Mistrust hampers relief efforts
RELIEF agencies struggling to reach hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims displaced by strife in north-western Myanmar are facing rising hostility from ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who accuse the UN and foreign aid groups of only helping Muslims.
So far, the Myanmar government has granted only Red Cross organisations access to the area. The UN suspended its activities and evacuated non-critical staff after the government suggested it had supported Rohingya insurgents.
Already battling against bad weather, tough terrain and obstructive bureaucracy, the Red Cross also ran into an angry mob, who believe the foreign aid agencies have ignored the suffering of Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar’s poorest state.
On Wednesday, an armed mob in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, tried to block a boat carrying International Committee of the Red Cross aid to the north, where attacks by Rohingya militants on August 25 prompted Myanmar’s generals to order a sweeping counter-insurgency offensive.
Four days earlier, a Myanmar Red Cross truck was stopped and searched by Rakhine residents in Sittwe.
“With heightened tensions in Rakhine state, humanitarian staff and private contractors are facing serious challenges in implementing life-saving activities,” said Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar.
In the past month, 420 000 Rohingya have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh to avoid what the UN human rights chief has called ethnic cleansing. Foreign aid groups are now scaling up to help Bangladesh cope with a humanitarian disaster .
Back in Myanmar, a separate crisis is unfolding on multiple fronts, many of them much harder to reach.
“Many ongoing humanitarian activities that existed before August 25 have still not resumed,” said Peron. “For the sake of vulnerable people in all communities in Rakhine state, urgent measures must be taken to allow vital humanitarian activities to resume.”
In northern Rakhine, tens of thousands of people, most of them Rohingya, are displaced but haven’t crossed into Bangladesh.
Closer to Sittwe, 140 000 Rohingya displaced by previous religious unrest are confined to squalid camps. They depend on foreign aid that has been severely restricted since August 25.
About 6000 Buddhists have also fled to Sittwe, where they are cared for at monasteries by the government and Rakhine volunteers.
Ethnic Rakhine have long complained that aid agencies have given generously to Muslims while ignoring other equally needy people.
“All people in Rakhine are suffering, but only Muslims get help,” said Htun Aung Kyaw, chief of the Arakan National Party.
Rakhine residents of Sittwe said they believed that UN estimates of refugee numbers were exaggerated, and that Rohingya camps near the city faced no shortages.
Kyaw Sein of Rakhine Alin Dagar, a Rakhine advocacy group in Sittwe, said relations between the foreign aid groups and the Rakhine people had been poisoned by years of neglect and favouritism.
“It’s difficult to say what they can do to win back our trust.”
Further eroding that trust are rumours that aid deliveries could be used to smuggle weapons to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa).
Such fears have been stoked by social media and by the discovery of World Food Programme-branded biscuits at a suspected militant camp on July 30.
They have also prompted the authorities to restrict humanitarian access to some Rohingya villages on security grounds, say aid workers. Houses were burned down too.
Some aid workers privately scoffed at such views, but they also admit that their early failure to engage and understand the Rakhine has made their current work more difficult. – Reuters