By SANN OO | FRONTIER
Dominik Stillhart is director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva. During a weeklong visit to Myanmar that began on May 19, he visited sites in Kachin and northern Shan states where the ICRC is providing assistance to internally displaced people and also met Ministry of Home Affairs officials in Nay Pyi Taw. He spoke to Frontier at the ICRC’s Yangon office.
What assistance has the ICRC been providing to IDPs in Kachin and Shan states?
I have had the opportunity to see two camps and a settlement where displaced people are living. One in Myitkyina, where people have been living for several years, and then two in Kutkai in northern Shan State, where displaced people had just arrived. I really feel that there is quite a difference in terms of living standards in one camp where there are people newly arrived. There, we provide emergency assistance. Whereas in Myitkyina we support livelihoods, for instance, in providing cash grants, so that people can open their own shop, earn their own money and stand on their own feet.
What short- and long-term aid does the ICRC provide to IDPs?
In the short term, it is basically humanitarian assistance, for instance the provisions of shelters. It was the first need that I saw in the camps that I visited in the north of Kutkai and we provided material to every family to build shelters. Then, it is about improving access to water, access to health care and to basic food. In order to provide access to food items, for instance, we distribute cash to every family every month so that they can buy their own food. We provide K7,000 per person per month. For a family of five, it’s K35,000 per month.
For the longer term, we develop other supports for families who show interest in developing economic projects, what we call conditional cash grants. With that money, I saw families in a camp in Myitkyina who opened their own shops, for instance, small grocery shops, or started to raise pigs.
Are any restrictions imposed by the government or armed groups on the assistance provided by the ICRC to IDPs?
We don’t have any restriction when it comes to access to people who are living in IDP camps because the majority of them are in areas controlled by the government. What indeed is challenging is accessing people in need across front lines. We at the ICRC have a mandate based on the Geneva Conventions and that comes from the international community to provide impartial humanitarian assistance to all people in need in armed conflicts.
So our job is to work on all sides. And we also know that working on all sides is challenging because of security considerations which makes it objectively more difficult to move across front lines. We maintain a dialogue with the government and different armed groups on whatever we do because we work in full transparency. So if we move from a government-held area into one controlled by an ethnic armed group, we notify both parties. So everybody knows the day we are moving and can inform us if the area is not safe. As I explained to the authorities I met in Nay Pyi Taw, we work in full transparency.
What operations do you have in Rakhine State?
In Rakhine State last year we had a very significant response to the floods. Now we are phasing out of that and are working to assist both communities that have been affected by past violence of 2012. One thing that struck me is the fact that the situation in Rakhine is clearly more complex than you think when you look at it from afar … it is not at all a simple issue. And therefore what we are trying to do now in Rakhine is to try to play a constructive role that may help to reduce tensions that still exist between different communities. For instance, we help people have access to improved health care through support to Ministry of Health hospitals and rural health centres.
Last year we assisted around 120,000 people in Rakhine State. This year we aim at providing emergency assistance and livelihood support to around 80,000 people in Rakhine and in the northeast. One thing that stuck me in northern Shan State is that when I asked displaced people whether they wanted to go back or not – because we all know that the best thing for people is to go back home, close to their fields and live their normal lives – many of them told me they wanted to go back. That is the kind of longer-term objectives or goals. Not all of them want to go back. For instance, some of them in Myitkyina said they wanted to stay in the camp. But the majority of those I met in the other camps said “yes”.
Then, I asked them why they did not go back. All of them said that the main reason was insecurity. This insecurity is not only due to the presence of armed groups, or tension between the armed groups, the army and the militia, but also to the presence of landmines and unexploded ordnance. Many of the displaced people told me it is a real problem.
We know at the ICRC that there is a significant problem of landmines in these areas affected by conflicts. We are supporting a physical rehabilitation centre run by the Myanmar Red Cross in Hpa-an, and another centre, of the Ministry of Health, in Mandalay. We are also building two new centres, one in Kengtung and one in Myitkyina. The latter is one of the biggest centres built by the ICRC. We construct these centres in cooperation with the Ministry of Health. Next to the hospital in Myitkyina it will be part of the hospital compound. People who have been wounded by landmines and unexploded ordnance will receive physical rehabilitation, including prostheses, in these centres.
In 2015, we already improved the mobility of 3,000 people in the two centres [at Hpa-an and Mandalay] and the two new centres will increase significantly the services to disabled people in Myanmar. We will be training technicians; we will be working very closely with Ministry of Health. These are, I really think, excellent projects to respond to the needs of many disabled people here in these conflict areas.
What is the ICRC doing to address the threat posed by landmines in Myanmar?
We have a program called Weapon Contamination [to raise awareness among the public]. We have specialists who are working with Myanmar Red Cross volunteers to sensitise the population on the risks of mines. Myanmar is not a signatory to the mine-ban convention known as the Ottawa Treaty. In our sensitisation work with the army and the armed groups, we very much base our arguments on the fact that we say that we understand why they use it for defence.
But the problem is that if you use landmines, they will be there for a long time, and 30 years after, even if there is peace they might explode. So you are really creating a problem that will last for many decades and that will make the lives of people in these areas extremely difficult for a very long time. Landmines are a weapon that have lasting consequences. We see it in countries like Colombia, Afghanistan, even in Bosnia there are still landmines more than 20 years after the end of the conflict and people are at risk of getting hurt or their livestock affected. I think Myanmar is facing, not the whole country, but in certain areas, a serious problem with landmines.
So our work consists not only of physical rehabilitation but also to encourage all parties to conflict to address this issue urgently, to start talks in order to clear the affected areas of mines so the population will be able to use the land for farming, to have access to water and grazing land. We are ready to help.
What has been the reaction from the Tatmadaw and armed groups?
I think there is understanding about the problem but the use of landmines is deeply entrenched in the way both the army and non-state armed groups fight the conflict. So that understanding is there, but for the step not to use them more work needs to be done. It is also a question of political process and willingness by the Myanmar government to sign the [Ottawa] treaty, that would of course then create legal obligations, including for the army.
What is the current status of the ICRC’s prison visits program?
I didn’t visit a prison myself, but based on discussions with the teams here as well as with the Prison Department, we are rather pleased with the way cooperation between the relevant authorities; the Prison Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the ICRC, has been developing in the past three years. Conditions have clearly improved in most of the places of detention and what is really required now is a more strategic discussion on the prison system as the whole rather than on individual places of detention.
So my discussion with the Minister of Home Affairs was very much to say that we, at the ICRC, have significant expertise that we could bring to the table when it comes to help in improving the detention system. We see very often, for instance, that better cooperation between the Prison Department and the Ministry of Health would immediately help to increase access to health care for detainees without increasing costs. And we also indicated our readiness to contribute to the prison bill that is currently being discussed. We are very much ready to inject our expertise in this bill because we believe this is really a unique opportunity to set international standards right so that we don’t have to deal with some of the negative consequences in the future.
How has the Home Affairs Ministry responded?
The indications are positive. All we can do as the ICRC is to offer our expertise and then it is up to the authorities to take it or not.
They are not obliged to consult us. But we said, look we can really help to ensure that some of the internationally recognised minimum standards in terms of detention will be in your bill because if you just take the current Prison Act, a very old text from 1894, and you tweaked it a little bit, it will not work. So that’s why we say this is golden opportunity to bring it up to today’s modern standards.
Top photo: J / Frontier