Days before violence erupted in Rakhine, Myanmar, this summer, the country’s government pressed a major United Nations agency to remove a report — which exposed crippling hunger for the Rohingya people, especially among children. And the agency, the World Food Programme, complied.
The WFP’s report was the first detailed, on-the-ground assessment of the food security situation in Rakhine since the previous bout of violence in Myanmar, which occurred in October 2016, and included interviews with more than 450 families across 45 villages.
And the results were stunning, an alarm to the rest of the world: More than 80,000 children below the age of five, many of them Rohingya, were “wasting” and would need to be treated for acute malnutrition within a year, the WFP found.
Myanmar has been criticized by leaders around the world for failing to protect the Rohingya people, who are not considered Burmese citizens, and looking the other way at the violence carried out against them in recent weeks.
The WFP did remove the report from its website, the Guardian reported on Monday, and replaced with a statement that said the WFP and the government of Myanmar were “collaborating on a revised version” of the report.
But the revised report would never materialize — just three days after the report was removed, violence broke out in Rakhine bringing the WFP’s work to a halt — and instead the report was re-published in its original form with a disclaimer that the details of the report no longer reflect the current situation this week, on Tuesday, months after it was removed.
Rakhine has been the site of major violence since then, meaning that the WFP now has “no such access and, consequently, no [new] report,” senior WFP spokesperson Steve Taravella , adding that in hindsight the original report should then have been re-posted sooner.
“WFP stands firmly behind the findings of the report, which was conducted with local authorities in Rakhine State as part of our regular food security monitoring activities,” Taravella said. “It contains important information about the deterioration of food security in northern Rakhine and its impact on vulnerable people, especially women and children.”
The WFP’s Executive Director, David Beasley, told the Guardian, “The assessment should not have been removed.”
But this recent episode, which preceded the ongoing violence against the Rohingya, a ethnic minority made up mostly of Muslims in the majority Buddhist country, by only a matter of days, is part of the larger and longer story of how Myanmar has tried to prevent international investigators and aid workers from delivering aid and monitoring the state of the Rohingya people, according to experts who spoke to Global Citizen and The Guardian.
It’s “not normal” for a government to request to the removal of a UN report, nor is it normal for a UN agency to oblige the request, Deputy UN Director of Human Rights Watch, Akshaya Kumar, told Global Citizen.
“This is a government that has its own narrative,” she said. “It has rejected independent accounts of what is happening in Rakhine in favor of its own story, but refuses to give access to those who would be able to confirm their narrative” — such as the independent investigators to whom Myanmar refused to grant visas in June.
Kumar clarified that while the WFP operates in countries at the behest of the government, the government does not necessarily need to participate in independent investigations, like WFP’s food security assessment.
Several NGO and UN sources told the Guardian that the Burmese government was angry about the WFP report published in July, and that some officials went as far as to threaten to expel international organizations.
Taravella told Global Citizen via email that the report was taken down on Aug. 22, “following a request by the [Myanmar] government to conduct a joint review of the report with the full participation of a technical team from the Myanmar government.”
At the time the report was removed, “we thought we would get immediate access to revisit and reassess and reissue the report,” he added.
However, on Aug. 25, a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked Burmese border police, killing 12 officers. The Burmese military responded with what it calls a “counter-insurgency” “clearing operation,” which has caused 537,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, according to the UN. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called the military’s campaign a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Since the WFP’s assessment was carried out — in March and April of this year — over 500,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar and are now living as refugees in Bangladesh.
Of these refugees, approximately 145,000 are children under the age of 5 who are malnourished, according to the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, which helps organize humanitarian relief effort. And at least 14,000 of those children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
On Sept. 13, the Security Council issued a statement in which it “expressed concern about excessive violence during the security operations and called for immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine, de-escalate the situation, reestablish law and order, ensure the protection of civilians, restore normal socio-economic conditions, and resolve the refugee problem.” But even the council’s president, Ethiopian diplomat Tekeda Alemu — who made the statement on behalf of the 15-member council — said he would have liked the statement to be stronger and “move a little further.”
Myanmar’s pressure on the WFP to take down the report is not entirely surprising, particularly as the government prevented UN investigators from conducting a fact-finding mission and has blocked both independent observers and UN aid from reaching Rakhine.
At the moment, the WFP does not have access to deliver aid or conduct surveys in Rakhine. In fact, the only aid organizations currently allowed in Rakhine are the International Committee of the Red Cross — which has a long standing rule of confidentiality and non-disclosure, meaning it does not share its findings with the public — and the Myanmar Red Cross.
Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Asia Director, Phil Robertson, told the Guardian that, “It’s becoming clear that the Myanmar government may be moving forward with a larger political plan to replace agencies on the ground in Rakhine with the much more malleable and less-inclined-to-speak-publicly Myanmar Red Cross.” Robertson also told the Guardian that Myanmar’s restriction on aid agencies might be part of a strategy to keep information from getting out to the public.
Many aid workers are concerned that the Burmese government lacks the capacity and the will — given that Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens — to address the humanitarian crisis among the Rohingya in Rakhine
“The food needs on the ground have undoubtedly changed – sadly, most likely for the worse, as there is still no humanitarian access by the UN to northern Rakhine state,” Taravella said.
“Now, more than ever, humanitarian workers must receive free and unhindered access to the communities living in northern Rakhine so we can provide the necessary food assistance to people who are hungry and in need — and also to conduct assessments to gain an understanding of the needs on the ground,” he added.
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