Troubled Myanmar state invites back aid groups

AP News
Posted: Jul 24, 2014 9:19 AM
Troubled Myanmar state invites back aid groups

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Authorities in Myanmar's Rakhine state have said international aid organizations are welcome to return to the area they left in April after Buddhist mobs disrupted their work helping displaced Rohingya Muslims.

They also specifically invited back the humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders, which had been kicked out in February after it publicized casualties suffered by Rohingyas, allegedly at the hands of a Buddhist mob.

A state government announcement in Thursday's New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the invitation followed a meeting in June between officials and aid agencies and other interested parties to discuss a peace and development plan.

Most aid agencies had left the area voluntarily at the end of March for the safety of their staffs after mobs of Buddhist extremists rampaged through their offices, warehouses and residences. But Doctors Without Borders — also known by its French initials MSF — was expelled, with the government accusing it of bias and lacking transparency in its work.

Buddhist extremists accuse foreign aid agencies of favoring Rohingyas with their assistance, but the Rohingyas represent the preponderance of victims of violence in the region, and are confined in camps where they are unable to sustain themselves.

International aid agencies had been the main lifeline for more than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims who have been living in dirty, crowded camps after their villages were destroyed by mobs. Up to 280 people have also been killed, most of them Rohingya, after sectarian violence that began in 2012.

The agencies also provide food, water and medical care to 700,000 other vulnerable people in the state, both Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists.

MSF in Yangon welcomed the government's announcement.

"We look forward to continuing constructive discussions with the Ministry of Health regarding how MSF can support the ministry in the immediate expansion of lifesaving medical activities for the people of Rakhine currently facing a humanitarian crisis," it said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press.

The announcement came as a visiting human rights envoy from the U.N., which has been critical of the government, was wrapping up a fact-finding mission. Yanghee Lee's mission included covering the situation in Rakhine state.

Her predecessor, Argentina's Tomas Ojea Quintana, declared that severe shortages of food, water and medical care in the Rohingyas' resettlement camps could amount to "crimes against humanity."

No details were provided of how soon the other organizations could resume their work or how their security could be assured. Several have continued operating, including the Danish Refugee Council, Action Against Hunger and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The agencies operate under the auspices of the state Emergency Coordination Center, which has shown little initiative in easing the plight of the Rohingya.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, emerged from a half-century of military rule with an election in 2010. But the U.S. and others worry that nascent democratic reforms could be undermined by growing religious intolerance.

What was originally a localized problem in Rakhine state has turned into a sometimes violent campaign led by Buddhist extremists against Muslims in other parts of Myanmar.