As Cyclone Mahasen threatens millions of people in Bangladesh and Burma, including tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Rakhine State, Burma Campaign UK today called on the British government and international community to take action to force President Thein Sein to allow unrestricted humanitarian aid, and stop violating international humanitarian law.
Burma has a long track record of placing restrictions on international aid, especially in ethnic states. In 2008, as Prime Minister, Thein Sein was in charge of relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis, where restrictions on international aid caused international outrage. It was only through a combination of a credible threat, with American, French and British Navy ships off the coast and able to deliver aid directly, combined with a diplomatic effort that went as high as the Secretary General of the United Nations, that the government of Burma finally backed down and allowed in international aid.
Whilst there has been a significant improvement in humanitarian access in some areas of Burma since then, many restrictions remain in place, including in Rakhine State. In areas of conflict, such as Kachin State and Shan State, violations of international humanitarian law have continued under President Thein Sein. These restrictions are costing lives.
The places facing some of the most severe restrictions on aid to internally displaced people, Rakhine State and Kachin State, have around quarter of a million people displaced by violence and human rights abuses since Thein Sein became President. As President, Thein Sein has ultimate responsibility for the restrictions on international aid.
Many of the people living in IDP camps in Rakhine State and now under threat from Cyclone Mahasen have been there for almost a year. Throughout this time international agencies have faced many restrictions on their activities, and have never had completely free access to help these IDPs.
UN humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos said after visiting one of the camps: “I have seen many camps during my time as the ERC but the conditions in this camp rank among the worst.”
For many months international agencies and the United Nations have been urging the government of Burma to move tens of thousands of the IDPs away from low-lying areas which are liable to flooding during the rainy season, but President Thein Sein failed to act. Now thousands of IDPs face disaster as Cyclone Mahasen threatens to strike Bangladesh and Burma on Wednesday or Thursday.
Belated efforts are being made to move many IDPs, but many more have not yet been moved, and even for those being moved, many are only being moved to slightly less dangerous sites, not safe sites.
The 2012 UN General Assembly resolution on Burma expressed ‘concern’ about violations of international humanitarian law, and called for ‘unhindered’ humanitarian access. The 2013 UN Human Rights Council resolution on Burma also expressed concern about violations of international humanitarian law in Kachin State, and restrictions on aid in Rakhine State, and called on the government to end such violations.
However, almost every General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolution in the past 20 years has raised similar concerns. The government of Burma is fully aware that such expressions of concern are purely lip-service and that it can continue with restrictions on aid, even those which violate international humanitarian law, with impunity.
A factor that will reinforce President Thein Sein’s belief that he can continue to place restrictions on aid and break international humanitarian law without facing any consequences is the decision by the European Union in April 2013 to lift all sanctions except the arms embargo. When the EU suspended sanctions in April 2012, ending restrictions on humanitarian assistance was one of the key benchmarks they set. Despite the fact that this benchmark was not met with regard to Kachin State, and new restrictions were put in place for IDPs in Rakhine state, the EU still lifted sanctions.
Burma Campaign UK has repeatedly requested that the British government make challenging humanitarian aid restrictions in Burma a greater priority, and to take steps to hold the government of Burma accountable for its violations of international humanitarian law.
“There was already a humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, and now there is a possible humanitarian disaster,” said Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK. “By accepting restrictions on aid in Burma as normal and to be expected, these restrictions have been allowed to continue. Then, when disasters strike the consequences are more severe. The British government and rest of the international community have taken no action to hold President Thein Sein accountable for restricting aid in Rakhine State and for violating international humanitarian law in Kachin State, and so those violations have continued. Tens of thousands of people in Rakhine state are in much greater danger than they should have been as Cyclone Mahasen approaches. The priority now is getting people to safety, but the current crisis should be a wakeup call to the international community that they need to deliver on pledges made after Cyclone Nargis in 2008 that continued restrictions on aid would no longer be accepted.”
Action is also need to pressure the government of Bangladesh to lift its restrictions on aid to Rohingya refugees who have fled Burma. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees live in camps in the Cox’s Bazaar area of Bangladesh, which the United Nations predicts will suffer the heaviest rainfall and surge from Cyclone Mahasen.