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“The situation in Rakhine is quite fragile and critical”

Posted by African Press International on October 24, 2013

Tomás Ojea Quintana

BUENOS AIRES,  – Myanmar’s government has signed individual ceasefire agreements with 14 main non-state armed groups since 2011, and is pressing ahead with plans for a national ceasefire agreement, originally scheduled for the end of October, but now delayed. The most recent round of negotiations with northern Myanmar’s Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) brought further hope of nationwide reconciliation.

But the government faces ongoing tension in western Rakhine State between ethnic Rakhines (primarily Buddhist) and Rohingyas (mostly Muslims), continued fighting in Kachin State which in the past year has left more than 83,000 people displaced in 42 camps, and allegations of human rights abuses against the country’s ethnic minorities.

Following his most recent mission to Myanmar in August 2013, IRIN met Tomás Ojea Quintana , the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, in his home city of Buenos Aires, to discuss the prospects for a nationwide ceasefire; segregation in Rakhine State, and allegations of army or police brutality against Rohingyas, as well as the implications of the transition to democracy for the country’s ethnic minorities.

IRIN: Given the history of broken ceasefires between non-state armed groups and the Myanmar government, what assurance is there of lasting peace with the latest round of peace talks?

Quintana: Now what is totally different is that it is a civilian government in transition to a democracy. As a human rights rapporteur, I would not say that it is a democracy yet. Democracy will take a long time. But it is a civilian government that is progressively gaining respect, particularly from Western countries.

This respect has given the civilian government some kind of [room for] manoeuvre to have this discussion with the ethnic armed groups [to disarm], which is of course very important [for the peace process].

The ethnic groups, all of them, have reservations about where this might go in terms of lasting peace, in terms of receiving the benefits from development, and in terms of their participation in the exploitation of natural resources.

They have reservations in terms of the political structure of the country, which currently does not [allow] ethnic groups the participation they would like to have [in governing themselves], and regarding their [own political autonomy].

Nonetheless the government has signed [peace deals] with most of the NSA [non-state actor] groups. There is only one group, the Kachin, the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], which is still holding conversations. They have recently signed an agreement… which is not exactly a ceasefire… but it goes in that direction.

And now, after my last mission [in August 2013]… I talked to the president and [his] advisers who are in charge of the peace process and they are planning to hold a national ceasefire agreement by October 2013.

IRIN: How would a national ceasefire differ from individual ceasefires?

Quintana: It will be a very important message to the international community that all [of] Myanmar is united towards the very important objective of peace. A lot of pressure is being put on the KIA [to sign].

The problem… is how these ceasefires will be implemented on the ground and how they will reflect the interests of all the villagers living in remote areas. We don’t see a comprehensive plan to implement these decisions. For example, one of the issues is what will happen to the [Burmese] refugees in Thailand? If you were a refugee would you want to go back?

There is no transparency, no plans [for implementation]. Nobody knows about the problem of the landmines, the problems with the land. There is a lot of land confiscation. It is a really serious problem how to move from a ceasefire – from stopping the bullets from flying – to something different, to build a united country. That is still very difficult and will take a long time.

IRIN: What are the barriers in Kachin State, the only place where the government has not reached an agreement with rebels?

Quintana: It is not clear. The KIA allegations are that the military is not actually following the decisions of the civilian president and there is still a militarization in the area, which they won’t accept. The Kachin community in particular has a strong stance on the possibility for [it] to run [its] own businesses in Kachin State [instead of competing with the military for business and income].

The government, though, is not opening up any spaces for these kinds of issues to be included in the dialogue so far. That is why it has been quite difficult to reach an agreement.

IRIN: How representative are non-state armed groups of people in their communities?

Quintana: That’s a difficult question because there is not a formal democracy and no formal electoral process, so how do you say to what extent they are representative.

What I have seen…is that ordinary people in villages really don’t understand and don’t believe that ceasefires and peace processes will bring concrete benefits to them. That is a problem. The leaders of ethnic groups need to have better connections with their own people.

“Ordinary people in villages really don’t understand and don’t believe that ceasefires and peace processes will bring concrete benefits to them. That is a problem”

And the same with the refugees. When you talk to the refugees about returning and the information they have in respect to what is going on in Myanmar, they don’t know. They don’t trust. They still fear a lot. It seems that the ethnic leaders need more work in this respect.

At the same time, the people and the ethnic army leaders have faced oppression from the military regime for decades and that is very, very tough to lead, and to recover from that, and to try to [be] more organized with your communities is not easy.

IRIN: What can be done to engage communities more in peace talks?

Quintana: The government and the ethnic leaders are doing a lot… to settle the problems at the top, at the highest levels. But they need to involve the communities in a more widespread and comprehensive plan of action. You don’t see the communities being involved. And that has been the practice in Myanmar for decades. I mean that is how the military operated… giving instructions and expecting instructions to be implemented – period – without consulting. It’s part of a historical problem in Myanmar. It is still there.

IRIN: And what about the Rakhine commission established by the Myanmar government? What are your thoughts on its recommendations on ways to prevent violence?

Quintana: They [the commission] never addressed what happened – the human rights abuses. This is a clear shortcoming and it is one of my concerns. And I am calling for the [UN Human Rights Council] to continue to address this. The allegations of what happened are very serious. Widespread human rights abuses, torture of hundreds of prisoners in Buthidaung [a prison in Rakhine State holding an estimated 1,000 Rohingyas], a place I have visited, and the government has not done anything about that. The situation in Rakhine is quite fragile and critical.

“The situation in Rakhine is quite fragile and critical”

IRIN: What is the potential of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to help mitigate what is now a regional crisis?

Quintana: ASEAN countries don’t want to get involved. Based on the non-interference provision of ASEAN charter, they do not want to interfere. There is no potential [for ASEAN] as a regional mechanism [to pressure the Myanmar government to resolve the conflict]. I tried many times to address ASEAN, to let them know they have an important role to play… It is becoming a regional, not a national problem.

IRIN: Is the government putting any foundation in place to allow Rohingyas to return to their homes in northern Rakhine State?

