Arakan Unrest May Tarnish Burma’s Image: Vice President

By Lawi Weng 29 April 2014

RANGOON — The Burmese government has acknowledged that communal unrest in Arakan State is not only a domestic issue, but also has wider ramifications and requires ongoing humanitarian assistance from international organizations.

Burmese Vice President Sai Mauk Kham said on Monday that violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Burma was threatening to tarnish the country’s image on the world stage despite other political and economic reforms since 2011.

“It is not a matter for Rakhine [Arakan] State alone,” he told government officials, including the Arakan State chief minister, during a meeting in Naypyidaw, according to state-run media.

Previously, government spokesmen have insisted that the Burmese government is capable of handling unrest in the western Burmese state, which has seen anti-Muslim riots that have left more than 140,000 people homeless since 2012, as well as attacks against international NGOs recently that have interrupted access to vital health care services.

Earlier this month, presidential spokesman Ye Htut reportedly accused Britain of interfering in Burma’s domestic affairs after the British foreign minister summoned the Burmese ambassador to discuss ongoing restrictions of aid organizations in Arakan State.

But Sai Mauk Kham—after hearing reports presented by union ministers, the Arakan State chief and other officials—acknowledged the importance of aid from UN agencies and other international organizations in the state, saying the government lacked the resources to support victims of communal unrest by itself.

“The Rakhine issue,” he added, “has made democratic government difficult and has turned the international community’s positive view [of Burma] into a negative view.”

Calling on officials to take steps in the future to avoid conflicts such as “the ones in Du Chee Yar Tan village and in relation to Médecins Sans Frontières,” he said further unrest could hinder the nation’s future with the United Nations, member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

The vice president was referring to allegations—which the government has denied—that a Buddhist mob killed dozens of Rohingya Muslims in Duu Chee Yar Tan village in January. He was also referring to the government’s decision to suspend the operations of MSF Holland in Arakan State following allegations by local Arakanese Buddhists that the aid group had been providing preferential treatment to Muslims.

Sai Mauk Kham called on aid groups to provide assistance to all victims of violence, to follow agreements with the government, and to ensure greater transparency in their operations. He also urged the Ministry of Health to ramp up its services following the closure of MSF operations.

The meeting in Naypyidaw came one day after US President Barack Obama warned in a speech in Malaysia that Burma will not succeed in its political reforms “if the Muslim population is oppressed.”

Pierre Peron, a spokesman for UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said he welcomed the Burmese vice president’s acknowledgement that aid from UN agencies and international organizations was crucial in Arakan State.

“We support the Emergency Coordination Center as a consultative forum for the exchange of information and closer engagement with the authorities and community leaders,” he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, referring to a newly established body which must approve requests by aid groups to travel and provide services in the state.

“We look forward to engaging further with the government and communities through the ECC, while continuing to provide information on ongoing operations in the spirit of transparency,” he added. “However, given the urgent humanitarian needs in Rakhine, we need to resume operations as soon as possible. The impending rainy season will only aggravate the impact on vulnerable people.”