US urges return of aid workers to Myanmar state

AP News
Posted: Apr 03, 2014 1:53 AM

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — The United States is calling on Myanmar to lift travel restrictions on aid workers trying to get to the strife-torn state of Rakhine, where tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are living in displacement camps with little access to food, clean water or medical care.

Aid groups fled the state last week after their residences and offices were attacked by rampaging Buddhist mobs. Some staff say they have tried to return, but have been barred.

"We call on the ... government to rescind travel restrictions and to facilitate the appropriate travel authorizations to the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations so they may resume services to all vulnerable people in Rakhine state," the U.S. State Department said in a statement Wednesday.

Authorities should also "take meaningful steps to provide security for all humanitarian workers and residents," the statement said.

Myanmar government spokesman Ye Htut could not immediately be reached for comment.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule. Nascent democratic reforms under a nominally civilian government have generated optimism and brought billions of dollars from international donors, but a violent strain of religious extremism is now threatening the progress.

Up to 280 people have been killed and another 140,000 forced to flee their homes following attacks by machete-wielding Buddhist mobs in the last two years.

Most of the victims have been Rohingya Muslims, described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted religious minorities. Though many were born to families who arrived generations ago, the government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Buddhist extremists see humanitarian aid groups as a lifeline for the Rohingya and have staged frequent protests, while threatening staff, landlords and drivers of social media sites such as Facebook.

As pressure on aid groups mounted, the government in February expelled the Nobel prize-winning group Doctors Without Borders from the state, in part because it hired Rohingya. The group provided services to more than 700,000 people across Rakhine, the second-poorest state in Myanmar.

Then last week, hundreds of Buddhists spent two days attacking the offices and residences of U.N. agencies, OXFAM, Save the Children, Solidarities International and others in the state capital, Sittwe, forcing aid groups to evacuate almost 1,000 personnel.

Some have sought permission to return, only to be denied the necessary travel authorization, said Johannes Kaltenbach, country coordinator of the German medical group Malteser International, calling it a real "concern for aid agencies."

The United Nations says lifesaving assistance has been seriously disrupted since last week's attacks, with water, health services, food and protection of particular concern.

"What happened in Sittwe last week was not just an attack on international organizations, but an attack on the entire humanitarian response in Rakhine state," Renata Dessallien, the U.N.'s resident and humanitarian coordinator for Myanmar, said after meeting with central and state government officials Wednesday.

The situation is getting more dire by the day, she and others said.