Quintana: No… The original places of the Rohingyas are being used for some other purposes by the government.

IRIN: How can the humanitarian community support shelter for the displaced?

Quintana: There is a dilemma because the [displaced] people still need access to humanitarian aid. So if you do not provide that because you say you do not agree with [the government’s] policies of making settlements permanent, then you are not delivering the aid. So you have a problem there. And the humanitarian agencies or donors try not to get involved in the political arena of a country.

IRIN: What are the risks of long-term segregation of Buddhists and Rohingyas, where government- monitored encampment have cut displaced Rohingyas from their land and livelihoods?

Quintana: It’s going to be a disaster because many of the areas that you can look into in respect to the Rohingyas, how Rohingyas are treated, you always see obstacles, limitations, and intentions to not help them at all.

IRIN: What role can civil society play in reconciliation?

Quintana: I hope they are included as participants in the implementation of the [ceasefire] agreement. That is the role they need to play but that is the role that their own leaders need to address with them [ethnic communities]. The[se communities’] leaders need to say that they want their own people to be involved.

My job as a rapporteur is to say, ‘You are an ethnic general of armed forces. I understand… you have been fighting for years against your army. But now you need to play some other role and let your people participate.’ It will take time…

[During my] last mission my convoy was attacked by Buddhist mobs [where I was addressing the issue of communal violence]. And the police stood by so it was kind of planned somehow… It was more than tense. I was frightened. But I am still holding the mandate [as Myanmar’s special rapporteur on human rights].

dm/pt/cb  source http://www.irinnews.org

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Bolstering access to life-prolonging drugs for people with HIV/AIDS

Posted by African Press International on September 3, 2013

MAE SOT,  – Efforts are under way in Myanmar to bolster access to life-prolonging drugs for people with HIV/AIDS, but tens of thousands will probably still be left out, say health experts.
“All the ingredients are there to make this work, but a comprehensive and integrated plan concerning all actors and activities is needed to ensure a proper and rapid implementation,” Peter Paul de Groote, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), told IRIN.

In June, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria pledged more than US$160 million over the next four years to Myanmar to improve access to anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs for patients, including those in neglected border regions and some controlled by ethnic armed groups.

“The challenge is that some of the areas are not directly managed by the government,” Eamonn Murphy, country coordinator for the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), explained. “However, I think there is a genuine commitment to provide services in these areas.”

According to UNAIDS, there are about 220,000 people with HIV in Myanmar of whom 120,000 are in need of ARVs. From 2011 to June 2013, ARV treatment coverage climbed from 32 percent of diagnosed patients to nearly 50 percent, inching closer to the government target of 85 percent by the end of 2016.

In 2012, Myanmar officials declared that the availability of ARV treatment had expanded to nearly 100 sites – up from 57 in 2008.

Yet, more than 70 percent of those treated were in the nation’s two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, along with Kachin State, while coverage in other areas remained inadequate.

The Global Fund is currently in talks with various stakeholders on access to war-torn border regions and expects to roll out services in 2014.

“We envisage an expansion of services to these areas with life-saving drugs being brought into the conflict zones and other hard-to-reach areas,” said Andrew Hurst, a Global Fund spokesperson.

But despite the Global Fund boost, Myanmar is still looking for other donors to fill a $110 million funding gap in its national response up to the end of 2016, Murphy said.

Furthermore, some health workers claim HIV prevalence – the third highest in the Asia-Pacific region – could be worse than reported as scarce healthcare in border regions, compounded by a fluid migrant population, may have further spread the virus.

“I think that there are thousands of unknown HIV cases,” said Aye Aye Mar, founder of Social Action for Women (SAW), a non-profit group that supports Burmese HIV patients in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. “We will never know if they have the virus and many won’t know themselves because they don’t get tested.”

WHO guidelines could boost ARV demand

MSF, the largest ARV provider in Myanmar, also predicts a greater demand for treatment after the World Health Organization set new guidelines in June stating that adult patients with CD4 (a white blood cell that targets infection) counts of 500 or below should receive ARVs when immune systems are stronger.

Myanmar’s ARV policy of treating adults with CD4 counts of 350 or below will need to be updated, allowing more infected people to access the drugs, MSF officials say.

“For this, many more treatment sites will have to be opened in areas where so far no treatment is available,” de Groote said.

Seeking help in Thailand

Meanwhile, many impoverished Burmese living with HIV/AIDS continue to cross the Thai-Burmese border in the hope of receiving free treatment in Thailand.

Ma Yin Nu left her eastern Karen State village in 2007 when her daughter became severely malnourished after years of being mistakenly treated for tuberculosis.

“She was in very bad shape. I thought she would die and even the doctors expected it,” said Ma Yin Nu, adding that she herself probably transmitted the HIV virus to her daughter at birth after a blood transfusion at a Burmese hospital.

With ARV treatment, her daughter, Phyoe Thandar Win (17), has since seen her CD4 count skyrocket from two to more than 1,000, and is now healthy enough to attend school. She lives at a SAW shelter, which teaches women to sew garments that are sold to pay for their ARVs (about $170 per month).

“I would be happier living in my village,” she said. “But I need to stay here longer to get treatment.”

Under a Global Fund grant, the Thai government offers free ARV drugs to at least 2,700 foreigners nationwide, but many more remain on waiting lists. Only 70 people are eligible in the Mae Sot area, the main hub for Burmese migrants coming into Thailand, health workers say.

sk/ds/cb  source http://www.irinnews.org

 

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Tun Aung Kyaw says his TB was misdiagnosed

Posted by African Press International on August 22, 2013

Tun Aung Kyaw says his TB was misdiagnosed

WANGPHA,  – Struggling to breathe, Burmese migrant Tun Aung Kyaw sits up slowly in bed for a routine check-up at a Thai tuberculosis (TB) clinic along the 1,800km Thai-Burmese border.

This is the third round of treatment for the 29-year-old, who believes Burmese health workers misdiagnosed him with regular TB twice when he actually had multi-drug-resistant TB (MDR-TB), a form of the infectious disease harder to diagnose and cure.

