February 7, 2013 4:12 pm

MSF warns of emergency in Myanmar camps

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An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe June 10, 2012. Northwest Myanmar was tense on Monday after sectarian violence engulfed its largest city at the weekend, with Reuters witnessing rival mobs of Muslims and Buddhists torching houses and police firing into the air to disperse crowds. Picture taken June 10, 2012.©Reuters

An ethnic Rakhine man walks in front of houses burnt during fighting between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims on June 10 2012

The sectarian violence that engulfed Myanmar’s western Rakhine state last year, killing at least 160 people and displacing more than 110,000, has created a humanitarian emergency that is endangering many more people, a leading aid agency has warned.

In one of the strongest statements by an international aid agency operating in Myanmar, Médecins Sans Frontières said non-government organisations faced intimidation from extremist groups in Rakhine state, which was hampering aid to displaced people living in overcrowded camps and makeshift shelters.

The vast majority of the displaced are stateless minority Muslims, sometimes known as Rohingya, who became targets of violence after the rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman by Muslim youths in mid-2012.

Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed in two waves of violence as angry mobs attacked villages in many parts of the state. While there have been no major incidents since late 2012, aid workers and diplomats have reported tensions and frequent cases of persecution aimed at Rohingya.

“Ongoing insecurity and repeated threats and intimidation by a small but vocal group within the Rakhine community have severely impacted on our ability to deliver life-saving medical care,” said Arjan Hehenkamp, general director of MSF, as the group urged the government to help counteract such threats.

“In pamphlets, letters and Facebook postings, MSF and others have been repeatedly accused of having a pro-Rohingya bias by some members of the Rakhine community. It is this intimidation, rather than formal permission for access, that is the primary challenge . . . The authorities can, however, do more to make it clear that threatening violence against health workers is unacceptable.”

The plea for official help is unusual for MSF, one of the largest international aid agencies in Myanmar, with more than 1,000 staff. It follows complaints from Buddhist groups in Rakhine about alleged “bias” among MSF and other western aid workers towards Rohingya – although the government has acknowledged that most of the displaced are Muslim.

The move also highlights concern among diplomats and aid groups about the persecution of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and excluded from the country’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups – despite a presence in Myanmar for generations. Of a total population of about 4m in Rakhine state, just over 20 per cent are believed to be Rohingya.

In pamphlets, letters and Facebook postings, MSF and others have been repeatedly accused of having a pro-Rohingya bias by some members of the Rakhine community

The US last week announced $4m of fresh humanitarian assistance for Rakhine state, which it said would be channelled to those in need “regardless of ethnicity”.

However, much of the aid, like assistance pledged by international aid groups and Muslim organisations, is likely to help displaced Rohingya and fund reconstruction of destroyed communities.

MSF’s call came as authorities in neighbouring Thailand confirmed that nearly 6,000 Rohingya Muslims had illegally entered the country by sea since October, after fleeing Rakhine state. Many are in refugee holding centres as Thailand negotiates with the UN and others to resolve their status and discuss resettlement in third countries.

A government commission established to investigate the Rakhine violence and propose solutions to sectarian tensions was due to report in January but has delayed its final report until March. Insiders say that among numerous proposals to restore stability to Rakhine state, the commission is likely to recommend citizenship be granted to some Rohingya, a move that is likely to be controversial.

In its report, issued on Thursday, MSF noted that apart from an estimated 111,000 displaced people in camps, hundreds of thousands more were living in their homes without healthcare, due to the suspension of medical services in many areas.

However, medical needs are the most acute in the makeshift camps, said Ms Hehenkamp. “Skin infections, worms, chronic coughing and diarrhoea are the most common ailments seen through more than 10,000 medical consultations in the camps since October. Malnutrition rates vary, but in several camps MSF’s rapid screening shows alarming numbers of severe acutely malnourished children. Although clean water is often available in sufficient quantities, some of the displaced are denied access to it.”

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