Buddhists Threaten Aid Workers, Hamper Medical Relief in West Burma

By Lawi Weng 6 November 2013

RANGOON — Humanitarian agencies operating in Arakan State say threats from local Buddhists have hampered efforts to deliver aid, with hostilities increasing this week amid allegations of an aid bias in favor of Muslims.

Pierre Péron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that humanitarian organizations in west Burma were finding it increasingly difficult to operate and deliver emergency assistance to thousands of people displaced following last year’s inter-communal violence.

Despite efforts to clarify that international partners are operating at the invitation of the Burma government, he said growing community resistance about the perceived bias of assistance, coupled with persistent threats and intimidation of aid workers, has created an increasingly menacing atmosphere. He added that in some circumstances this has lead to a disruption of assistance to all vulnerable families, irrespective of which community they belong to.

Ethnic Arakanese Buddhist have accused UN agencies of delivering more aid to Rohingya Muslims than to local Buddhists.

The majority of victims in the inter-communal violence last year were Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, although Buddhists and ethnic Kaman Muslims were also affected. The United Nations reports that two bouts of clashes last year in June and October left about 200 people dead and 140,000 others displaced.

This week, during the latest outbreak of violence to hit the state, in Pauktaw Township, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) faced threats after taking three injured Muslims to a hospital, while Buddhist women wounded in a separate incident sought treatment on their own.

A Buddhist woman was killed and another severely injured after they were stabbed by Muslim men wielding spears near a village on Saturday, in an attack reportedly carried out in retaliation for the discovery of a Muslim man’s dead body.

Buddhists accused MSF of aid bias, but the humanitarian medical said it was never contacted by community leaders or local authorities to assist with the transfer of the wounded Buddhist women or to provide emergency medical care.

“If we had been contacted, MSF would have been very ready to provide emergency medical care and referral services, and [we] have facilitated this on several occasions in the past,” MSF Deputy Head of Mission Vickie Hawkins told The Irrawaddy earlier this week.

Buddhists hosted two days of meetings this week in preparation to protest against the alleged aid bias, according to Tun Hlaing, a rights activist in the state capital, Sittwe.

“We have asked for permission to protest—we are waiting for this,” he said. “We are not happy about UN agencies offering biased aid.”

Humanitarian partners reportedly hosted a meeting on Tuesday in Sittwe to discuss strategies for dealing with threats to staff members. The OCHA says they have also raised concerns with the Arakan State government over cases of intimidation.

“Although the Rakhine [Arakan] State government has taken action and stressed in public meetings that international organizations are working in support of the government-led response, recognizing that the same assistance is going to IDPs [internally displaced persons] of all communities, and that the number of Muslim IDPs is much higher than the ones belonging to the Rakhine [Buddhist] community, tensions and community resistance continue unabated. Any obstruction of aid efforts is a violation of international humanitarian law,” Péron told The Irrawaddy in an e-mail.

The OCHA said the government had highlighted that intimidations would not be tolerated, and that action would be taken against those responsible for illegal acts. Still, he said more action was required on the state and national levels to ensure that aid workers can safely offer assistance to people in temporary camps, and to help address community misconceptions about the work of the aid community.

In Sittwe, Maung Maung, an activist from Arakan Blood Donors, a group that donates blood to Buddhists in need of transfusions, said tensions were high. “Some activists have launched campaigns in Sittwe urging local people not to rent their houses for NGOs,” he told The Irrawaddy.

An aid worker in the state capital described one type of threat that humanitarian workers faced. “They put letters at houses where NGO workers stay sometimes and tell them to leave their houses within 48 hours. If not, they threaten to set fire to the house,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.