In the past few months, Myanmar’s Rohingya ‘issue’ has come to be seen as a regional concern. Destination countries for Rohingya refugees/economic migrants (that delineation being particularly complex in this situation) have used their diplomatic bargaining chips to discuss the issue in such fora as February’s ASEAN Summit, as well as the high-level Ministerial meetings of the Bali Process which took place on 14 and 15 April 2009. So far, progress has not been made in the region. In terms of regional politics, it has been interesting to watch the responses of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and India to the Rohingya ‘boat people’ over the past few months. However, an area that has not received much press attention or wider discussion is the current situation of the Rohingya in Northern Rakhine State itself.

On 3 April 2009, a donor meeting in Yangon was held by United Nations. Representatives from government aid agencies such as DFID, AusAID, and ECHO had a chance to meet with the UN RC/HC Bishow Parajuli and representatives from the all the UN Agencies operating in Myanmar. Pleas for funding for humanitarian projects in the Nargis-ravaged Irawaddy Delta region were top of the bill, however, it is worth noting that some of the UN agencies chose to focus on reporting on the situation in Northern Rakhine State.

One fascinating and honest presentation made at the event was UNHCR Country Director Mr. Bhairaja Panday’s contribution, which detailed the realities of humanitarian work in Northern Rakhine State today. It is widely known that UNHCR’s capacity in Myanmar has been curbed by the Myanmar government. Mr. Panday summarized the main protection issues in Northern Rakhine State, including restrictions on the freedom of movement and freedom of speech, arbitrary arrests, torture and lengthy imprisonments. He then detailed the recent negotiations between his organization and Naypyidaw in regards to the signing of a new MOU. Naypyidaw has told the UNHCR they are happy to allow them to work in Rakhine — but only if UNHCR is willing to build, build, build. The government wants UNHCR to build schools, roads, and health care facilities, and ignore that pesky protection issue. It seems that for the foreseeable future, this will be the name of the game when it comes to humanitarian action in Northern Rakhine State.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has released an early warning regarding rising food insecurity for Rohingyas in Rakhine State. Food shortages are attributed to a poor agricultural season in 2007 and 2008, the rising cost of food (the price of rice has gone up by 85% in 2008, the latest survey), a lack of opportunities for employment, and minimal stocks of rice compared to this time last year. Exacerbating the situation is the severe methods of control that the state government places on Rohingyas, who make up 85% of the population. Rohingyas need permits to marry, to renovate their homes, and even to travel from village to village within Rakhine state. At the donor meeting, Chris Kaye, Country Director for the World Food Programme (WFP), stated that the WFP faces severe funding shorfalls. WFP needs USD$16 million in order to carry out its planned food assistance in Myanmar this year, which includes 7 different programs in Northern Rakhine State. Recently, the agency was forced to cancel its Food-for-Education program in Northern Rakhine State for this academic year.

Life for Rohingyas in Northern Rakhine State seems to be based on daily humiliations, human rights infringements, and petty extortion. And this is on top of it being perhaps the poorest state in Myanmar, which is the least developed country in Asia. Daily incidents help illustrate the quality of life in Northern Rakhine State. In early March, Na Sa Ka (Burmese Border Security Force) personnel begin the annual routine of Rohingya registration by taking photographs of all Rohingya families. The Na Sa Ka personnel collected 2,000 kyat ‘fees’ for the photographs from each person. On 20 March in Maungdaw Township, a 45 year old Rohingya man was arrested for possession of a mobile phone charger, and released on payment of a 500,000 kyat (USD$500) bribe. Four Mosque committee members were arrested for extending the veranda of a religious building. They were released on 9 March 2009 after paying a 3,000,000 Kyat (USD$3,000) bribe, which is a phenomenal amount of money in Myanmar.

So what is the story behind the Myanmar government’s discrimination of the Rohingyas, you ask? Is it historical? A colonial after-effect of the British legacy of arbritrarily-drawn borders between Burma and Bangaladesh? Or is it racism? Xenophobia? Economic?

All of the above, I say. As well as an ingredient that does not receive much discussion. Here’s the recipe for Rohingya persecution: Take one part racism, two parts Islamophobia, a splash each of xenophobia and revoked citizenship rights, and top it off with a hefty squeeze of plain ol’ thuggery. Square Table recently posted an excellent article analysing Rohingya-bashing in academia, and scholars who reflect the racist underpinnings of the state. Andrew Selth has argued that practically for as long as there has been a state in Myanmar, there has been a concealed official attitude that to be Burmese is to be Buddhist. I would argue that a large part of the Rohingya equation is pure wanton thuggery. The tatmadaw and Na Sa Ka forces stationed at the remote outposts in Rakhine are bored, uneducated, young, frustrated men — a dangerous combination anywhere in the world. Persecution is certainly being directed top-down from the state, but it seems that a large part of the daily extortion, bribery, violence, and rape directed toward Rohingyas in Northern Rakhine State is the result of savage thugs and criminals dressed up in army costumes, fueled by hate speech and government propaganda. [As an aside, it seems the soldiers are not the only ones being convinced by government attitudes. Last month’s Irawaddy magazine has several articles showing the flavour of Myanmar nationals’ and exiles’ attitudes towards the Rohingyas.]

Whatever the root cause, it seems that some of the countries present at the donor meeting have listened to the pleas for humanitarian assistance in Northern Rakhine State. The Australian government just committed a further AUD$3.2 million in humanitarian assistance to Rohingyas living in Northern Rakhine State. This is made up of $1 million in commitments to food aid through WFP, $1.2 million for health services facilitated by UNDP, and $1 million for livelihoods projects to be conducted by CARE Australia. This exciting new commitment of funds adds to the $4 million already committed to Rohingyas through the UNHCR in Myanmar, bringing Australia’s commitment for this financial year up to $8 million.

While the rest of Southeast Asia waits for a regional solution to the refugees and boat people, debating whether the UNHCR will determine the status of the boat people to be ‘Bengali’ so that Myanmar will accept their repatriation, those of us living in Yangon are thinking that continued humanitarian assistance to Northern Rakhine State could be the beginning of the long-term, sustainable solution that is needed to resolve this human rights crisis.

Dylan Grey lives in Yangon.