The World Food Programme (WFP) is set to cut rations to vulnerable communities in conflict-hit states across Myanmar, the organization has revealed.
The news was confirmed last week in an email from WFP in response to questions from this writer. The email said, pending a “final agreement with the Government of Myanmar, starting from August 2015, reduction of food rations will take place for all IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Kachin, northern Shan and Rakhine States.” The respondent added that essential provisions for nursing mothers and young children will be protected, however.
The move will have the harshest impact in the country’s Rakhine and Kachin states where an aggregate total of several hundred thousand displaced people rely on aid for survival. In westerly Rakhine state, more than 800,000 ethnic Rohingya are rendered stateless and deprived of basic human rights as a result of government policy, resulting in minimal access to healthcare, education, and the means to make a living. Around 140,000 are confined to squalid IDP camps as a result of two bouts of violence which broke out in 2012, which saw whole neighborhoods razed and hundreds killed; those immured in the camps are entirely reliant on external support in order to meet their basic needs.
In Kachin state, located in the far north of the country, an estimated 100,000 people have been made homeless by fighting between ethnic Kachin rebels and Myanmar’s national army, known as the “Tatmadaw,” since a ceasefire broke down in 2011. Northern Shan state also hosts Kachin IDPs, in addition to ethnic Shan, Kokang, Chinese, and Lisu populations displaced by fighting between the government and assorted rebel groups.
Access to humanitarian aid has long been restricted by national troops in parts of Kachin state, allegedly for tactical purposes. Reports emerged in recent days of villages in Kachin having been deprived of food for more than a week due to restrictions effectively imposed by the army and local government; it has been credibly reported that these blockages were precipitated by Tatmadaw airstrikes.
The representative of WFP, a United Nations body created to provide food assistance to needy populations across the world, also wrote that while funding shortfalls – a long-standing problem – had played a part in the move, the decision to make cuts was “predominantly motivated by the changing humanitarian situation as a result of improved household food security situation among IDPs.”
However, this rationale appears to be contradicted by an internal government document obtained by The Diplomat. The paper, which was authored by an agency of the Rakhine state government, solely attributes the upcoming cuts in Rakhine state to a “shortage of funding” suffered by WFP. It also records that a meeting took place between Rakhine officials and the aid group in which the percentage of cuts was mutually agreed following “negotiation.”
According to the document, the outcome of this meeting between state officials and WFP was that rice will be reduced by 10 percent, while rations for other basic foodstuffs – beans and cooking oil – will be cut by a fifth.
Further indications of the government’s hand in the aid reductions were revealed by WFP in its correspondence with this writer. The cuts were, according to WFP’s email, linked to “an IDP prioritization exercise” which the Myanmar government had initiated, involving “reclassification of populations, return of IDPs to their places of origin or relocation/resettlement to nearby areas with greater access to livelihoods in Rakhine.”
“Following these developments and based on the latest assessment findings,” the email continues, “WFP, in close coordination with the Government, has reviewed its strategy to provide a more appropriate response to the changing humanitarian situation” – including the cuts to food aid.
The organization’s claims of an improvement in the humanitarian conditions in Rakhine and Kachin states have been fiercely disputed by rights groups and other NGOs approached by The Diplomat for comment; they also appear to be contradicted by an assessment produced by the British government earlier this month.
According to Matthew Smith of Bangkok-based rights group Fortify Rights: “The notion that the situation of displaced communities has improved is simply untrue. It’s not based in reality. Humanitarian space throughout the country has been consistently shrinking.”
“In Kachin State, IDPs in dozens of camps are facing shortages in everything from food and shelter to education materials for children. The Myanmar Army is still attacking so there are still situations of new displacement unfolding. Local humanitarian organizations have been scrambling to fill impossible gaps,” he continued.
