“I would rather stay here and die of starvation than go back to the camp,” said Ko Maung Maung.
The 34-year-old, who teaches at the local mosque in Pa Rein village, Mrauk-U township, says he and his neighbours often have no idea where their next meal is coming from after the World Food Programme stopped rations to former IDPs in Rakhine State in July.
The controversial move by the UN agency comes in the wake of a 2015 scheme by the former government, backed by international donors, to return around 25,000 of the 140,000 people displaced by communal violence in Rakhine to their home villages or other settlements.
Just over 200 families from Pa Rein were among those returned in the second half of last year.
Around half of the returned villagers are continuing to receive some sort of food assistance, but the WFP has told The Myanmar Times that even those classified as most vulnerable – including the disabled and elderly – could have their rations cut within the next few weeks.
Domenico Scalpelli, country director for the WFP in Myanmar, said that the ration cut is “not a budget issue” but part of a wider “transition strategy” aimed at preventing tensions between those who, as IDPs, were receiving rations and those who remained in their homes and never received such support. He said exacerbating such a divide was not “conflict sensitive”.
But other aid organisations, including other UN arms, have expressed concern that not enough analysis was undertaken before the cuts to ensure the former recipients did not slip into “food insecurity”, especially as the state already suffers endemic malnutrition. Mr Scalpelli acknowledged that an in-depth assessment has yet to be carried out.
As the former IDP families in Pa Rein now struggle to feed their children, their plight highlights the ongoing daily trials of hundreds of thousands of Muslim residents across the state. Though they were never displaced, they have been cut off from access to sufficient food supplies because the authorities deny them freedom of movement.
“We don’t have jobs because we cannot go outside for work. Before the violence we could go out and do jobs on the road or maintenance work, but now we don’t have any way of making money. If we had jobs we could feel happy and there would be no need for donations,” said Pa Rein resident U Shwe Maung.
When they were still in the IDP camps, the provision last year of K1 million per family to go back and rebuild their homes in their original village was appealing.
Conditions in Rakhine’s IDP camps – where 120,000 mainly persecuted Muslim Rohingya remain – are shocking. Entire families squeeze into a single cramped room in one of the eight to 10 roomed longhouses erected to provide the most basic shelter.
“There were so many problems – living, going to hospital, problems between men and women,” said Ko Maung Maung.
They were delighted to go home, he added. But no one explained they were about to have their rations cut.
“Nobody told us. Now we have less to eat than when we were living in the camps,” said former IDP Mahmud Ali, showing the small empty condensed milk can the family uses to measure out rice.
The WFP’s Mr Scalpelli acknowledged that food access in the villages is worse than it was in the camps.
“The people who were never displaced are in a worse situation [regarding food] than those who [have been] getting assistance but are no longer displaced,” he said.
The inherent disparity is “a very difficult situation for everyone”.
Rakhine State is either the poorest or the second-poorest state in the country depending on the definition of poverty used. It also has one of the nation’s worst rates of malnutrition across all communities, with some 20 percent of northern Rakhine State suffering from acute malnutrition, and a severe acute malnutrition rate considered above the national emergency threshold, according to UNICEF.
Short of massively increasing rations to cover hundreds of thousands of people who were never displaced and have not been receiving them up until now, cutting the rations of those no longer classified as IDPs was considered the most practical solution to a dilemma which would have seen international donors provide aid to some people but not their neighbours, Mr Scalpelli said.
Ethnic Rakhine have accused international organisations of favouring the Muslim population in their aid efforts. The perception has fuelled bitter resentments and possibly exacerbated community tensions.
“[These aid organisations] are not fair. They did not help us before, and it is better if they don’t help us now,” said U San Thein, a Rakhine resident of Sittwe township.
But the Rohingya community, both those who were displaced and those not displaced, faces unique difficulties in accessing food that are a direct consequence of a government policy restricting the movement of Muslim people in the state since the 2012 riots.
In Pa Rein, recently returned IDP Mahmud Ali explained that in practice, the policy forces many families to rely on begging to avoid starvation.
“I have no rice. I go and try to find a job working in the paddy fields, but there isn’t work every day. If there’s no work I don’t have money to buy rice so I have to borrow it,” said the young man in his 20s who has three children under the age of seven.
“We can only go to the [neighbouring] Rakhine village and ask for work in the vegetable field or paddy, but there are only a few jobs.”
He said on average he’s been getting about 15 days of work a month earning between K2000 and K2500 a day.