“Even though I was on TB treatment I got weaker and eventually I was bed-ridden,” Tun Aung Kyaw told IRIN.

After 14 months of treatment, Tun Aung Kyaw’s condition never improved as the disease had destroyed his left lung. He now faces a two-year regimen of care to see if he can finally defeat the MDR-TB strain, which has a treatment success rate of almost 60 percent in South-East Asia, according to the Global Tuberculosis Report 2012 by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Inadequate detection and treatment are major obstacles and can result in cases of drug-resistant TB (DR-TB) such as MDR-TB, say health experts.

“Drug-resistant TB is a very significant health concern for Myanmar,” Peter Paul de Groote, the country’s head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), told IRIN.

Around 8,900 new cases of DR-TB are reported each year, but only 800 patients had access to treatment at the end of 2012, he said.

TB burden

Myanmar is among the world’s top 22 TB-burden countries with a prevalence rate of 525 cases per 100,000 people, more than three times the global average.

It is also a high burden country for MDR-TB, a complex strain immune to first-line drugs that requires two years of treatment, four times longer than non-resistant TB.

MDR-TB treatment costs nearly US$5,000 per patient, roughly 100 times more than the regular strain, according to an October 2012 WHO report.

From 22 to 23 August, WHO, along with MSF and Myanmar’s Ministry of Health, plan to hold a DR-TB symposium in Yangon aimed at ramping up services throughout the country, including neglected border regions.

“There are immense challenges in providing DR-TB treatment, and health care in general, to the remote border areas of Myanmar,” de Groote said.

Health experts fear countless more cases remain hidden in rural eastern Myanmar where armed conflict, rough terrain, lack of awareness and scarcehealth care can discourage TB-infected people from seeking care.

Proposed approaches for battling DR-TB include counselling to help patients cope with long and toxic courses of treatment, decentralized care in home communities, and rapid diagnosis to treat patients correctly and prevent further cases.

To do this, Thandar Lwin, manager of Myanmar’s National TB Programme, has urged the Burmese government to step up efforts to support TB measures, 94 percent of which are donor funded.

TB-infected patients live in these huts for the duration of their treatment at the Wangpha TB clinic

“The government budget is not enough and it is difficult to increase more than the previous year,” she said during an international TB workshop earlier this year. “There is a need for evidence to persuade the government that investment in health is worthwhile.”

In 2013, Myanmar is projected to have a US$22 million funding gap for TB care and control services, the WHO report said. On the other hand, rapideconomic growth may help ease the problem in the longer term.

Border run

Many Burmese are forced to seek TB care at donor-funded clinics along the Thai border, home to roughly one million migrants and displaced persons.

Two health clinics run by Shoklo Malaria Research Unit (SMRU), a Mae Sot-based field station for the Mahidol University-Oxford University Tropical Medicine Research Programme in Bangkok, offer free treatment and are inundated with patients.

From 2010 to March 2013, SMRU supported more than 810 TB patients, but had to refer 70 percent of them, and pay for their care at local Thai hospitals due to limited capacity.

About 18 percent of patients tested for first-line drug susceptibility at SMRU clinics had some form of DR-TB. Almost half have already been successfully treated, with others still on the regimen.

In June 2013, SMRU opened a specialized TB clinic in the village of Wangpha, near the Thai border town of Mae Sot, to handle the overflow. Plans are also under way to expand in-patient care at the second clinic since 60 percent of TB patients, especially those with drug resistance, need to be supervised by clinic staff.

Sein Sein, manager of the TB clinic, said several patients initially came in after showing symptoms for several months, when treatment should be sought if persistent coughing lasts for at least two weeks.

“Many patients only come for treatment when they are really sick, so they stay in the community and continue to spread the disease,” she said.

According to WHO, there were an estimated 650,000 cases of MDR-TB among 12 million TB cases worldwide in 2012.

sk/ds/cb source http://www.irinnews.org

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Not all monks preach pacifism

Posted by African Press International on July 16, 2013

BANGKOK,  – Influential Buddhist monks in Myanmar have been aggravating longstanding tensions between the country’s Buddhist and Muslim communities since violence erupted between the two groups in 2012, say experts. 

“The Burmese Buddhist monks may not have initiated the violence but they rode the wave and began to incite more,” said Michael Jerryson, a religious studies professor and co-editor of Buddhist Warfare, a recent 2010 publication examining the violent side of Buddhism in Southeast Asia and how Buddhist organizations there have used religious images and rhetoric to support “military conquest”.

For example, the “969” movement (the numbers hold significance in Buddhist teachings) is a nationalist anti-Muslim campaign founded in early 2013 in Myanmar to protect Burmese Buddhist identity. Leaders have referred to Muslims in derogatory terms and accused them of attempting to dominate Burmese society politically and economically.

Supporters wear stickers identifying their membership, which are also posted on Buddhist-owned shops and kiosks to encourage Buddhists to conduct business only with other Buddhists, and condemn those who buy from Muslims.

Audio CDs blast hate rhetoric in restaurants and shops across the country, including the speeches of an influential and well-known monk, U-Wirathu, who has sparked fierce international criticism for his anti- Muslim speeches, according to local news.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the government of not doing enough to stem his and other Burmese monks’ hate speech.

“The government is not implementing the basic rule of law to hold instigators of violence accountable… If you instigate and engage in violence you should be held responsible, whether you are wearing a saffron robe or not,” said Phil Robertson, deputy executive director for HRW in Southeast Asia.

While the ideals of Buddhist canonical texts promote peace and pacifism, discrepancies between reality and precepts “easily flourish” in times of social, political and economic insecurity, such as Myanmar’s current transition to democracy, according to Jerryson.

Monks serve as one of society’s main moral compasses in Theravada Buddhism – practised in Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Their influence has reached into the political life of most of these countries, creating a fusion between religion and national identity.

In Myanmar’s ethnically and religiously heterogeneous society, non-Buddhists are increasingly feeling the weight of Buddhist radicalism, say analysts.

