Myanmar's displaced wait for tide to turn

Telling the Human Story, 10 December 2012

© UNHCR/V.Tan
Displaced people in Ah Nauk Ywe, western Myanmar use their boats for transport, fishing, and recently, life-saving.

PAUK TAW, Myanmar, December 10 (UNHCR) For most of his life, Nu Ah Len saw boats as a means of livelihood. Living in the coastal area of Pauk Taw in western Myanmar's Rakhine state, the 49-year-old village administrator owned three boats used for fishing off the Bay of Bengal.

But he did not imagine his livelihood would one day save his life. In late October, he was caught amid renewed inter-communal violence in eight townships of Rakhine. As their village burned, he and his neighbours escaped the only way they knew how on boats.

"We fled in two groups on 45 boats," said Nu Ah Len. "I was in the second group, rounding up people for the boats. There was no time to pack anything. We lost all our homes and property. What wasn't burnt has been taken."

Similar accounts were heard from Kyauk Phyu, a gas- and oil-rich area further south. Ma Khine Aye Kyi, 33, was afraid of water but boarded a boat when her home and subsequent hiding place were both torched.

"On each boat there were 80 to 90 people. There were not enough boats for everyone," she said, tears welling up at the memory. "We were on the last boat and I really thought I was going to die. We found another boat though and they gave us some fuel."

The fuel soon ran out. Her boat drifted for two days before it reached Sin Tet Maw, where the local community took them in. Today, she is living with a local family but not everyone is so lucky. Some displaced families have set up tents on the shore, from where they keep watch on their boats parked in the bay. Others are still sleeping on boats.

The host community has shared what it can, but toilets and doctors are in short supply. During a routine UNHCR visit recently, one displaced woman complained that she had to rent her slippers. Another pointed to a hole in her right ear, saying she had to sell an earring to supplement her family's diet.

Nu Ah Len faces similar problems where his boat landed, in Ah Nauk Ywe at the foot of a hill. "There are no water or sanitation facilities here," he said. "For water, we use a dirty pond that was used by animals before."

UNHCR and partners like the government, the World Food Programme and international NGOs have distributed relief items and food rations in both locations. UNHCR, as part of the United Nations country team, is also advocating for the government and aid agencies to provide water, sanitation, education and health services.

In addition to providing relief items and supporting camp management, the UN refugee agency also monitors the protection of these displaced people, including their options in the near future.

"Most recently we have heard that the intention for everyone displaced in October is to facilitate return to their place of origin," said Maeve Murphy, UNHCR's head of office in the state capital, Sittwe. "This will involve a lot of planning, from both the government and our side, because many of the villages have been completely burnt. There are major security concerns from the IDPs [internally displaced people], who would not feel comfortable returning to locations where they had been previously attacked."

The agency has negotiated with the local authorities to accommodate the latest wave of displaced people in transit camps while the government pursues reconciliation and reconstruction efforts in their home areas.

"We need to make sure that any movement or return is voluntary," said Murphy. "We will be working with the government to see what they will be putting in place to safeguard anybody who chooses to return and also to work with the IDPs to advocate for the conditions needed for them to feel safe in their original villages. We will also need to advocate with all of the other partners to ensure that the services will be in place to support them if they do choose to return."

Asked what it would take for her to go home, Ma Khine Aye Kyi said, "I would like to go back to Kyauk Phyu if there is enough food and security can be guaranteed. If these two things cannot be guaranteed, we will be afraid to go."

Pauk Taw village administrator Nu Ah Len echoed her fears: "We are afraid to go back and we have nothing there. I don't want to lose everything again."

By Vivian Tan in Pauk Taw, Myanmar