Mistrust Stalks Media, Charities in Arakan State

By Saw Yan Naing 7 November 2012

RANGOON — Still simmering tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State are spilling over to include two other groups—journalists and aid workers—who are increasingly regarded as unwelcome outsiders by local people.

After months of intermittent and often deadly clashes between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, mistrust is rife in the state, making it difficult for many to believe that others are capable of impartiality toward those involved in the conflict.

“When we introduced ourselves as journalists from The Irrawaddy, an Arakanese monk called us a Muslim media organization and told us to go away,” said Jpaing, a staff photographer who traveled to the state recently.

Other media workers have reported similar problems approaching members of the Arakanese community, many of whom are angry with the media for portraying the Rohingya as victims of the recent violence, rather than participants in it.

Ironically, this hostility towards journalists only serves to make it more difficult to address the alleged bias.

“If the Arakanese didn’t turn us away, we could take photos that show that they are also suffering,” said Jpaing. “As it is, nobody can see their side of the story.”

Visiting camps for displaced Muslims is much easier, he said, adding that Rohingya women are willing to pose with their children for photographers, knowing that it will help to highlight their plight.

Distrust of outsiders also extends to aid groups, some of which have been accused of directing their relief efforts toward the Rohingyas, while ignoring the needs of Arakanese.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international NGO that has long been active in Arakan State, recently said that its operations there have been hindered by local groups who suspect it has a pro-Rohingya agenda—something that Peter Paul de Groote, the group’s head of mission in Rangoon, called an unfortunate misunderstanding.

“Our work is based purely on the needs of people. We are not political—we are a humanitarian group that engages with all communities, regardless of political, religious or ethnic background,” said de Groote, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

Noting that at least 115,000 people have been uprooted since the unrest began in June, de Groote urged local community leaders to allow MSF staff members to carry out their humanitarian work freely.

“We are not part of the conflict. We are neutral, impartial aid workers. I regret that people have different interpretations,” said de Groote.

According to MSF, the violence has has left many people seriously injured and in need of treatment, while many others suffer from infectious diseases such as malaria and diarrhea due to poor living conditions in temporary shelters for the displaced. Arakan State also has 600 HIV patients who require access to lifesaving anti-retroviral treatment, the group says.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the latest outbreak of communal violence on Oct. 21 added more than 35,000 to the number of homeless in the state.