Buddhist mistrust of aid workers hampers relief effort in Myanmar

A sign outside a Buddhist temple sheltering scores of ethnic Rakhine IDPs who have fled violence informs that they will not accept aid from the UNHCR, WFP or INGOs in Sittwe, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on Friday. — AFP

SITTWE, Myanmar — Relief agencies struggling to reach hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims displaced by strife in northwestern Myanmar are facing rising hostility from ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who accuse the United Nations and foreign aid groups of only helping Muslims.

So far, the Myanmar government has only granted Red Cross organizations access to the area. The United Nations 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 a mob in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, tried to block a boat carrying International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aid to the north.

The mob was armed with sticks, knives and petrol bombs, and only dispersed after police fired rubber bullets.

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, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar.

In the past month, 420,000 Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh to avoid what the UN human rights chief has called ethnic cleansing.

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 Aug. 25th 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 Aug. 25.

About 6,000 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 foreign 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 (ANP).

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

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

Kyaw Sein said she hadn’t visited the camps, but said in the past she had seen Muslims selling oil, rice and other aid in local markets.

She said relations between the foreign aid groups and the Rakhine people had been poisoned by years of neglect and favoritism.

“It’s difficult to say what they can do to win back our trust,” she said.

Further eroding that trust are rumors that aid deliveries could be used to smuggle weapons to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the militant group behind the attacks on security forces last month and in October 2016.

“The Rakhine have no weapons to protect themselves with,” said the ANP’s Htun Aung Kyaw. “That’s why they’re so terrified.” — Reuters