Longstanding state persecution of non-Buddhists

Despite the country’s demographics boasting a 90 percent Buddhist majority of Myanmar’s estimated 60 million people, the “969” campaign is predicated on fear of the country being overtaken by Muslims (some 5 percent of the population, most of whom are both disenfranchized and stateless) determined to spread Islam and destroy Buddhist communities.

“Even the most peace-loving religious traditions can be fused with movements of ethnic anger and political power that lead to violence,” Mark Juergensmeyer, the director of the Orfalea Centre for Global and International Studies at the University of Santa Barbara, California, and expert on religious violence, told IRIN.

“If Islam, a religious tradition whose very name means peace, can be associated with violence [by extremists] it should be no surprise that there are angry Buddhists who become violent as well,” explained Juergensmeyer.

The entanglement of Buddhism with the Burmese national identity dates back to the 1962 advent of military rule, and continues even after a quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011.
Burmese politics promote a homogenous Buddhist, Burmese identity through longstanding state persecution of non-Buddhists, according to the Oxford Burma Alliance (OBA), an advocacy group based in London’s Oxford University promoting the rights of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

“Persecution has always been part of the national policy of `Burmanisation’, an ultra-nationalist ideology based on the racial purity of the Burman ethnicity and its Buddhist faith,” reported OBA.

“When monks tell people violence is OK, and that it will gain [karmic] merit for people, it is a powerful enabling force”

Monks have historically played a prominent political role in Myanmar, most notably in the 2007 peaceful demonstration known as the Saffron Revolution. Tens of thousands of monks marched to denounce the military regime’s brutality, which resulted in thousands of arrests of monastic community members.

However, six years later, the monastic marchers are no longer preaching pacifism.

Violence targeting ethnic Rohingya (Muslims of Indian ancestry based in Rakhine State near the Bangladesh border) in June and October 2012 killed at least 250 and has resulted in the segregation of 140,000 Muslim Rohingya in almost 90 closed camps for internally displaced persons near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.

Rioting spread in March 2013 to the country’s central city of Meikhtila, destroying up to 1,200 houses and killing at least 44 people. The latest violence marked the first time Burmese monks openly incited mass killings and the destruction of property.

And though 25 Buddhists were recently sentenced to as many as 15 years imprisonment for Meikhtila’s two days of bloodshed, these rulings followed weeks of punishments meted out almost exclusively to Muslims for violence that drove out some 30,000 Muslims from the city.

Fine print of pacifism

While the Buddhist teaching on `ahimsa’, or non-violence, is one of the religion’s five fundamental precepts, the impact on a person’s future life (another Buddhist belief is reincarnation) is not equal for everyone, but rather is based on the type of life form committing the violence and the intention of the perpetrator.

In Myanmar monks have used this belief to rationalize their dehumanization of Muslims, and classify violence against them as acts of self-defence, as long as the monks can prove “pure intentions”.

“Across Buddhist traditions, intention is an exception to the rule when committing violence,” said Jerryson. “If violence is seen as being a way to protect Buddhism and you have pure thoughts to help or defend that, then it becomes [acceptable],” he added.

But members in the international Buddhist community have condemned what they call manipulation of an exception to justify violence.

“We are deeply ashamed by the appalling treatment of Muslims now occurring in some Buddhist countries,” said Richard Gombrich, the founder and director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist studies, referring to ongoing violence against Muslims in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and southern Thailand.

“Theravada Buddhists, and particularly their leaders, are betraying the Buddhist value of non-violence, let alone kindness and compassion,” he added.

Critics of Buddhist-instigated violence say monks are tapping into long-standing animosity between Buddhists and Muslims at a time of enormous social upheaval.

“Muslims have become scapegoats to displace people’s fear and frustrations,” said the author Jerryson.

“Powerful enabling force”

Since November 2011, Myanmar has opened up its economy to foreign investment, increased political space for disparate and previously suppressed ethnic groups – such as the Rakhine Buddhists – to have a voice, and lifted press censorship laws.

Living in the second poorest state in Myanmar, Rakhine Buddhists have suffered marginalization from the central government as an ethnic minority that has long fought for greater political power in the majority Burman-ruled country.

Against a backdrop of economic and political change, “people look to monks to guide them; monks are like externalized super egos for the community. When monks tell people violence is OK, and that it will gain [karmic] merit for people, it is a powerful enabling force,” said Jerryson, the religious studies professor.

Reconciliation looking difficult

While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement earlier this month called on “moderate voices” from religious leaders and civil society to counter the country’s “dangerous polarization” and extremism, Robertson with HRW noted: “It is difficult for persons who want to stop the religious violence because then they are going against the religious and community leaders.”

Strong political and public support for “969” leaders and extremist monks have made it increasingly difficult for any Buddhists to speak out, while the near absence of government policies to promote community reconciliation heightens the risk of the re-emergence of violence.

Meanwhile, according to Refugees International, a US-based advocacy organization for displaced persons, Myanmar’s government continues to condone radical violent behaviour against Muslims by allowing hate speech to go unpunished, failing to protect members of the Rohingya community during recent outbreaks of violence, and continuing to arrest Muslim leaders in response to recent violence in disproportionate numbers.

Without addressing root causes as well as the grievances of all affected populations equally, inter-communal violence may spread to neighbouring countries hosting Buddhist and Muslim populations and pose “a further threat” to regional security and stability, warned the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

But all of this would require a shift in Myanmar’s attempt to create a Buddhist national identity.

“Reconciliation requires an ability by the state to establish a moratorium on violence. The idea that being Burmese means being Buddhist has to be put away,” concluded Jerryson.

dm/pt/cb  source http://www.irinnews.org

 end

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Eliminating plan in process in Myanmar

Posted by African Press International on July 9, 2013

Upsurge of heroin use in Asia has created greater demand for Myanmar’s opium

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Focus on poppy eradication in Shan State
  • Myanmar accounts for 23% of world’s poppy
  • Increasing food insecurity in Shan
  • Stronger heroin demand in China

BANGKOK, – A recent peace initiative in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State could play a key role in poppy eradication in a country which is the world’s second largest opium producer, experts say.

“It’s a very important milestone,” Jason Eligh, country manager for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Myanmar, told IRIN explaining a new plan to wean farmers off poppy in rebel-controlled areas. “It demonstrates a good starting point in developing trust.”

