YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Severe shortages of food, water and medical care for Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar are part of a long history of persecution against the religious minority that could amount to "crimes against humanity," a U.N. human rights envoy said, an allegation denied by the government.
The statements follow the en masse evacuation of international aid workers from the strife-torn state of Rakhine after their residences and offices were attacked by rampaging Buddhist mobs two weeks ago.
The workers were providing assistance to 140,000 Rohingya living in crowded displacement camps near the city of Sittwe and more than 700,000 other vulnerable people in remote, hard-to-reach villages. Some have tried to go back, but have been denied necessary permits.
"The recent developments . are the latest in a long history of discrimination and persecution against the Rohingya community which could amount to crimes against humanity," Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the country, said in a statement released Monday out of Geneva.
Aid need workers need to return, and quickly, he said, so they could "resume their lifesaving work."
Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman, denied the allegations.
"We totally reject his remark," he said, noting that President Thein Sein made it clear in recent discussions with the U.N. Secretary General that the government was committed to working closely with international aid groups.
"We are informing (aid workers) today that they can return to Sittwe and local authorities will provide security," Ye Htut told The Associated Press.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule. But the U.S. and others worry that nascent democratic reforms implemented by the nominally civilian government since 2011 could be undermined by growing religious intolerance.
Since June 2012, up to 280 people have been killed and tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Most of the victims have been Rohingya, living in apartheid-like conditions in camps just outside Sittwe.
Water availability in some of the camps could reach critical levels within a week, particularly in Pauktaw, which is accessible only by boat, aid workers say. Food stocks are also running low.
Emergency medical services have come to a near standstill since the government kicked Doctors Without Borders out of the state in February — in part because the Nobel-prize winning group hired Rohingya staff — and the subsequent evacuation of more than 170 international aid workers last month.
Despite assurances by Ye Htut that protection would be provided to returning aid workers, they say it will be difficult to get back to work in the current climate, where any help given to members of the Rohingya community is viewed as a political act.
There have been frequent protests in recent months, with extremist Buddhists alleging that humanitarian aid groups in Rakhine were biased in favor of Muslims. Local and international staff have been threatened, their names and addresses posted on social networking sites.
Landlords are now afraid to rent humanitarian workers houses or offices, aid organizations say. Car owners are unwilling to rent cars or provide drivers. Those who sell food and other supplies are also afraid, putting the entire distribution system at risk.
The Rohingya have been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Though many were born in Myanmar to families that arrived generations ago, the government considers them to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Denied citizenship by national law, they are not allowed to travel outside of the state. There are also restrictions on the jobs they can hold, how many children they can have, and access to education.