World

Aid workers face rising hostility in Myanmar state

Rakhine Buddhists accuse United Nations, foreign aid groups of favouring Rohingya Muslims

RAKHINE: 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 United Nations and foreign aid groups of helping only Muslims.

So far, Myanmar 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.

Last week, the Red Cross ran into an angry mob, which believed that foreign aid agencies have ignored the suffering of Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar's poorest state.

In Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, the mob tried to block a boat carrying Red Cross aid to the north, where attacks by Rohingya militants on Aug 25 prompted Myanmar's generals to order a sweeping counter-insurgency offensive.

"With heightened tensions in Rakhine State, humanitarian staff and private contractors are facing serious challenges in implementing life-saving activities," said Mr Pierre Peron, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar.

So far, about 430,000 Rohingya have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh from what the UN has called ethnic cleansing.

Foreign aid groups are scaling up to help Bangladesh cope with a humanitarian disaster of biblical proportions.

A separate crisis is also unfolding .

"Many ongoing humanitarian activities that existed before Aug 25 have not resumed," said Mr Peron. "For the sake of vulnerable people in communities in Rakhine, measures must be taken to allow vital humanitarian activities to resume."

In northern Rakhine, tens of thousands of people, mostly Rohingya, are displaced.

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 Aug 25.

About 6,000 Buddhists have fled to Sittwe, where they are cared for at monasteries by the government and volunteers.

Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists have long complained that foreign aid agencies have given generously to Muslims while ignoring other needy people.

"All people in Rakhine are suffering, but only Muslims get help," said Mr Htun Aung Kyaw of the Arakan National Party.

Sittwe residents said they believed UN estimates of refugee numbers were exaggerated, and that Rohingya camps near the city faced no shortages.

'ENOUGH'

"They have more than enough," said Ms Kyaw Sein of Rakhine Alin Dagar, a Rakhine advocacy group in Sittwe.

She has not visited the camps, but said in the past that she had seen Muslims selling oil and rice received as aid in local markets.

She said ties between foreign aid groups and Rakhine people had been poisoned by years of neglect and favouritism.

Further eroding trust are rumours that aid deliveries could be used to smuggle weapons to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the militant group behind the attacks on security forces last month. - REUTERS

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