Welcome to Maungdaw

A media trip to northern Rakhine State becomes an exercise in government obstruction and disorganisation.

By SU MYAT MON | FRONTIER

LAST MONTH, Frontier was included in a media visit to Maungdaw in northern Rakhine State that was arranged by the Ministry of Information and designed to coincide with the return of the first refugees from Bangladesh.

In an email on November 13, the ministry said the trip would begin on Friday, November 16, the day after the refugees were due to begin returning, and include 22 Myanmar and foreign journalists.

On November 15 at about 10am, the ministry contacted Frontier to say it had been excluded from the trip because the media group was too big.

Asked how many journalists were going on the trip and how many other publications had been excluded, ministry staff said they did not know and indicated that the order had come “from above”.

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Keen for answers, Frontier tried to contact Deputy Minister of Information U Aung Hla Tun, but could not get through, despite repeated attempts.

Frontier did manage to reach the President’s Office spokesperson, U Zaw Htay, and asked why it had been dropped from the trip. Zaw Htay’s response was brief.  

“If you are not registered with the President’s Office, you cannot ask about this; it is the rule,” he said, before terminating the conversation.

Eventually, after calls to many government offices, and the helpful intervention of a senior official from the Ministry of Information, Frontier was permitted to join the trip.

There were 12 of us who travelled to Maungdaw, including three journalists based in the Rakhine capital, Sittwe. The trip went ahead despite the much-anticipated return of the first batch of returnees on November 15 ending without anyone crossing the border because fearful refugees had refused to leave their camps in Bangladesh.

We landed in Sittwe at about 10am with no idea where we would be going. A ministry official, U Zaw Naing Oo, met us there and explained that we would meet with the Maungdaw District administrator, after which we would visit Myo village and Taungpyo Letwe, on the border with Bangladesh.

Our journey to Maungdaw began with a boat trip along the coast from Sittwe to Angumaw village, from where we continued the trip by car. A dispute then occurred over transport fees, because the ministry arranged additional cars but still made us pay to rent them all.

After arriving in Maungdaw at about 1pm, we were taken to see the district administrator, U Soe Aung.

Shortly after we began talking with him about our trip, it became clear that he hadn’t been properly briefed about the Ministry of Information’s plans.

When we mentioned that we wanted to see the Taung Pyo Letwe processing centre, he said the Rakhine government did not want journalists to go there when the repatriation of refugees was about to take place. At that point, the organiser from the ministry intervened and informed Soe Aung that a visit to Taung Pyo Letwe had been included in our itinerary.

When we asked him to arrange some meetings for us, he protested that the General Administration Department doesn’t work on weekends – our visit to Maungdaw was from Friday, November 16 to Sunday, November 18 – and we should have submitted a request letter in advance.

Despite his reluctance, he eventually arranged the meeting for us. But it did little to diminish the sense of frustration at the disorganisation of the government’s arrangements.

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