SITTWE, Burma — Concerns about the state of refugee camps in Burma were raised once again after Kyung-Wha Kang, a U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, visited the western Rakhine state and northern Kachin state noting that she “witnessed a level of human suffering in IDP (internally displaced person) camps that I have personally never seen before.”
Nearly 140,000 Muslim Rohingya who were displaced after Buddhist-Muslim violence in 2012 live in camps in the Rakhine state. These camps, which have raised concerns from the international community during the past year, often lack acceptable access to health and education services, water and sanitation.
In May, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menedez wrote an open letter to Burmese President Thein Sein in order to voice his deepening concerns about the conditions and on-going crisis affecting the Burmese Muslim minority group.
In a country of 60 million people, where 89 percent are Buddhist and 4 percent are Muslim, the conflict has left the nearly 800,000 Muslim Rohingya stateless.
The Burmese government stopped recognizing the Rohingya, a Muslim group living in Burma’s crisis-ridden Rakhine State, as a “national race” after they were stripped of citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship law. Under the law, they are categorized as “non-national” or “foreign residents” and thus are not afforded equal rights.
Since then, legislation restricting inter-religious marriages and limiting the number of children Muslims can have has exacerbated the crisis and threatened to derail the significant progress the country has made over the past three years. Burma has become an attractive economy for foreign direct investment, especially in the energy sector, garment industry, information technology and food and beverages sector.
Despite recent improvements to the economy, Burma remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, with over one-fourth of the country’s 60 million people living in poverty.
Poverty among the population as a whole remains “shallow,” with the median income only 25 percent above the poverty line. As a result, development remains precarious as small improvements can bring a large number of people out of poverty or small shocks–like on-going conflict–can plunge many people back into poverty.
In a country that still faces large hurdles in moving large portions of its population out of poverty, foreign aid is an inherent part of the transition and will allow the country to grow and move forward. However, the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims is driving out many of the essential aid agencies working in the country.
In February 2014 Medecins San Frontieres was expelled because they had been treating Muslims who were believed to be victims of an attack by a Buddhist mob. The expulsion of the agency, which was providing treatment for tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDs and obstetrics to nearly 700,000 people in the Rakhine state, meant that conditions in the already unstable camps further deteriorated.
A month later, in March 2014, Buddhist mobs attacked other international aid agencies, causing 170 humanitarian providers to leave, reducing the amount of aid and assistance to the Burmese people.
Burma is at a critical juncture in its development. The political and economic decisions it makes now will have long-term implications for the future of the country. While access to camps for international aid agencies is improving, it is important that the government allow aid to reach those most in need and to curb violence that perpetuates the instability of the country.