The plan, involving the Burmese government and its military, an armed ethnic group in Shan State, and UNODC, will allow survey staff into Shan State, responsible for 90 percent of the country’s poppy cultivation.

Despite past government efforts to rid the country of poppy, the rate of cultivation has steadily risen over the past six years, experts say.

The government has vowed to partner with the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) whose Shan State Army (SSA) fought for greater autonomy since 1964 before signing a ceasefire with the central government in 2011. In current peace talks, both parties and the UNODC agreed to help destitute farmers with alternative development programmes.

The anticipated multimillion dollar plan, slated for 2014 to 2017, will aim to improve the state’s infrastructure, health, education and crop substitution, said Eligh, who added that UNODC has worked with the Burmese government and armed groups before, but not in an active role during a peace process.

“There are increasing rates of poverty and food insecurity,” he said of Shan State. “Opium farmers are not bad people, they are just poor and hungry.”

The World Food Programme estimates that the state had the nation’s third highest food poverty level at 9 percent.

Within the context of efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN – Myanmar is a member) to make the region drug free by 2015, the Burmese government announced the new approach to fellow members at a 9 May drug control cooperation meeting in the capital Naypyidaw. There, Minister of Home Affairs Lt-Gen Ko Ko told delegates that alternative development was the “fundamental solution” to reduce poppy cultivation, and called on international support and donors for funding.

However, the ceasefire between the government and SSA remains fragile and skirmishes continue.

Fighting against other armed ethnic groups in opium-producing zones is also a hurdle for Myanmar, which accounts for 23 percent of the world’s poppy supply.

According to the 2013 UNODC world drug report released on 26 June, the country is also a major source of amphetamine-type stimulants.

Drug experts view the increased levels of opium as a growing threat to human security in neglected border regions, where roughly 300,000 households grew poppies in 2012, up from 256,000 the year before, an earlier UNODC report said.

Assessment in Shan State

This summer, UNODC officials will conduct an assessment of SSA-controlled areas to gauge what projects need to be carried out in Shan State.

Chairman of the RCSS Lt-Gen Yawd Serk told IRIN that for projects to work, they must be implemented “through the participation from the people”.

Rural, rugged Shan State, which covers almost a quarter of the country and shares porous borders with China, Thailand and Laos, offers drug-traffickers several routes into foreign markets. Poverty and instability make illegal activity all the easier.

In 1999, the government launched an ambitious 15-year drug eradication master plan that initially had success with an 83 percent drop in poppy cultivation in its first eight years. Nevertheless, insufficient alternative livelihoods, plus the fact that dry opium’s market value is 19 times more than rice per hectare, pushed many farmers back to poppies, according to UNODC officials.

drug watch report by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), run by Shan exiles in Thailand, said the opium trade is entrenched among poor farmers, rebel groups and pro-government militias who need to financially support their units, and drug syndicates who “take advantage of the state of affairs to invest, produce and trade in drugs”.

The upsurge of heroin use in parts of Asia, particularly in China, where there were 1.24 million registered heroin users in 2011, has also created greater demand for opium from Myanmar and even Laos, which grows about 3 percent of the world’s poppy plants, according to the UNODC drug report.

Two steps forward, two steps back

Compared to historical figures, the present rate of poppy cultivation is still considered low. In the 1980s, Myanmar was the top global opium producer until Afghanistan took over in 1991.

Down but now rising – a problem with the plan

At the start of its drug eradication plan, Myanmar was growing poppy on roughly 100,000 hectares annually, before it dropped to 21,600 hectares in 2006 and then rose again to 51,000 hectares in 2012, according to UNODC.

Burmese officials were confident of stamping out all opium production by 2014, the final year of its plan, but in October 2012 they backtracked and extended the deadline to 2019. They said drug eradication was a “national duty” and requested help from local people, NGOs, the private sector and UN agencies to implement anti-drug campaigns, the Myanmar Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) reported.

“The government has realized that eradication is not the only way,” Eligh said. “They need to underline the human security causes so households aren’t facing hardship.”

Meanwhile, allegations of crooked factions within the Burmese military, called the Tatmadaw, have hampered progress. “The Tatmadaw has been giving cover to the drug traders and committing most [of the] corruptions,” said Lt-Gen Serk.

At the same time, national leaders have been accused of supporting the drug trade, with seven “drug lords” serving as members of parliament for the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, led by reformist President Thein Sein, according to SHAN.

A bumpy road ahead

Many poppy farmers cultivate the illicit crop due to conflict and poverty. Education and health facilities are inadequate, and the few roads mean access to markets to sell legitimate crops is difficult, whereas drug-traffickers come to farms to buy poppy harvests, experts say.

In 2012, at least 45 percent of poppy farmers told those conducting surveys in Myanmar that they grew poppies to get more cash for food. “Opium is the safest and most profitable cash crop,” said Shawn Kelley, a UNODC analyst based in Bangkok.

Still, poppy farmers do not become rich. Drug-growing farmers earn roughly 1 percent of the global illicit drug income. In Myanmar and Laos, a poppy farmer can make just US$200 per year. Drug traffickers rake in much of the profits by exploiting these socially and economically marginalized farmers, according to the Alternative Drug Report, a critical assessment of the global war on drugs.

The report says “alternative development” does not impact overall drug crop production: any localized programmes only displace production and its problems to other regions or countries.

Ohnmar Khaing, coordinator of the Food Security Working Group in Myanmar, an umbrella group of national and international NGOs, argued that limited efforts have failed to fix the poppy issue. She told IRIN poppy farmers may find alternatives or other professions but it will need “investment and encouragement of regional governments and relevant stakeholders”.

UNODC says 95 percent of Shan State villages did not receive agricultural aid in 2012.

Although optimistic on the potential build-up of alternative development in Shan State, Khaing said she worried the programmes could be marred by poor coordination and lack of transparency.

In 2009, UNODC began at least two food security projects in the state, worth roughly $5 million for about a five-year period. The projects seek to reduce opium cultivation, improve roads, health care and education, yet they only cover 10 villages.

