

kyein-ni-pyin Kyein Ni Pyin camp for internally displaced people is pictured through the windows of an empty building at the camp in Pauk Taw, Rakhine state, in this photo taken April 23, 2014. Restrictions on international aid have exacerbated a growing health crisis among stateless Muslim Rohingya in west Myanmar (Minzayar/Courtesy: Reuters).

As President Obama has traveled through Asia this past week, media attention has rightly focused on his trip and on some of the highlights (United States-Philippines defense agreement) and lowlights (breakdown of TPP talks, the president’s decision not to meet Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim). But although the president has briefly mentioned the looming catastrophe in western Myanmar, he has not recently devoted much time to talking about the situation there.

A new story in Reuters, which already won a much-deserved Pulitzer for excellent reporting earlier this year on the crisis in western Myanmar, shows how the situation in Rakhine State, already disastrous, has emerged into a full-fledged humanitarian emergency comparable with some of the worst in the world.

Basically, for nearly two years now it could have been predicted—and was predicted by many people—that the inter-religious conflict in Rakhine State eventually would have enormous repercussions for the health and welfare of both Muslims and Buddhists living in the state. The remoteness of many communities affected by violence, the rising number of internally displaced people, and the lack of any real government health care infrastructure combine to foster and spread disease. Until recently, international aid organizations—including the biggest health care operation in Rakhine State, Doctors Without Borders—were helping the state stave off the worst possible humanitarian emergency, even as Buddhist paramilitaries raged throughout Rakhine and Naypyidaw looked the other way. Now, with many aid organizations expelled from Rakhine, there is nothing to stop the emergency from spiraling further out of control. Unfortunately, Naypyidaw still either denies there is a serious problem in Rakhine State or abets the catastrophe.

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  • Posted by Steve Coe

    The enormity of the crisis in Rakhine State is rightfully drawing much needed attention. One major source of much of that attention has come from the leaders of the global Muslim community, whose outspokenness has been appropriately noted in the media of many countries. Hopefully, the public statements of world leaders will result in some on-going dialog with those in Myanmar who have the responsibility to care for the well-being of all people who live there, regardless of whether those authorities acknowledge citizenship status for them or not. The recognition that the government is doing little to resolve inter-faith conflict among its citizens by leaders of other nations is an effective tool of accountability.

    It should not be overlooked, however, that other humanitarian crises have been on-going for decades in the form of what may accurately be considered state-sanctioned crimes against citizens of Myanmar among several of the ethnic minority groups. For some reason that I do not fully comprehend, the global media has chosen to largely ignore the atrocities committed by the military powers of Myanmar against the Karen, Shan, Kachin, Chin, and others. It is not for lack of credible information from trustworthy sources, for there are several writers and NGO’s that have been documenting these acts and making that information available to western governments, the UN, media, etc. Is it perhaps because those oppressed people do not have the benefit of a voice that is as outspoken as the oppressed Rohinga people have?

    I was pleased to hear of President Obama’s statement regarding the Rohinga, but left wondering why similar public expectations of accountability have never been articulated relative to the others who have suffered under the military for so long?

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