Mistrust ham­pers re­lief ef­forts

Sunday Tribune - - WORLD -

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

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