Depending on the situation, it can take up to a decade for an area to become sustainable, experts say.

Whether the current ceasefire will hold long enough for a robust programme in Shan State remains unclear.

sk/ds/cb source http://www.irinnews.org

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Analysis: Where aid can do harm

Posted by African Press International on July 6, 2013

BANGKOK,  – The aid community should proceed carefully to avoid enflaming sectarian tensions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State more than a year after the first wave of inter-communal violence.

“The biggest challenge faced by humanitarian aid groups to operate in contexts of sectarian violence is to be perceived as delivering aid in a biased manner,” said Jeremie Labbe, a senior policy analyst of humanitarian affairs at the UN International Peace Institute (IPI) based in New York.

Since inter-communal fighting broke out between ethnic Rakhines (mostly Buddhist) and Rohingya (predominantly Muslim) in June and October 2012, displacing up to 140,000 people, humanitarian assistance to Rakhine State has totalled more than US$52 million, according to the European Commission’s aid body ECHO.

Aid organizations working in Rakhine State [need to] take a conflict-sensitive approach to providing aid so that they do not fuel existing tensions between communities,” Oliver Lacey-Hall, the acting head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Myanmar, told IRIN.

In recent decades, humanitarian aid has been directed at the Rohingya in western Rakhine State due to systematic state-sanctioned discrimination that has left roughly 800,000 people stateless, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This focus has engendered hostility among some in the majority Buddhist population (ethnic Rakhines), who felt marginalized and threatened by people they consider to be illegal migrants.

Meanwhile, the separation of Muslim Rohingya in nearly 90 official camps and sites for internally displaced persons (IDPs) risks cementing segregation between the two communities, fears ECHO, which has expressed concern that any housing construction in the camps for the displaced may lead to long-term physical division.

Conflict sensitivity

While OCHA encourages humanitarian providers to adopt a “conflict-sensitive” approach to aid distribution, which requires clear communication with communities to explain the basis of aid distribution, past humanitarian interventions in Rakhine State have contributed to an uneasy relationship between aid providers and ethnic Rakhines.

“Without addressing the very real perception among the Rakhine population that assistance has been disproportionately provided to Rohingya, it will be difficult for humanitarian aid groups to decrease tension,” said Anagha Neelakantan, the deputy director for International Crisis Group’s (ICG) Asia programme, speaking from Kathmandu, Nepal.

In order to appear impartial, humanitarian agencies must “have a balanced approach” and reach out to all affected communities, according to Labbe.

While most aid organizations assist both ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya indiscriminately, the Rohingya have disproportionately suffered the consequences of recent inter-communal strife.

Most of the 3,000 previously displaced ethnic Rakhine people have returned to their places of origin, with support from central and local government, according to ECHO.

“Sticking to the principle of impartiality [and providing aid on the basis of need] means that the bulk of aid [is] directed toward the group that suffered the most during the violence and now faces the biggest needs, in [this] case the Muslim Rohingya,” said Labbe.

But it also means that aid risks exacerbating sectarian tension, as well as the insecurity of humanitarian staff working on the ground.

“It is up to aid agencies to redouble efforts to explain and communicate with all segments of the population why aid is distributed in a certain way, and how – in order to mitigate possible negative effects,” said Labbe.

Construction in camps divisive

While IDPs still lack adequate food, housing, and health, focusing on only those immediate needs without addressing broader political concerns may condone a securitized, restrictive IDP camp setting that obstructs livelihoods, freedom of movement and, ultimately, prevents reconciliation, according to activists.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the current situation of “warehousing” – where Rohingya people are “penned in by local security forces” in both official and unofficial camps – is untenable for forging peace in Rakhine State.

“The situation that has evolved, with no freedom of movement for the Rohingya IDPs, follows the plan of the Rakhine extremists; to drive one community out of a place and contain them in camps,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, explained.

“The danger is that funding temporary or semi-permanent shelters in the Rohingya IDP camps could contribute to making the ethnic/religious partitioning permanent,” said Mathias Eick, ECHO’s regional information officer for Southeast Asia, which has committed up to $19 million in 2012 and 2013 for humanitarian assistance, including food, livelihoods, household items and health support to IDPs in Rakhine State.

“Our problem is not with shelters per se, but rather with supporting the construction of shelters in the camps, which may result in permanent segregation of the communities… We would rather see those displaced return voluntarily to their home villages and towns where we could provide assistance for rebuilding. Shelter needs in the camps have to be balanced with the humanitarian principle of `do no harm’” he added.

A US-based NGO, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (previously Collaborative for Development Action) has a training module that examines how assistance in conflicts interacts with conflicts.

“When assistance workers understand the patterns by which assistance can have harmful effects, and the opportunities by which it can also have additional positive effects on overcoming conflict, they can… avoid doing the harm that has sometimes been done in the past, and [help] rebind and re-connect people rather than divide them,” wrote project staff.

Long-term segregation in Rakhine State may make the task of addressing historical tensions between the two communities more difficult, according to ICG’s Neelakantan.

Since January 2013, Rakhine local authorities and the central government have been providing bamboo material for houses in the 89 camps and settlements for Rohingya IDPs. The bamboo is then used to construct barrack-type structures providing accommodation for up to eight families per building.

With the ongoing rainy season from May to September, the UNHCR and OCHA listed shelter as an urgent need and campaigned for $2.5 million in April 2013, the requirements of which have since been covered by the Myanmar government.

 Government needs to do more

While a conflict-sensitive approach may help avoid mutual hostility between the two communities, ultimately the responsibility for addressing turmoil and promoting peace lies with the government, rights advocates insist.

“There is a limit to what humanitarian aid providers can do to defuse conflict and unrest,” said Robertson.

Experts list poverty, marginalization, and discriminatory laws as root causes for deep-seated grievances, requiring government-driven political recognition and protection of human rights for both groups, for example granting Rohingya Muslims citizenship.

“It is the responsibility of the Burmese government to get to the bottom of the unrest, but so far they [have not taken enough action] to promote reconciliation and face down the instigators of violence and unrest,” said Robertson.

