Myanmar blocks all UN aid to civilians at heart of Rohingya crisis

In the deadliest outbreak of violence in the area for decades, the military has been accused of atrocities against the persecuted Rohingya minority, tens of thousands of whom have fled burning villages to neighbouring Bangladesh, many with bullet wounds.

Powered by article titled “Myanmar blocks all UN aid to civilians at heart of Rohingya crisis” was written by Oliver Holmes in Balukhali, Bangladesh, for on Monday 4th September 2017 14.32 UTC

Myanmar has blocked all United Nations aid agencies from delivering vital supplies of food, water and medicine to thousands of desperate civilians at the centre of a bloody military campaign against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, the Guardian has learned.

The UN halted distributions in northern Rakhine state after militants attacked government forces on 25 August and the army responded with a counteroffensive that has killed hundreds of people.

The office of the UN resident coordinator in Myanmar said deliveries had been suspended “because the security situation and government field-visit restrictions rendered us unable to distribute assistance”.

“The UN is in close contact with authorities to ensure that humanitarian operations can resume as soon as possible,” the office said. Aid was being delivered to other parts of Rakhine state, it added.

In the deadliest outbreak of violence in the area for decades, the military has been accused of atrocities against the persecuted Rohingya minority, tens of thousands of whom have fled burning villages to neighbouring Bangladesh, many with bullet wounds.

Staff from the UN refugee agency, the United Nations Population Fund, and Unicef have not conducted any field work in northern Rakhine for more than a week – a dangerous halt in life-saving relief that will affect poor Buddhist residents as well as Rohingya.

Myanmar map

The UN World Food Programme said it also had to suspend distributions to other parts of the state, leaving 250,000 people without regular access to food.

Sixteen major non-governmental organisations including Oxfam and Save the Children have also complained that the government has restricted access to the conflict area.

Humanitarian organisations are “deeply concerned about the fate of thousands of people affected by the ongoing violence” in northern Rakhine, said Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar.

Refugees who have made it to Bangladesh during the past week have told horrific stories of massacres in villages they say soldiers raided and burned. Thick black smoke can be seen rising from small settlements surrounded by green fields along miles of the border.

A Rohingya woman rests after fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh
A Rohingya woman rests after fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On Monday, thousands of Rohingya lined the main road that runs parallel with the border. Many were barefoot, their ankles caked in light brown mud.

The hills of Balukhali, an area very close to the border, were covered in shelters that the Rohingya have made themselves by wrapping bamboo frames in thin black tarpaulin. Local people said the refugee camp, which covers an area the size of a small town, was empty land just a week ago.

The displaced have stories of bloodshed and frantic escapes from villages where they had to leave behind mobile phones, shoes and in many cases family members.

“The army just came and started killing,” said Mohammed Hassan. The 20-year-old student fled his village in north Rakhine on Saturday. His sister, Romida, 25, was shot through the centre of her chest, he said.

The government blames rebels for burning their own homes and accuses them of killing Buddhists and Hindus, a claim repeated by some residents.

The Rohingya have suffered oppression for decades, but the recent bout of violence is seen as a dangerous escalation because it was sparked by a new Rohingya militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

The military says 400 people have been killed, the vast majority of them “terrorists”, but a government block on access to Rakhine makes it impossible to verify official figures.

The UN said on Monday that 87,000 mostly Rohingya refugees had arrived in Bangladesh since 25 August. About 20,000 more were massed on the border and waiting to enter, it said.

About 1.1 million Rohingya live in Myanmar, which refuses to grant them citizenship and has been internationally condemned for its treatment of the ethnic minority.

Hardline religious leaders in majority Buddhist Myanmar have fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment and accuse relief workers of pro-Rohingya bias. Aid offices were ransacked during 2014 riots in Rakhine’s state capital, Sittwe.

Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has forged an increasingly antagonistic relationship with humanitarian organisations in the country. Her office accused aid workers last week of helping terrorists, a claim that prompted fears for their safety.

Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai and Muslim-majority countries in Asia led a growing chorus of criticism on Monday.

Protesters in Kolkata, India, burn an image of Aung San Suu Kyi
Protesters in Kolkata, India, burn an image of Aung San Suu Kyi. Photograph: Bikas Das/AP

“Every time I see the news, my heart breaks at the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar,” Yousafzai, who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban, said on Twitter. “Over the last several years I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same.”

The Malaysian foreign minister, Anifah Aman, said: “Very frankly, I am dissatisfied with Aung San Suu Kyi,” he told Agence France-Presse. “She stood up for the principles of human rights. Now it seems she is doing nothing.”

Tens of thousands of people rallied in the capital of Russia’s mainly Muslim republic of Chechnya on Monday in support of the Rohingya. The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, told the crowd in Grozny that the world was watching in silence while the Rohinghya were “torn to pieces, burnt on fires and drowned”.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said in a statement: “You watched the situation that Myanmar and Muslims are in. You saw how villages have been burned … Humanity remained silent to the massacre in Myanmar.”

More than 100,000 Rohingya who have lived in displacement camps in Rakhine since 2012, when violence between Muslims and Buddhists forced them out of their homes, also stopped receiving assistance last week.

Contractors reportedly refused to make deliveries to the camps because they were too scared of local resentment to show up for work. Latrines are overflowing in camps that normally receive regular assistance.

Authorities have also denied international staff access by holding up visa approvals, and “non-critical” staff from the north of the state have been evacuated.

“There is an urgent need to ensure that displaced people and other civilians affected by the violence are protected and are given safe access to humanitarian assistance including food, water, shelter, and health services,” Peron said.

“Humanitarian aid normally goes to these vulnerable people for a very good reason, because they depend on it.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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