Aid workers under attack in Myanmar as Rohingya conflict worsens

7 September 2017 Fatima Arkin  (Devex)  Hate speech and death threats directed against international aid workers in the wake of the latest violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state has threatened operations, further imperiling more than 100,000 displaced Rohingya.

The European Commission reported allegations Monday that pressure from nationalists had made it difficult for the U.N. and INGOs to procure “fuel, cars and rental of other materials” in Rakhine, while “intimidation of national INGO/U.N. staff and looting of some INGO warehouses have been reported.” The same day, Amnesty International warned that restrictions on international aid is “putting tens of thousands of lives at risk.”

The threats and vitriolic attack have mounted in the week since the office of Aung San Suu Kyi claimed development workers had aided “terrorists” in Rakhine state. On August 25, Rohingya militants staged a coordinated attack on state security. The subsequent fighting has seen hundreds dead, villages razed to the ground, and more than 100,000 civilians flee a brutal military campaign.

On August 30, the official Facebook page of the state counsellor office, which is headed by Suu Kyi, posted photos of U.N. World Food Programme biscuits, as well as U.S. Agency for International Development parcels, which the office claims were found in a “terrorist” camp. At a meeting with diplomats, National Security Adviser Thaung Tun reiterated accusations of aid worker involvement by saying that ammonia and tubes used by development workers for construction had been turned into explosives.

Despite denials and condemnation by WFP and the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, the photos and comments have gone viral in the country, where social media has played a significant role in stoking anti-Rohingya sentiment. A user with the Twitter handle @Nectar47818292 wrote “#UN #INGO #NGO are supporters who made war in Rakhine state then they runaway [sic] from there.” In another post, a user with the Twitter handle @KhaKyal shared an image of the “real situation in Myanmar” in which a U.N. representative is calmly standing by while what looks like Rohingya Muslim men with machetes and axes kill a Burmese man.

Such hate speech is prompting concerns among the international humanitarian community for the well-being and safety of their local staff and colleagues in the field where clashes have erupted between Rohingya militants and government troops.

“The poisonous online atmosphere has made it particularly dangerous for humanitarians in Rakhine state from both the U.N. and the civil society groups,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, adding that hate speech is being perpetuated by both the general Burmese public, and by local staff from the U.N. and NGOs.

The threats come amid a worsening security situation.

With fighting between the military and militants raging, the Myanmar government has completely cut off access to North Rakhine, and safety concerns are severely limiting humanitarian operations in Central Rakhine. WFP had to suspend distributions in the central region last week, which left 250,000 people, including internally displaced people and other vulnerable populations, without regular food assistance.

“With heightened tensions in the past week since violence broke out, humanitarian staff and private contractors are facing challenges in implementing life-saving activities, even for those who have permission to travel to the camps and to other communities in need of aid,” said Pierre Péron, a spokesman for the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar.

The aid community hopes that suspended access to the conflict areas will be temporary, although no indication has been given of when they can resume activities, said Irene Fraser, director of the INGO Forum Myanmar, a coalition of over 100 INGOs active in the entire country. Some INGOs have relocated noncritical staff in Rakhine as per standard operating procedure in high-security operations. But aid workers continue to maintain a presence in Maungdaw and “remain ready to provide urgent humanitarian assistance as needed,” said Fraser.

Non-Muslims in Rakhine have long accused aid workers of bias and have at times been quick to point the finger. In March 2014, angry mobs severely damaged the offices, living quarters and warehouses of NGOs and U.N. agencies in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, following allegations that the head of the European aid organization Malteser International mishandled a Buddhist flag. Although a government investigation concluded the claims were unfounded, more than 1,000 humanitarian staff were forced to stop working after the outbreak of violence. Hundreds of thousands of people struggled to access basic services, such as health care.

“We’ve seen conspiracy theories gain traction suggesting [that] aid groups are aligning with Muslims to take over Rakhine and the country, said Matthew Smith, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit Fortify Rights. “It’s absurd and dangerous. Aid workers face high levels of animosity, due mostly to deep discrimination against Rohingya and Muslims there. Suu Kyi is playing right into it, drumming up dangerous sentiment, selling the army’s crackdown with a dangerous brand of nationalism.”

Yet despite these challenges, Rakhine continues to attract growing interest from the aid community. According to the nonprofit Myanmar Information Management Unit, in September 2016, a total of 60 local and international agencies reported doing a combined 162 projects in Rakhine state. By comparison, in March 2017, 77 agencies reported facilitating 177 projects in Rakhine.

But, the numbers disguise a key issue: since early August, many NGOs have been struggling to secure travel authorizations in Rakhine state, although they have managed to do so in other parts of the country, according to U.N. OCHA’s Péron. That includes Médecins Sans Frontières, which has operated in Rakhine more or less since 1994.

For all the poverty and conflict that has long plagued Rakhine, the path to peace and development is laid out in front of them. A few hours before violence erupted in the state, civil society had gathered in Yangon to hear the final report of the Rakhine commission, whose goal is to find a solution to the legitimate grievances of the Rakhine people. In the report, the advisory body — appointed by Suu Kyi and led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan — detailed 88 policy recommendations. Chief among those was a pathway through development that requires a range of nonstate actors. “Addressing the development and human rights crises will help address the security crisis,” the authors urged.

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