Soe Aung works for an international aid agency in his hometown of Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State. It’s a good job, but he isn’t eager to discuss it in a public setting or outside his close circle of friends and family. That’s because his agency helps Rohingya Muslims.
“I stay low-profile here,” said Soe Aung*. “In conversations, in the tea shop, I don’t talk about it and I don’t argue with local people.”
Like most people in the area, he is Rakhine, one of Myanmar’s officially recognised ethnic groups who are Buddhist, which is the majority religion nationwide. Muslims in the state make up the second-largest religious group there and mostly identify as Rohingya. The Rohingya are not officially recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 “national races”, they are subject to apartheid-like restrictions, and most are denied citizenship.
Tensions between the two communities erupted violently in 2012 when hundreds were killed, mostly Rohingya. About 140,000 people were driven from their communities and close to 120,000 people remain in camps around Sittwe today, almost all of them Rohingya.
After the violence in 2012 came an influx of international aid agencies to deal with the humanitarian crisis, and there was a high demand for local staff. Attracted by bigger salaries and the opportunity to do interesting, challenging work, many Rakhine Buddhists applied and were hired. But their new jobs opened them up to criticism from members of their local communities, who increasingly came to resent the presence of international organisations due to the perception that they were on the “side” of the Rohingya.
That tension between international NGOs (INGOs) and some in the Rakhine community has ebbed and flowed over the years, often stoked by Buddhist nationalist monks. In 2014, Rakhine Buddhists rioted in Sittwe, damaging the offices of a German medical charity, Malteser International, as well as some UN agencies.
The situation has heated up once again over the past few weeks, as the military carries out operations in Maungdaw, a township on the frontier with Bangladesh. The government says members of the Rohingya community carried out deadly attacks on border police posts, and that the army is now hunting down a shadowy militant group.
The military refuses to allow aid groups or journalists access to Maungdaw, so it has been impossible to verify reports by human rights organisations of abuses against civilians. Human Rights Watch has released satellite photos of entire Rohingya villages burned to the ground, and the UN has called for an investigation. For its part, the government has denied that soldiers committed any atrocities and has blamed mysterious “attackers” for setting the fires.
Over the weekend, the government said its soldiers killed 25 militants, but some accounts strain credulity. For example, it said soldiers shot and killed six people who “ran towards the troops in order to attack” even though they were armed only with machetes.
The vacuum of verifiable information from Maungdaw drives rumour and fear, both in the Rohingya community and among Rakhines, some of whom fled the Muslim-majority township and took shelter in Sittwe.
As a result, the Rakhine aid workers find themselves with an increasingly difficult decision. Salaries can be double what they might earn working for local groups or the government, but they risk being seen as traitors or treated as pariahs at home.
“In my community, I don’t say openly that I’m working for an INGO,” said Myo Min, who works for a well-known aid agency in Sittwe, which he did not want to identify.
“That is totally taboo, that name,” said Myo Min.
As tensions rise, some Rakhine aid workers say they fear for their security when they work in Muslim-majority townships like Maungdaw.
“In the Muslim areas, when we go to those areas, sometimes, we are afraid. They could attack us, maybe like that,” said Zaw Zaw, a Rakhine aid worker who has worked in the state for years. “Now, it’s more and more like that. It’s not only me.”
Zaw Zaw said he has never faced any serious repercussions from his own community, but it is a source of friction.
“They don’t attack and they don’t make me suffer, but they talk about it,” he said, adding that he understands their position.
Indeed, some local aid workers even share these feelings of resentment towards international NGOs, which they see as allies of the Rohingya, Zaw Zaw said. He alluded to the widespread belief that international media fall for exaggerated stories of suffering told by the Rohingya.
“We know they are pretending,” he said.
There is a popular perception that the situation for the Rohingya is not as bad as many foreigners think. This is partly because Rohingya communities receive more aid than Rakhine communities, but that’s because almost all people in displacement camps are Rohingya. And even Rohingya in their home villages are subject to movement restrictions – which makes it hard for many to find work – as well as a lack of access to healthcare and education.
The Rakhines themselves have been marginalised by Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority, and the state remains the second poorest in Myanmar – factors that only worsen the distrust.
The resentment makes Sittwe a challenging posting for foreigners too, many of whom sympathise with the difficult situation their local counterparts face.
Gabrielle Aron, director of programs for CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, is the author of a recent report on conflict sensitivity in Rakhine that touches on the relationship between local aid workers and their communities. She found that Rakhine NGO staff came under pressure.
"Given the perception among much of the ethnic Rakhine community that most international agencies primarily support the Muslim population, working for these agencies as an ethnic Rakhine person can be seen as a betrayal, given the intercommunal tensions," said Aron. "They are in a tough position. Many staff of international agencies are genuinely dedicated to the work that they do, but they have a difficult line to walk."
*The names of Rakhine aid workers have been changed for their protection.
(TOP PHOTO: Aid agencies' office in a displacement camp for Rohingya outside Sittwe. CREDIT: Aung Naing Soe)