While the government established an Inquiry Commission on the Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State in 2012, and a report detailing recommendations was published in April 2013, concrete action to stem violent extremist rhetoric has yet to be taken, according to HRW and ICG.

“Decisive moral leadership is required by both President Thein Sein and [opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi to prevent violence from spreading,” said ICG in November 2012, a need largely unchanged today.

“The government must strive to find solutions to the conflict. Community and religious leaders also have a major role to play to defuse tension and promote peace,” said OCHA’s Lacey-Hall.

dm/pt/cb source http://www.irinnews.org

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Conflict boosting trafficking – More women are at risk

Posted by African Press International on June 9, 2013

More women are at risk

BANGKOK, – Women in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State are increasingly susceptible to human trafficking, said a new reportreleased on 5 June by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT). “Thousands of young women are at risk,” KWAT spokesperson Julia Marip told IRIN.

Sporadic clashes over the past two years between the Burmese government and Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting for greater autonomy, have created greater opportunity for traffickers to prey on internally displaced persons (IDPs), the report said.

Despite recent peace talks, the ongoing conflict continues to block regular aid to the camps, fuelling poverty and trafficking, including a report of underage girls being sold to Chinese men for up to US$6,500. The KWAT report highlights 24 cases of IDPs forced into marriage, labour or the sex trade, but there are likely to be many more.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are over 85,000 IDPs in Kachin and Shan states, including over 50,000 in KIA-controlled areas.

sk/ds/rz source http://www.irinnews.org

 

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Myanmar: Rohingya’s IDPs have Limited health options

Posted by African Press International on June 2, 2013

Health access in the camps in limited

SITTWE,  – Aid workers are calling for better health access for an estimated 140,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, most of them Rohingya Muslims.

Although a number of NGOs and government mobile clinics are providing basic health services inside the roughly 80 camps and settlements, they are limited, and emergency health referrals remain a serious concern, they say.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), conditions inside the camps, combined with the segregation of ethnic Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya and ongoing movement restrictions, are having a severe impact on health care.

Movement restrictions were slapped on Rohingyas around Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, after bouts of sectarian violence in June and October 2012.

Another concern is the negative attitude of many ethnic Rakhine to assistance provided to Muslim IDPs.

“With threats and intimidation both to health provider and patient, this becomes an irreconcilable dilemma,” Carol Jacobsen of the medical NGO Merlin told IRIN, adding that “hostile access”, limited transportation and poor security were obstacles to health care for the Muslim population.

Pregnant women dying unnecessarily”

Aside from IDPs, thousands of Rohingyas in their villages or places of origin – many reachable only by boat – are restricted from travelling to local township hospitals in the event of a medical emergency, aid workers report.

“MSF has just returned from areas where whole villages are cut off from basic services,” said Ronald Kremer, MSF emergency coordinator in Rakhine State. “What we have seen shows that current policies such as movement restrictions are having a detrimental impact on people’s health. This includes TB patients unable to access the treatment they need to stay alive, and pregnant women dying unnecessarily because they have nowhere safe to deliver.”

It’s estimated there are 5,000 pregnant displaced women living in the camps.

“Normally, these women would be going to government hospitals or clinics,” said Marlar Soe, field coordinator for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Sittwe, noting that government midwives, who are largely ethnic Rakhine, are not going into the camps.

Almost one year after the initial violence in Rakhine State, more than half the IDPs are in Sittwe, one of nine strife-affected townships. Most Rohingyas are confined to a series of camps on the outskirts of the town.

Security forces and metal barricades, topped with razor wire, prevent camp residents from leaving what activists are now describing as a ghetto-like prison.

ICRC evacuates a young child to Sittwe

Call for action on hospitals

The 12-bed Dar Pai emergency hospital is the only government-run health facility for the more than 100,000 Muslim IDPs and residents in an area which encompasses 11 IDP camps and makeshift sites, as well as five Rohingya host communities.

Doctors are rarely seen and medicine is in short supply, say IDPs.

“You’re lucky if you can get an aspirin there,” said Aung Win, a 57-year-old Rohingya man from the Mawlee quarter of Sittwe, referring to the hospital.

Edward Hew, head of relief operations for Mercy Malaysia, says it is time for the international community to come together with state health authorities to strengthen the Dar Pai hospital as it is currently the only option available. “Many patients are not comfortable with being referred to Sittwe Hospital,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) currently provides emergency medical evacuation services to Sittwe Hospital. “This, however, is not always easy given the security situation, as well as the limited number of beds [12] allocated for Muslims,” said one aid worker who preferred anonymity.

Meanwhile, with monsoon rains having begun, there is growing concern about the risk of water-borne and communicable diseases.

“Many of the risk factors for an outbreak are present, including overcrowding, open defecation, limited potable water, poor hygiene standards and many living in makeshift shelters,” said Ingrid Maria Johansen, project coordinator for MSF in Sittwe, warning that an outbreak of acute watery diarrhoea could spread quickly through the camps.

ds/cb  source http://www.irinnews.org

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Aid access still limited for displaced

Posted by African Press International on April 7, 2013

LAIZA,  – More than 83,000 people have run from their homes, funneling into some 45 camps and settlements to escape fighting in Myanmar’s northeastern Kachin State. But over half the displaced are still unreachable by international aid workers because they are located in rebel-controlled areas. 

“We had to dig trenches around our home because the Burmese army [was] using fighter jets to attack KIA [Kachin Independence Army] soldiers near our village,” recalled 65-year-old Pokin Kon Dok. She fled her home near Laja Yang Village last December, carrying only her one-month-old granddaughter, after government forces launched an offensive against ethnic Kachin troops near the border town of Laiza.

Now, Polkin and her extended family share a single bamboo hut with six other recent arrivals in Je Yang, a camp in Laiza that currently houses an estimated 6,000 people. The area, near the site of a main rebel camp, is inaccessible by international aid workers.

Health fallout

In other parts of the camp, stone workers and labourers break large rocks to re-enforce dirt roads and pathways leading into the area. Others stack bricks into baskets on their backs, preparing to build latrines.