He added only a handful of people in their community are farmers with access to their own land, and are able to supply just a fraction of the paddy needed to feed the whole village.
The village sits far from the coast so there is no opportunity to supplement food through fishing.
“At night time I send out our small daughters go to other people after they have had their dinner to ask if they have any leftovers,” said U Shwe Maung, 49, pointing to his three-year-old twin daughters.
“But often the neighbours don’t have enough to eat themselves so it just depends day-to-day whether they have anything to spare,” said the father of seven.
He and his children have been surviving this way since the attacks on the Pa Rein community during the 2012 communal violence.
His small family home avoided the attentions of the arsonists who targeted larger properties and he was able to return. But the movement restrictions imposed on most of the state’s more than 1 million Rohingya population after the riots slashed his access to food or work.
A combination of bad flooding which damaged paddy crops, and more competition for the few jobs since the former IDP families returned has cut the already limited amount of work available to him.
“Last year I had a job, maybe 15 or 20 days a month. But this year maybe only nine or 10 days. I earn K1500 to k2500 a day,” he said. That’s an average of less than US$20 to feed a family of nine for a month.
Asked if he felt resentful to the recent returnees who had been receiving rations over recent years, and who had now received a grant to rebuild their houses, he shrugged.
“We don’t want rations. Only permission to go out,” he said.
It is a response that highlights one of the many development quandaries international organisations in Rakhine State are struggling with.
While the state’s poverty long predated the 2012 violence, much of the suffering endured by the state’s Muslim population comes is a direct consequence of the post-conflict imposed policies.
“You can’t fix a human rights issue using only food,” said Mr Scalpelli when asked how the organisation could justify allowing people whom it had previously supported to end up in such a precarious position. Organisations involved in the return of the former IDPs insisted that the move to provide people with better housing was not intended to exclude them from accessing other aid.
“As the UNHCR publicly stated at the time, the fact that this group of IDPs had achieved an individual shelter solution did not mean that they no longer had any humanitarian needs or that they should be precluded from any necessary international assistance,” said a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency.
“In terms of the current phasing out of food assistance, the UNHCR understands that in light of the discontinuation, food security assessments will be carried out by the competent agencies to ensure that those in need of assistance will continue to receive it.”
The UNHCR was one of three UN agencies, including UNOCHA and UNICEF, to have reportedly written a joint letter asking the WFP to delay the ration cuts until a thorough vulnerability assessment was conducted.
Mr Scalpelli said the organisation was “thankful” for input from other oragnisations and had used their input to finalise its transition plans.
But Mr Scalpelli expressed surprise at hearing the Pa Rein residents’ complaints. He said after the July cuts there had been a re-assessment of the list of those people considered most vulnerable – the elderly, disabled and female head of households – and more people were added in August. Villagers had said they were “satisfied” with that, he added.
“We can’t just abandon people, particularly during the lean season, so we will continue until harvest time at least,” he said. However, he added that those on the list were only guaranteed rations up to November.
He also pointed to the fact that children under five and nursing mothers in all communities around Pa Rein – ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya – were being provided with nutrition powders and said that around 50 families had been receiving support as a part of an “asset creation” scheme for those who projected to “contribute to their communities”.
However, some have questioned whether the move to cut rations could exacerbate conflict rather than ease it. In Myebon, reports emerged last week that ethnic Rakhine former IDPs who were no longer entitled to rations blockaded a delivery of rice meant for Muslim people still living in an IDP camp.
“The food assistance transition for the former IDPs, regardless of their ethnic/religious background, certainly presents itself as a change to those people,” said Mr Scalpelli, adding that the Myebon delivery did end up reaching its planned destination.
“In the over-riding majority of cases, the transition has been well-understood and appreciated by the former IDPs. In some cases we’re needing to discuss at more length with those former IDP communities. We are hopeful that we will arrive at a mutually agreeable way forward in all cases,” he said.
The WFP director said that an in-depth study of the full impact of the cuts in the state would take place in the future, but that the crisis did not seem at quite the same levels as in 2012. And he added, “People who have been doing this work for a while can go in and sense if it is going to be as bad as a year ago and whether things have improved or will improve a little bit.”
But regional health authorities also expressed concerns.
“Are they starving?” Dr Thaung Hlaing, the state public health director, asked when told about the ration cuts.
“I am a worried. It’s beyond my scope as long as health problems are not [the direct issue] – but if people don’t get the nutrition they need there will be health consequence in future – even now nutrition is a problem in Rakhine.”
Additional reporting by Yee Ywal Myint