In his third official visit to Myanmar, the Regional Director went to Rakhine State for the first time, where he had the chance to visit both the humanitarian and development assistance provided by UNICEF in cooperation with the Rakhine State Government.
In five answers, Daniel Toole reveals his impressions of the field visits, talks about the challenges, and mentions the progress that has been made, with an eye on the future.
What prompted your visit to Rakhine?
This was my third visit to Myanmar in my role as Regional Director for the East Asia and Pacific Region. Previously I had deliberately visited other parts of Myanmar to understand the challenges across the country. This trip was an opportunity to see first-hand the situation in Rakhine, what the issues are, what progress has been made and where we need to support more.
What were you expecting to hear and to see?
I expected to see humanitarian and development challenges, but I didn’t expect to see the level of challenges that I witnessed. I was surprised that the overall development of Rakhine is so poor. I have visited many other parts of Myanmar in the past, and although I knew Myanmar lags behind a number of countries, for example in ASEAN, I didn’t expect the very low level of overall development I saw in Rakhine, for instance the limited school infrastructure and health clinics that I saw. I also didn’t expect to see the continued very difficult humanitarian context, where there is still a lot of progress to be made.
What struck you most during these five days?
I will say two things. One, I was really struck by the commitment of our national partners, our State partners, the Rakhine State Chief Minister, and the other Ministers who came to our programme review, and who actually presented the progress and constraints. That’s an indication of strong local commitment to progress for children and to all rights for all children.
On the negative side, I was struck by the very clear division, very clear tension that is still so palpable between communities that used to live together. I think the most shocking thing I saw was in one of the camps where community members from outside the camp were blocking assistance. There was a maternity delivery room that was supposed to be built but they couldn’t bring in the construction materials because the local community would not let them. There are very clear, strong emotions preventing assistance to a camp, which is just unacceptable.
What do you think is the way forward in Rakhine?
During my visit I participated in the the first ever annual review of the “Rakhine State Plan for Children” between UNICEF and the Government of the State of Rakhine. It presents a major shift in how UNICEF, Rakhine State and the people of Rakhine have been working together to improve the lives of children. I think UNICEF Myanmar has taken the right approach, which is to look at support for overall development in Rakhine as well as humanitarian assistance.
When the development indicators are so low and when the overall population is so underserved, we have to convince our partners, our donors, and the government to invest more in Rakhine. We have to provide additional assistance for development, we have to help the State government convince the Union government to invest more and at the same time we must accelerate the humanitarian coverage for those who are in a critical situation in quite a number of camps.
The international community must also continue to support all efforts to reconcile differences so that people can live together in peace without the current divisions. I think the UNICEF office is doing the right thing, we need to do more of it and to do that we need more financing.
If you return in one year, what do you want to see? What are your expectations and your hopes?
I will be honest by saying that my expectations are different from my hopes. My hope is that across Rakhine, across Myanmar, there will be acceptance, tolerance, and a focus on building a strong country with all of the people of Myanmar, all ethnic groups, all the religions, and all of the different incredible diversity that exists in this country. That’s my hope.
My expectation is that that will be difficult. A year from now we will have just had elections, and in many countries the lead up to elections is difficult. In a country that still doesn’t have a comprehensive peace agreement, that has such disparities across the country, and has such a deep-seated distrust, I think it is unlikely that my hope will be realised in one year.
I hope the seeds are sown and that the election process itself helps to bring stability and helps everyone see that they need inputs and support from every single person in Myanmar regardless of their background, religion, and ethnicity. To be a strong nation we need that, so I hope that is achieved.
Mariana Palavra is Communication Specialist for UNICEF Myanmar