“The current ratio is one toilet for 60 persons, but that is not enough, so now we are building an additional 300 toilets in the whole of Je Yang camp,” said camp supervisor Brang Shaw.

Emergency aid standards require a minimum of one latrine per 20 adults or 10 children. Local health workers have reported treating a regular stream of internally displaced persons (IDPs) with stomach ailments caused by diarrhoea and parasites.

In southern Kachin State, a network of eight local aid groups, including Wun Pawng Ninghtoi (WPN), is providing food, clothing, shelter and medicine to nearly 10,000 IDPs in six camps.

The protracted conflict has taken a toll on diets and nutrition, say aid workers, who have not conducted any formal studies on malnutrition rates among the displaced.

WPN head Mary Tawm said that while basic foods like potatoes and rice are distributed, vegetables and meats are sparse.

Lack of access to clean water and sanitation has proved fatal.

“In January, seven children drank water from a mountain stream that was polluted with pesticides from a nearby sugar cane plantation, and one of the girls died. Several of them had to be transferred to a Chinese hospital for emergency treatment,” said Tawm.

And while the local hospital in Mai Jai Yang can treat routine health problems, more complicated cases
must be transferred across the border into China. Soldiers with heavy casualties have reportedly been transferred there as well.

“We needed to spend US$3,000 for 17 referred patients to the China side in January and another 20 patients in February, basically to save people’s lives, but we don’t have enough funding so we are asking our community for help,” she said.

International aid still blocked

“The international NGOs can get into the government-controlled area very easily, but it is difficult to get to the China border where most of the IDP camps are located and in need of the most [assistance],” explained Hkalam Samson, head of local NGO Kachin Baptist Convention.

Since the start of the conflict, most of the food and medical supplies in KIA-controlled areas have been donated by local religious groups, and the Kachin Independence Organization, KIA’s political wing.

Deemed unsafe by the government, rebel-controlled areas have been largely off-limits to international aid groups since the collapse of a 17-year peace agreement in June 2011. Only a small number of UN convoys have reached KIA-controlled territory since then, the most recent one being in mid-February this year.

“Several of the camps are overcrowded because nine camps on the Chinese side were shut down last summer by Chinese authorities, and the refugees were forced back onto the Kachin side of the border,” Samson added.

On the Burmese side of the border, the population of Lana Zup Ja camp has more than doubled from last year’s 1,138 to 2,689 at the end of March, according to WPN.

Given such crowded camps, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is concerned about potential abuses and the lack of international monitors in KIA-controlled areas. “When we build shelters through our [local] partners – who do have access – we cannot monitor their progress. We are also unable to conduct capacity building such as camp management or protection training,” said Anna Little, a UNHCR spokesperson in Myanmar.

Since fighting resumed in June 2011, 12 peace talks have been held between the government and rebels, including five in China.

Meanwhile, international groups continue calling for unfettered access to all of Kachin’s IDPs.

The KIA has been fighting for greater autonomy from Myanmar’s central government for the past six decades.

ss/pt/rz  source http://www.irinnews.org

 

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UNHCR calls on Dhaka to open border

Posted by African Press International on November 2, 2012

There are more than 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh

BANGKOK,  – The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called on Bangladesh to open its borders to Rohingyas fleeing sectarian violence in Myanmar.

“UNHCR continues to consider that until public order and security are restored for all communities in [Myanmar’s] Rakhine State, states should not forcibly return to Myanmar persons originating from Rakhine State,” Pia Paguio, senior protection officer and officer-in-charge of UNHCR in Dhaka, told IRIN on 29 October. “We thus continue to appeal to the government of Bangladesh to open its borders to those in need of a safe haven.”

Under Burmese law, the Rohingya – a persecuted minority of 800,000 – are de jure stateless in Myanmar and face constant persecution, while in Muslim-majority Bangladesh they are viewed as illegal migrants. 

Bangladesh has repeatedly said it will not accept any Rohingya refugees fleeing ethnic violence in neighbouring Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar over the past three decades, the vast majority to Bangladesh in the 1990s.

Displacement rising

According to Burmese government estimates released on 29 October, more than 28,000 residents have been displaced in Rakhine State following a week of deadly sectarian violence between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic (mainly Buddhist) Rakhine which began on 21 October.

At least 76 people were killed, and more than 4,600 houses and several religious buildings destroyed, in the unrest, the UN reported on 29 October. There was violence in the Rakhine State townships of Kyaukpyu, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Pauktaw, Ramree and Rathedaung. 

Tensions had increased after monks, and women’s and youth groups organized anti-Rohingya and anti-Organization of Islamic Cooperation demonstrations in Sittwe, Mandalay and Yangon, the report said.

The latest displacement comes on top of the 75,000, mostly Rohingya Muslims, currently displaced after communal violence erupted in June following the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by a group of Muslim men in May.

At least 78 people were killed and close to 5,000 homes and buildings were destroyed in that incident.

Most of the displaced are currently in nine overcrowded camps in Sittwe, separated from the rest of the community due to security concerns.

Closed border

There are more than 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh today, including more than 30,000 documented refugees living in two government-run camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara) within 2km of the Burmese border, according to UNHCR.

UNHCR has not been permitted to register newly arriving Rohingya since mid-1992. Most Rohingya are living in villages and towns in the Cox’s Bazar area and receive little to no assistance as the agency is only allowed to assist those who are documented.

UNHCR does not have access to the 193km Myanmar-Bangladesh border to verify the situation of persons arriving from Rakhine State. Moreover, Bangladesh’s closed border policy remains in effect.

Despite repeated advocacy efforts by UNHCR, civil society and the diplomatic community, Dhaka, fearing a major influx, closed its borders to persons fleeing communal violence Myanmar in June.

Those who did manage to make it across the border were rounded up and sent back to Myanmar. However, there are no reliable figures on the number of arrivals and the number refouled.

Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol.

“UNHCR reiterates its readiness to provide protection and assistance to the governments and the people of Bangladesh and Myanmar in addressing this evolving humanitarian situation,” said Paguino.

ds/cb
source www.irinnews.org

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