Gum Sha Aung, program coordinator of Metta Development Foundation, an NGO that works with displaced people in Kachin state, likewise described declining humanitarian conditions in the area. “Humanitarian support to the IDPs is still far from humanitarian minimum standards. Meeting their basic needs like food and shelter is still a constant struggle,” she said.
A governmental assessment released this month appeared to report similarly unimproved conditions in Rakhine state. The “in-year update” on Myanmar produced by Britain’s Foreign Office observed that the “first six months of 2015 saw no improvement – and in parts a decline – in the humanitarian situation for much of the Rohingya community in Rakhine state.”
This view was echoed by international rights groups that monitor the plight of the Rohingya community in Rakhine state. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told The Diplomat “waving an international agency magic wand and unilaterally pronouncing the Rohingya humanitarian situation as better just as budget cuts sink in is simply too convenient and flies in the face of continuous reports about the worsening plight of displaced Rohingya.”
“Rather than cutting assistance, WFP should be demanding the government cease its policies to denigrate and discriminate against the Rohingya, and demand Naypyidaw step up with significant increases in resources to help, “ he added.
Food Shortages and Malnutrition
Rohingya sources in the largest IDP camp in Rakhine state located just outside Sittwe, the state capital, have also refuted claims that an improvement in humanitarian conditions in their area. One resident, who did not want to be named for his own security, said that he had been informed in advance about the cuts and admitted that he was worried about upcoming food reductions, as people were barely getting by on what rations they were already being granted and were also trading their food for other goods they needed, such as fuel.
“At the moment what people have is very tight,” he said. “People cannot use all [the food] they are given… they have to sell some to buy fuel, vegetables and fish, so I worry that people won’t get sufficient food after the cut.”
“Jack” Sadak, a Rohingya man also living in an IDP camp near Sittwe, told The Diplomat that food shortages and malnutrition were still commonplace, adding that what was needed was more food from international agencies, not less, but that the most needy in the camp had long been denied greater food assistance due to the actions of state authorities.
“If anyone wants to get food from WFP first they have to apply for [it through the] state government; if they accept it they can provide food,” he said. However, residents in several sites have had their requests turned down repeatedly, he claimed.
While the plight of those in “unregistered camps” has been well-documented, allegations of such forms of avoidable deprivation have received little independent verification. However, previously unpublished research by Fortify Rights made available to The Diplomat appears to support Sadak’s claim. The material includes interviews with residents in unregistered parts of the IDP cluster near Sittwe who told the rights group they had “applied for food rations to the government approximately 100 times.”
“We wrote letters to apply, and we gave them to WFP workers staff. They [WFP workers] are Rakhine. When we send a letter, they reject us every time, saying we are ineligible for rations. WFP reports this to us directly. We don’t know why [we are denied rations],” they added.
The report also notes that “aid agencies are aware of these communities and that they are not receiving aid. The UN has not registered new IDPs since December 2012,” leaving some communities with little to no direct access to food aid whatsoever for nearly three years.
It is feared that the impact of WFP’s ration cuts on top of such critical shortages may well drive more residents of the camps to try to flee Myanmar, only to end up in the hands of human traffickers in order to flee Myanmar.
In May, a “boat crisis” involving thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis migrants abandoned in trafficking vessels in the Andaman Sea drew the attention of the world’s media, prompting sharp criticism of Myanmar’s treatment of the minority. It is estimated that 100,000 Rohingya have fled the country for neighboring states since 2012, creating an acute refugee crisis in the surrounding region.
“In Rakhine State, decreasing rations ahead of election season could be dangerous. It’s also concerning that food rations would decrease a few months before the start of the annual sailing season,” Fortify Right’s Matthew Smith commented.
“For the last two years, nearly every Rohingya refugee we’ve interviewed has said they fled the country due to a lack of adequate food. It’s difficult to imagine how less food now is warranted in any way,” he added.
Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher in the field of human rights and conflict. He has produced work for Al Jazeera, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, The New Statesman, Vice and Souciant magazine, among others.