RANGOON — As a Malaysian organization pledges to send a “food flotilla” to Burma’s conflict-ridden Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that such a gesture could be met with a warning or with violence.
The aid program is being organized by the Malaysia Consultative Council of Islamic Organizations (MAPIM), a coalition of non-governmental groups, and is expected to depart Malaysia’s Port Klang carrying 200 tons of rice, medicine and other goods to Burma on January 10. The outreach effort is to provide food and support for the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority labeled by the Burmese government as interlopers from Bangladesh.
Arakan State’s Maungdaw Township has seen increasing violence in recent months, as security forces carry out clearance operations after October attacks on border police outposts. International rights groups have criticized limitations placed on the distribution of aid to vulnerable people in the region.
Zulhanis Zainol, secretary-general of MAPIM, told Malaysian media that he anticipated the flotilla encountering one of three potential scenarios: that the Burmese government would allow for the aid to be delivered; that security forces would block the ship and instruct it to turn around; or that they would attack the convoy.
“If do as they wish without informing [Burma’s government], that will not be our mistake,” said U Zaw Htay, who told The Irrawaddy that the Burmese navy would warn the ship to return to Malaysia, or it would turn it back by force. Burmese authorities have reportedly received no official request for the ship to enter Burmese territory, either from the Malaysian embassy or the aid organization in question.
If they want to support Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships’ Muslim communities, MAPIM should follow procedure, said U Zaw Htay, repeatedly emphasizing the importance of not “exploiting” religion for political purposes and “deliberately trying to fuel the flame.”
“The first thing is, don’t exploit religion. The second thing is, respect the government. The third one is, review what the real purpose [of the aid] is,” the President’s Office spokesperson said.
U Zaw Htay said that the Burmese government is already collaborating with international aid initiatives for humanitarian outreach in Maungdaw, highlighting cooperation with fellow Asean member Indonesia to deliver rice to conflict areas in Arakan State in cooperation with the Burmese authorities.
“If they are truly eager to provide support through humanitarian aid to Maungdaw, then follow the procedures as Indonesia does,” said U Zaw Htay regarding the flotilla effort, adding, “then we will be ready to collaborate with them.”