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Myanmar: impartial assistance for victims of violence in Rakhine state is vital

27-07-2012 Interview

In early June, inter-communal violence between the Rakhine and the Muslim communities affected thousands of people in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar. Together with the Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been providing basic but vital assistance to the wounded, the sick and the displaced. Anne Ryniker, Deputy Head of Operations for Asia and the Pacific, explains.

What is the situation in Rakhine state?

Violence broke out in early June and spread quickly, mainly to the northern half of Rakhine state. Maungdaw and particularly Sittwe townships were the hardest-hit in terms of the sheer number of people affected. According to initial official figures dated 24 June, 78 people were killed during the violence and 87 injured, while damage was inflicted on 3,000 residential buildings. At least 60,000 people were displaced in the greater Sittwe area alone; many others took refuge with relatives. One month later, it is still difficult to give a reliable estimate of the total number of people affected.

Is the situation still tense?

Beyond the damage to lives and property, there have been major consequences stemming from the very nature of inter-communal violence. Mutual suspicion and fear continue to hinder the movement of civilians, including civil servants and aid workers, often making it difficult for people to access basic services – such as health care – and for humanitarian organizations to deliver aid.

How do you manage to work in this situation?

In such a tense climate, acceptance by the communities concerned is not easy to maintain. And acceptance is critical to the very ability of humanitarian organizations to provide assistance. For the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, a rigorously neutral and impartial approach is essential. Communities must understand that we provide aid on the basis of need alone to all persons affected by violence without distinction as to race, religion or ethnic origin. And our actions must correspond to our words if we want people to believe that we do not take sides. The only way we can operate is on the basis of trust. This is why the ICRC cannot use military or other armed escorts.

What are the root causes of the dispute?

The situation is very complex and is deeply rooted in the history of the country and more broadly the region. The issues at stake include violence prevention, humanitarian needs, economic development, citizenship, and access to land and other resources. These issues require political solutions, concerning which the ICRC does not take a position. As I said earlier, the ICRC’s priority is to gain access to the area so that it can perform its humanitarian work. Our role is not to enter into polemics of a political nature or to analyse the situation publicly. That being said, the ICRC hopes that all the communities can live in harmony, in a safe environment, and it calls on all those concerned to take measures to that end.

What about the response of the MRCS and the ICRC?

MRCS volunteers stepped in very soon after the outbreak of violence, providing assistance for displaced people at 17 main sites. This included first aid for some 2,000 wounded people (with medical evacuations as required), psychological support for over 1,500 people, and help with water and sanitation. For instance, two water-purification plants were installed for civilians from both communities: one in Sittwe and the other in the village of Thee Chaung. In addition, clean water was distributed directly to more than 8,000 people at 16 different sites.

MRCS volunteers distributed basic items to the displaced, such as cooking sets, tarpaulins and soap. They also helped people separated from their families to reconnect with relatives by giving them access to phones and enabling them to write short messages.

Since 16 June, an emergency ICRC team stationed in Sittwe and composed of both national and international staff has been providing the MRCS with technical, logistical and financial support. Working jointly, the ICRC and the MRCS have so far been able to move about unimpeded and without armed escorts.

Have you approached the authorities about your concerns?

As in other contexts around the world, we work on a confidential and bilateral basis with the relevant authorities when deemed necessary.

What is the ICRC’s broader strategy?

Our immediate objective is to concentrate on vital needs in two key areas: health care, and water supply and sanitation. The MRCS and the ICRC will provide first aiders to assist the medical staff of mobile clinics operated by government medical authorities and others, such as the Myanmar Medical Association. Altogether, the first aiders will operate at 20 to 25 main sites covered by these clinics and will transport patients from both communities to referral hospitals. Both organizations will also continue to provide drinking water and address the issue of sanitation for displaced people.

How are you going to implement this strategy?

By relying on a substantial pool of MRCS volunteers recruited from different parts of the country, who will operate on a rotating basis. Beyond providing financial and technical assistance, ICRC staff are working side by side on a daily basis with their MRCS colleagues, carrying out joint surveys and other activities, such as transporting volunteers and patients in vehicles bearing the red cross emblem.

How do you see the future of this humanitarian operation?

All this is still a work in progress. Advances have been made because both the MRCS and the ICRC have so far been able to operate "across the lines“ and independently. However, acceptance by all, the linchpin of our whole response, cannot be taken for granted: it must be earned on a daily basis. We are committed to staying the course and increasing our assistance.


Photos

Anne Ryniker, the ICRC's deputy head of operations for Asia and the Pacific 

Anne Ryniker, the ICRC's deputy head of operations for Asia and the Pacific
© ICRC