Nineteen-year-old Myat Sanda Khine had just enrolled at Sittwe university when inter-communal violence tore through her home city leaving dozens dead, thousands injured and entire villages burnt to the ground.
“I became a Red Cross volunteer just after the crisis here,” she says. “People lost everything. I knew I wanted to help and so did my friends; now we are all volunteers.”
The violence, between Rakhine and Muslim communities, left over 100,000 people displaced in Rakhine State, with the majority now housed in large displacement camps in Sittwe Township.
The violence spread quickly with devastating consequences. Neighbours who had lived side-by-side were driven to live in makeshift shelters in segregated camps.
Children who once went to school together could no longer get an education. And working parents, who relied on their jobs or businesses to support loved ones, were suddenly left dependent upon relief items to meet their most basic needs.
Within days of the violence erupting, Myanmar Red Cross volunteers were providing neutral and impartial assistance in both of the affected communities with teams working in medical clinics, building toilets and wells and distributing drinking water, food, blankets and hygiene kits.
Due to the nature of the unrest, this work was carried out closely with the ICRC to ensure the protection of the medical mission and safer access for volunteers.
Over eight months later, the situation remains precarious, with outbreaks of violence flaring up as late as March. The Myanmar Red Cross Society, with the support of Movement partners, continues to provide emergency relief, distributing 8,000 litres of drinking water to communities in camps every day.
The Myanmar Red Cross is also now looking to support longer-term needs such as temporary shelter and livelihoods. In addition, the ICRC is scaling up its activities, including the renovation of water and sanitation facilities in Sittwe general hospital to ensure better access to health care for both communities.
However questions around the long-term solution to this crisis, including if and how families will ever be able to return home, remain unanswered.
Humanitarian emergencies rage on many fronts in Myanmar. Fighting continues to cause pain and suffering for thousands of vulnerable people in the troubled state of Kachin. Meanwhile, earthquakes, cyclones and floods are also common in this disaster prone country, causing loss of life and massive destruction.
During all of these crises, Myanmar Red Cross volunteers have proved invaluable.
In the last twelve months, volunteers have run mobile clinics for both Rakhine and Muslim communities in Sittwe, provided psychosocial support for families affected by conflict in Kachin and distributed tarpaulins and shelter kits to families affected by the Mandalay earthquake in November 2012.
However, the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine has also posed specific challenges for the volunteer workforce, which needed to be rapidly scaled up in light of the substantial humanitarian needs. In such a polarised environment, it was not just a question of numbers.
“Red Cross volunteers know the people they are working with and are well accepted in their local area, “ says Dr Tha Hla Shwe, President of Myanmar Red Cross Society. “However in Rakhine, where tensions still run high and Rakhine and Muslim communities are living separately, many of the volunteers are restricted to only working in the camps serving their communities. We urgently needed to bring in volunteers from other states and regions.”
Volunteers from all around the country responded with groups brought in for month-long missions. The additional volunteers, who are able to work in both camps, live together in a small shelter in the centre of Sittwe.
“Here in Sittwe, we are providing treatments to patients who are in great need,” says U Tun Shwe, 59, volunteer from Kachin State. “As a Red Cross volunteer there is no discrimination between race or religion so I will help everyone who needs us.”
The violence in Rakhine has also gathered countless news headlines as interest in Myanmar’s political evolution continues to keep it in the international spotlight. After general elections in November 2010, the first in nearly two decades, the world closely watched the range of reforms introduced by the new Myanmar Parliament.
These reforms have also resulted in a new chapter for humanitarian action. In January 2013 the ICRC President, Peter Maurer, concluded the first–ever visit by an ICRC president in Myanmar. One week later, ICRC resumed its visits to places of detention.
“My visit marks the start of a new chapter in both our relationship with the Myanmar government and in our humanitarian activities here,” says ICRC President Peter Maurer. “President Thein Sein showed that he well understands the importance and relevance of the ICRC’s neutral, impartial and independent action in Myanmar and expressed his commitment to working with our organization."
Still, Myanmar remains one of the least developed countries in South-East Asia. Communities across the country are faced with chronic threats from communicable diseases, food insecurity and malnutrition.
But recent political and social changes, along with the potential for increasing support from the international community, are creating an environment ripe for development. The Myanmar Red Cross Society is well positioned to capitalize on opportunities to help build safer, more resilient communities.
Building resilience is at the heart of all Myanmar Red Cross activities. With the support of IFRC, for example, volunteers reached over 400,000 people in 2011 through community based interventions in disaster preparedness, risk reduction and health.
As one of the few organisations able to continually provide impartial humanitarian assistance in recent years, the Myanmar Red Cross also has a unique knowledge of the needs of vulnerable people and has used this experience to advocate to the Myanmar government, to donor governments and to other stakeholders for greater humanitarian space.
“The Myanmar Red Cross Society has a countrywide network of volunteers, a strong working relationship with the Government and a wealth of experience in responding to emergencies, having responded to recent mega disasters such as Cyclone Nargis in 2008,” says Dr Tha Hla Shwe, President of Myanmar Red Cross Society.
“Looking ahead I believe we will continue to play a critical role, not just in responding to emergencies, but in the ongoing development of Myanmar.”